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No Turning Back: The Anthony Elms Tour of the Whitney Biennial

We turn the corner, traverse the passageway, and plunge into the dark. Anthony’s voice drifts toward us: “The longer you’re up here, it’s amazing how much you can start to see going on,” he says as our eyes slowly adjust. “On a bright day, the sky is on the floor. It becomes a bright cerulean blue.”
Camera obscura

Camera obscura

We’re on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art—a group of ICA donors and staff—getting a tour of the Whitney Biennial. Anthony, our tour guide and ICA’s Associate Curator, is also one of the curators of this busy, much discussed show. I look down: gray slate tile, indistinct and shadowy. Overhead, the concrete grid of the ceiling emerges from the gloom, glowing shapes sliding intermittently by. Someone holds up their phone and snaps a picture—of what?

This camera obscura piece we’re standing in is by Zoe Leonard, the first artist Anthony talked to about participating in the Biennial. She loves the Whitney’s Marcel Breuer building as much as he does, and quickly came up with the idea of using one of its trapezoidal windows to project New York City into the gallery by way of a small aperture. Transforming this vision into reality was far from easy (crane, hand-ground lens, dizzying heights, dizzying bureaucracy, endless expanses of theatrical black-out fabric), but it shaped the way Anthony thought about his part of the show. Another important influence was the sheaf of notes Breuer had left about how to use the building. “Those notes became a kind of mission statement for me,” Anthony says.

It’s quiet up here, away from the bustle and blaze of the other many works on view all over the museum. Slowly, images emerge along the expanse of wall: brick buildings, grids of windows, bands of light. All are projected from the bright, fist-sized eyelet in the boarded up window opposite.

“She had the lens made by someone who makes lenses for telescopes,” Anthony says. That part alone took months. “Then she spent a couple of weeks up here moving the lens around to figure out exactly what image she wanted. Even on a day like this you can see the buses and taxis going by on the ceiling.” He points to a row in the cement grid overhead where, if you look closely, you can see the Madison Avenue traffic moving along, upside down: “All the activity disappears into the architecture.”
Gallery with table

Gallery with table

A lot of the work Anthony has chosen involves something disappearing into something else. Sliding, eliding—then emerging refreshed, with a new glow of a different kind of life. A little later, down on the second floor, where most of the work he’s selected is on view, he says,“I’m interested in people who go to other things as a kind of source material. People who translate things.” He points to the work of Elijah Burgher, who transforms private daily talismans and spells into drawings and banners; to a wall of collages by Charline von Heyl who invents a new alphabet of forms in black and white before beginning each new series of paintings; to the work of Paul P, who has embodied his devotion to the early twentieth-century writer Nancy Mitford (Love in a Cold Climate and other novels) into a writing desk he imagines she might use were she to return to life.

One of the artists Anthony chose for the show, Terry Adkins, died in February—suddenly, at sixty. Adkins was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and our Penn community, as well as the art community, was shocked and saddened by his death. It’s an experience of translation of a whole different order, then, to see his sculptures: gleaming, hanging high on a wall. As we look, necks craned, Anthony tells us that not all of the pieces were fully completed before Terry died: “All had been drawn out and the materials gathered. We finished them with his studio assistants.” Disks of silver and aluminum, different sizes and textures, are strung at intervals along thin poles. “This was an idea he’d had for a long time,” Anthony says. “He’d found a book from the sixties—page after page of sonic graphs of bird calls. Terry said,These are bird calls—they’re meant to be in space! We spent months figuring out how to engineer the pieces. He’d thought of wood, of polyethylene. I had a riotous phone call with him one December morning. He said, I’ve got it! Why do we keep trying to cast things? I love cymbals: why don’t we use a whole bunch of musical instruments? It still took a month to work it out.
Terry Adkins piece

Terry Adkins piece

“They’re not exact mappings,” Anthony continues. “This one is about four seconds of a mourning dove, and this one’s about half a second of a hawk. He wanted them to have a sense of sculptural presence, but also to hang over your heads. And it’s not easy to get 200-some-pound works hanging overhead.”

We ask questions: Which are the sculptures that were finished before Terry died? Why do some have support wires and others don’t? What are the bright caps on the end?

Trumpet mutes, is the answer to the last question. Terry played trumpet, percussion, and some saxophone too. Much of his art was engaged with music—with making sculpture musical. This is the first time I’ve made music silent, Anthony says Terry said.

Overhead, the bright disks glint like ancient shields, spilling shadows across the wall. The call of a hawk, transformed to the shape of its sound waves, frozen into form. Melody caught and held, as though time could be stopped.

Anthony’s idea was not to solicit completed artworks from the artists in the Biennial, but to invite—incite—them to make something new. Before solving the problem of coalescing birdsong into silver-toned instruments, Terry—like many of the artists Anthony talked with—wondered about forgetting this new, thorny project and exhibiting something already complete.

But Anthony pushed that idea away. He didn’t want anyone thinking about a back-up plan, of shunting in something finished.“I kept saying, No plan B,” he told Terry—told them all. “There is no turning back.”

—Rachel Pastan
Anthony by elevator

Anthony by elevator

The Whitney Biennial is on view through May 25 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

To stay up to date with all ICA’s elisions and transformations, email miranda@icaphila.org.