It’s not so often that something at the Whitney Museum of American Art calls to mind the plot of Smokey and the Bandit, the 1977 film in which Burt Reynolds plays a stunt driver tasked with trucking 400 cases of Coors beer from Texarkana, Texas, to Atlanta, Georgia, in 28 hours. But at last night’s gala, which raised $5.4 million for the museum, after visitors got what might be their last look at the 2017 Whitney Biennial (it closes June 11), a curious wall text propped on a table introduced a very different kind of artistic output. It said “John Riepenhoff’s Beer Endowment.”
“I drove it in today on my truck,” Riepenhoff, a Milwuakee-based artist with work in the biennial, said as he walked up to the table and ordered one of the IPAs of his own making, and then took a sip.
“Oh, it travels well,” he said, taking another sip.
For Riepenhoff—who has long been making beer, and also cheese, out of his studio—serving up his homemade brew to tuxedoed board members at the Whitney Studio Party was a riff in the same vein as his work in the biennial. There, you see papier-mâché sculptures of Riepenhoff-as-art-handler, with the artist holding works by his colleagues and friends, many of whom show with Green Gallery, the Milwaukee space he started. Another Riepenhoff work in the biennial turns this artist-dealer dynamic on its head: it’s a tiny white cube just big enough to peek in, and it’s called The John Riepenhoff Experience. As of today, on view in the mini, meta gallery within a museum is Martine Syms’s Lesson I – XC (2014–17). (The works were cycled out over the course of the biennial. At the start of biennial’s run, the little showroom included a faux Yayoi Kusama.)
He sees the beer as part of his practice, in tandem with the gallery and his studio work, and when Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks—the biennial’s curators—asked him to be in the show, they asked him to bring a few kegs, too.
“Chris and Mia wanted the cheese and beer at the events,” he said. “That was a nice honor, that they recognized what I was doing with it.”
A taste of the IPA confirmed that, like Riepenhoff’s work, this beer is of the finest quality, crisp and drinkable but robust at the finish.
“We used a hop from the West Coast, and we used a hop from New Zealand, and we used this really expert yeast from Portland, so it has a really international feel,” he said.
Then he started to talk about how the long journey to get the brew here in time for the party reminded him of a period when he was actually an art handler, not just playing one in papier-mâché sculptures.
“When I was an assistant, I drove exhibitions all over the country, and it was no different from driving the beer,” he said.
Then he took another sip, and remarked again that the beer had traveled well.