The Whitney Biennial’s Wacky Protest

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The Whitney Museum is engaged in yet another of New York’s periodic “Sins of the 1%” philanthropic art scandals. Rather than opioids (currently on view with the Sackler family at the MET), this involves the arms manufacturer and Whitney VP Warren Kanders. Read even more about it here. In collaboration with Biennial exhibiting artist Nicole Eisenman, satirists Mark Newgarden and Patrick Pigot are among the artists protesting Kanders. A satiric sticker — in a Wacky Packs format — satirizes one of Kanders’ products, a smoke bomb, Maximum Smoke. It is being disseminated as a “small clandestine act of protest” throughout the Whitney Biennial.

Wacked Out

Topps Wacky Packages were originally created by Art Spiegelman and Len Brown in 1968. Mark Newgarden wrote and designed Wacky Packages starting in 1983 and was editing and art directing the series by 1991. Nicole Eisenman’s “Procession” is one of the “only true show-stoppers” at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, says Newgarden, who I interviewed about his collaborative intervention.

What triggered this “art/protest?”

There has been a good deal of public protest around this issue from the exhibitors and the Whitney staff, as well as the larger arts community. So this is a small part of a much larger response.

Nicole Eisenman floated the idea of collaborating. Our sensibilities share a good amount of overlap and I was happy that she asked.

But my first reaction on seeing Warren B. Kander’s Safariland and Defense Technology merchandise was “forget it, they already read as parodies.” (My general sentiment is that in 21st century American humor is a dead language and parody is just another product category.) But the more I pondered, the more I liked the idea of lending my antique subversive sticker skill-set to the cause and dove in.

Reuniting with my former Topps colleague Patrick Pigott (who rendered the finished painting) was great. We worked together on products like Wacky Packages and Toxic High back in the ’80s & ’90s and just fell back into the old groove without missing a beat.

The Whitney Biennial is being protested this year.
The Whitney Biennial is being protested this year.

How has it been received by other artists, the art community, the Whitney curators, audience and officials?

The Whitney curators found the project “lacking gum.” BUT SERIOUSLY FOLKS, it’s too early to tell. It’s a surreptitious guerrilla endeavor, and Maximum Choke seemed to be everywhere at the Whitney during the May 14th preview. I saw some grins and suspect it’s already getting some online traction as well.

What do you hope will be the outcome?

Well, Kanders clearly needs to get out of the corporate art racket. If he needs a hobby maybe he should open a Safariland personal injury theme park. I don’t have any illusions that our little sticker will serve as a tipping point in all of this, but there’s no arguing it will catch the attention of a certain demographic and help get this story out.

Anything more up your sleeve of dissent?

I live in Brooklyn and have been disastrously intimate with the issue of predatory real estate practices for several years now. Anybody want to help fund a series of Garbage Pail Developers?


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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →