Theory and practice

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Whitney Museum’s program engages young artists


  • Emma Sulkowicz and “Mr. Whitney” in Sulkowicz’s performance, “The Ship is Sinking,” Saturday, May 20, at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space. The piece was part of the opening reception for the end-of-year exhibition of work by the Studio section students enrolled in The Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program. Photo: Dante Pronio 


Clad only in a white bikini and spiky, sparkling heels, a hot-pink-haired Emma Sulkowicz pleaded with a suit- and tie-donned “Mr. Whitney” to “Help me become an artist.”

Mr. Whitney obliged, tightly tying Sulkowicz to a seven-foot slab of wood while insulting her talent, body and dye job.

Positioned like a ship’s figurehead, Sulkowicz was raised from the ground, enduring belt whips and nipple pinches. Shortly after “giving up” and being freed from the knotted ropes, she again asked Mr. Whitney for assistance, and suffered through the ordeal once more.

Sulkowicz’s disturbing performance, “The Ship is Sinking,” however sexy, formed part of the opening reception Saturday, May 20, at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space on West 39th Street for the end-of-year exhibition of work by the Studio section students enrolled in The Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program (ISP).

Sulkowicz, best known for her performance art piece, “Carry That Weight,” in which she protested an alleged rape by lugging a 50-pound mattress throughout the Columbia University campus during her senior year at the school, characterized “The Ship is Sinking” as a critique of political artwork — namely its limitations, particularly these days in the United States.

She cites the Bertolt Brecht essay from 1935, “Writing the Truth; Five Difficulties” — in which Brecht compared the nation to a sinking ship – as inspiration. Sulkowicz poses the question: “What good is political art hung on the wall of a sinking ship?”

She came up with the concept while engaged in the ISP, a program that, according to its co-founder and director Ron Clark, accepted 24 students out of about 400 applicants from around the world this year.

The program boasts three sections: Studio, welcoming those interested in various interdisciplinary practices; Curatorial, where students collaborate over the course of the term to produce an exhibition; and Critical Studies, with participants engaging in scholarly research and critical writing projects. Students are privy to seminars covering art theory throughout the course, which begins in the fall, and independently generate new works of art under the watchful gaze of mentors.

ISP kicked off its two-week exhibition of artwork crafted and performed by this year’s enrollees on Saturday and the collection shows off the hyper diversity and emerging talent within the ISP, which is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018.

Gallery goers can look forward to a number of installations, photo collections, sculptures, even a black silk parade banner with Romanesque gold-threaded detailing, and more, all dreamt up and created by Studio Program students. The exhibition’s menu items show off the program’s tradition of “establishing a setting where artists, art historians, curators and cultural theorists can come together in a discursive setting to engage in ongoing debates about contemporary art practice and theory,” as Clark says.

Noted past participants in the ISP include the artists Jenny Holzer and Latoya Ruby Frazier, as well as the directors of the New Museum and the Guggenheim Museum, Lisa Phillips and Richard Armstrong, respectively.

Clark calls this year’s crop of students “terrific” and “very bright.”

In a photo collection at the exhibit, Studio Program student Elizabeth Webb explores her family’s interracial past, including a black ancestor who “passed” as white. Webb says the lessons she gleaned from the ISP seminars were “invaluable,” and her favorite part of the program were the exchanges between her and her peers.

Peer Joe Riley’s installation – two surfboards with colorful, historical cutouts of magazine photos and articles – is called “the enigma of:” wherein a surfer rides the wave of money through capitalist society, with laminated clips mapping potential courses through the flow.

Though Sulkowicz’s “The Ship is Sinking” was a one-night-only performance, a video of the piece will be available soon on

The ISP Studio Program’s exhibition is on view at The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space Tuesdays through Saturdays between noon and 6 p.m., through June 3. Admission is free.

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