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Josh Kline’s Survival Art for 21st-Century America


A jolting retrospective at the Whitney explores how climate change, emerging technologies and political deadlocks are shaping our work and life.

Since 2011, with his breakout show at the downtown gallery 47 Canal, Josh Kline has been an artist of American extremes. He promised a new art made with new technologies, from 3-D printing to “deepfake” software, but his view of the 2010s was hardly rosy. In sarcastic spoofs of celebrity interviews and fashion campaigns, Kline lambasted the era of social media as an eddy of corporate pseudo-individuality. Soon after, his view turned from disapproving to downright apocalyptic — in sculptures and installations of Teletubbies dressed in riot gear, of human heads and hands bundled into shopping carts, of Manhattan half-drowned by rising seas.

Now the Whitney Museum of American Art presents “Josh Kline: Project for a New American Century,” a wide and antagonistic retrospective of the 43-year-old artist who knows exactly what he wants to say. Spanning two floors, the show unites early parodies of cure-all juice cleanses; digital videos of a reanimated Kurt Cobain or a bawling Condoleezza Rice; uncanny sculptures of unemployed workers, bagged for garbage collection; and new installations and videos that imagine a future United States of climate refugees and suburbs fortified into war zones. For better and worse, Kline has no time for subtlety.

The major theme of Kline’s art is work: its value, its dignity, its exploitation, its automation. And so Jason Farago, a culture critic at large, invited Emma Goldberg, a reporter on Business covering the future of work, to the museum, to discuss the economics and the aesthetics of this major new show.

An installation view of “No Sick Days (FedEx Worker’s Head with FedEx Cap),” 2014, at the museum.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

JASON FARAGO For the last 10 years, Kline has had a reputation for making art in a relentless present tense: up-to-the-minute installations and videos, executed with the latest technologies. But now, Kline is old enough (and I am too, alas) to look back on half a career. I’m wondering how this show felt to someone who’s a fair bit younger.

EMMA GOLDBERG There’s something gripping about walking through a career retrospective that feels like it was made for this precise moment in 2023. So many parts of the exhibition are meant to unsettle our relationship with work and time — in a moment when people across every industry are doing just that: unionizing, job-hopping, turning their ambitions inside out.

The show brought me back to my early pandemic sense of time as something shaky, even inscrutable. He blurs the relationships between present and future, reality and dystopia.

It also asks us to consider: Are we all so submerged in our work that we’ve given up any sense of agency over which version of the future we’re heading toward?

FARAGO This permeability of work and pleasure, or of economic life and biological life, goes back to his earliest works: rebarbative, Day-Glo-colored liquids, steeped in French presses or packaged in intravenous fluid bags. They blend stimulants like Wellbutrin and Adderall, but also gasoline, printer ink, Purell …

GOLDBERG There are IV drips for rest and IV drips for work. One has Ambien and kava tea, one has espresso and Ritalin. Kline is asking us to confront this way we live — where your body is a tool to be charged up to work more effectively, or to rest more effectively just so that you can go back to work.

An installation view of Josh Kline’s “Energy Drip,” 2013.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

FARAGO The fluids are gross, but they’re displayed in the most antiseptic way. The tinctures point to a 21st-century obsession with health and performance, but ultimately suggest biological life is becoming pharmacological slurry.

And this is a major theme of Kline’s. There’s a gap — or a lag, maybe — between how new technologies can reduce our personhood to data, and the irreducible facts of our bodies, our health, our need to eat and sleep.

That gap plays out not only in these disgusting mixtures, but in two early videos that purport to show Kurt Cobain and Whitney Houston, who’d just died. The actors who play these stars are in their 20s, and they speak to an interviewer as if they’re still alive and still young. The actors’ faces have been overlaid with some early, open-source face-swapping software, which makes them look sort of like Cobain and Houston. But not really. And when they speak the digital masks slip and stutter.

Visitors to the Whitney taking in Josh Kline’s video piece “Forever 27,” 2013, at center, mocking our celebrity obsession, using deep-fake technology to create a mock Kurt Cobain. Karsten Moran for The New York Times

GOLDBERG Those videos, from 2013, were a visceral reminder that “deepfake” technologies, capable of the type of misinformation people are so alarmed about now with A.I., have been in the works for a long time. What makes us stop and question technological development? For years there was a mounting fear that artificial intelligence would automate blue-collar work. And then in the last few months, the narrative is, “It’s not just truckers who will find their jobs obsolete, it’s lawyers and copywriters.”

That’s the moment, for so many people, that the panic switch flipped. I think we have to ask ourselves: What work are people suddenly mobilizing to protect? What work is worthy of being preserved?

FARAGO Like everyone my age, Kline had his early career reshaped by the financial crisis of 2008. His initial works traded in a lot of sarcasm and irony, but his works about unemployment are stunningly blunt. For one series he scanned the bodies of Americans who’d lost their jobs and produced lifelike plasters that he wrapped in plastic bags, ready to be carted to the dump.

A visitor looks at “Aspirational Foreclosure (Matthew/Mortgage Loan Officer),” 2016. Kline used 3-D scanning and printing technologies to make these lifelike sculptures of unemployed Americans ready to be carted to the dump.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

The newest sculptural technologies — 3-D inkjet printing and computer-controlled laser cutting — allow a seamless translation of people into data and data into art. But the lives of these workers can’t be so easily uploaded to the cloud.

GOLDBERG In his new work “Personal Responsibility,” tents contain TVs showing a world in which climate change has completely unmoored people, destabilized communities. You meet a man living in an empty cul-de-sac in Arizona walking miles to Trader Joe’s to get his allotted gallons of water.

Kline is asking us to play with the gap between our reality and different renderings of the future, to consider which feels more likely.

FARAGO And therefore feels scarier.

From left, “Disinformation,” 2023, and “Free Trade,” 2023, are part of Kline’s new series on the climate crisis.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

You know, for all of his engagement with contemporary technology, he delivers a relatively traditional message: you are not an app, you are a human being. Underneath this smooth surface you find this crunchy Mother Jones liberalism, though he delivers it with pitiless negativity.

GOLDBERG I was trying to think about a single moment of joy that I experienced in this show. The “Creative Labor” room with the IV drips has the most whimsy, and yet it was possibly the most demoralizing as a writer — because the implication is, as anyone with a social media profile, you’re chasing the ability to degrade yourself for your work. To be like that fake Whitney Houston or fake Kurt Cobain, dredging up all your traumas for an overbearing interviewer. This work we invest so much social capital in is, at the end of the day, the grossest of all.

FARAGO That would seem to include artists. I don’t know how to avoid the conclusion that Kline is an artist who thinks art — or the job of an artist, at least — is worthless.

Josh Kline, still from “Forever 48,” 2013, with a mock Whitney Houston. The pixelation in the actor’s face signals the artist’s use of early face-swapping software.via Josh Kline

GOLDBERG The jobs that people hold in the highest esteem, or at least pay the most, are the jobs that are the least essential. And also, the absolute cringiest! You’re pumping yourself full of Ambien to sleep and Ritalin to stay awake, so that you can go and be interviewed …

FARAGO — as an “authentic” person —

GOLDBERG … by someone who has no respect for you.

FARAGO I’m sure Kline will find this horrifying, but you know who kept coming to mind as we went through the show? The real predecessor of an art of American consumer culture, with its shiny surfaces and its dirty undersides? It’s Jeff Koons — who also uses obviousness, directness and a proud anti-critical stance in the service of an “accessible” art. They don’t have much else in common, but I think there’s a certain cruelty to both Kline and Koons, in how they market their one-dimensionality with odes to the common man.

GOLDBERG Well, so much of Kline’s work says outright: What’s the point? What’s the point of creative labor? What’s the point of any labor that’s not literally getting food into people’s mouths? A.I. could do whatever you’re doing tomorrow. If A.I. can generate something really beautiful, then maybe Kline’s work is to generate something really human. And maybe it’s obvious, but maybe humans are kind of obvious.

FARAGO There’s an important work that’s not at the Whitney: a video called “Hope and Change,” which caused a minor sensation at the 2015 New Museum Triennial. Again, he used facial substitution software to make a bogus celebrity video: in this case, Barack Obama delivering a new inauguration speech that’s, essentially, a Eugene V. Debs-style socialist manifesto.

The Whitney leaves that one out, though it proudly presents other facial substitution videos which depict George W. Bush and his cabinet as teary, apologetic war criminals. Maybe the museum has tamed Kline, I don’t know, but a visitor could easily look at his climate change dystopias and unemployment tableaus and conclude: well, you better vote blue!

An installation view of “Crying Games,” 2015. Kline used facial substitution software to simulate George W. Bush and his cabinet members in prison.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

GOLDBERG But don’t you feel like there’s a gap between “Everyone should vote” and “Everything you do with your life is meaningless”? As you walk through the Whitney, there’s one path that does feel very “MSNBC Mom,” with the certainty of climate change or the evils of Walmart. But there’s another path that’s more complex, more Freudian, about how work in America has warped our senses of time and even our own bodies.

FARAGO I guess that’s true. Also, for an artist whom I can knock for being too obvious, Kline has anticipated various crises or breakage points several years before they came to pass. One of which is the pandemic — in his coronavirus-shaped plastic orbs that contain cardboard banker boxes, full of possessions you’d take home from the office after getting laid off. Also in his critique of hygiene, his interest in “necessary” labor, and in this sense of suspended time you were talking about before. That to me is what Kline does best: He proves that crises we call “unimaginable” are (1) actually very easy to imagine, and (2) already underway.

An installation view of “Contagious Unemployment.” Kline’s coronavirus-shaped plastic sculptures date from 2016.Karsten Moran for The New York Times
A detail view of “Contagious Unemployment (See You Around),” 2016. Kline treats unemployment as a technology-accelerated epidemic.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

GOLDBERG This was the room that hit me the hardest emotionally. When you peer into these virus-shaped glass baubles, you finally see items evocative of actual human relationships. Like, there was a mug that said, “Hugs and kisses for my grandpa.”

But that room was also so unsettling, because it’s a reminder that the future moves toward us a lot faster than we expect. We’re witnessing mass layoffs, but people don’t have a desk to pack up because they’ve been alone in their apartment behind screens the entire time, and they never met the people they worked with.

FARAGO One final point is about this show’s extreme national focus. It’s about the place of work in the American national identity, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. When he makes videos and installations about Walmart, it’s about Walmart’s American employees, not its Chinese or Mexican supply chains. Even climate change, the ultimate planetary phenomenon, is treated here in national terms: Will America survive?

An installation view of, from left, Josh Kline’s “In Stock (Walmart Worker’s Arms),” 2018, and “In Stock (Walmart Worker’s Head),” 2018.Karsten Moran for The New York Times

This, to me, is revealing. Kline has spent more than a decade depicting the United States as bankrupt, hopeless, doomed. On the American economy as a fraud, the American state as a ship heading toward the iceberg.

And I’m going to suggest that you don’t devote your whole life to something unless you kind of love it. It might even be a perverse love. You were talking about Freud earlier. Is there a subconscious affection here, maybe impossible for him to acknowledge, for American capitalism? For the American dream? Josh Kline, I’m going to conclude, has a real love for America, with all its ideals and abuses, that ripples beneath this show’s antagonism in a way that’s almost … touching?

GOLDBERG Maybe. I think it mirrors a lot of our relationships with labor. We love our work, but we hate our working conditions, and that hate fuels more organizing to better the work that we love.

A lot of utopian thinking plays off the dystopia of our present reality. That’s one of the twists of seeing this exhibit at the Whitney, in this gleaming glass building next to the High Line, with a view onto Barry Diller’s island. You think about the ravages of capitalism and then you exit by the gift shop and you see the wall of donors. And I think this show lives in that tension, where the utopia he depicts is all the more colorful and interesting because we’re inhabiting the twisted reality beneath.

Josh Kline: Project for a New American Century
Through Aug. 13, Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, (212) 570-3600;

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