No event on New York City’s contemporary art calendar is more of a scapegoat for the ills of the art world than the Biennial exhibition of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Every two years, the Whitney strives to take the pulse of the American artistic practices. It is one of the most prestigious exhibitions to be part of and creates big breaks for emerging artists. Moreover, since 2000, the Biennial’s Bucksbaum Award grants 100 large and a future exhibition to one participating artist.
But it’s not peaches and cream every time. Introduced by the Museum’s founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1932, this biennial has had some groundbreaking moments throughout its long history. If you think that New York art reviewers applaud trailblazing artistic approaches, think again. Downright every time, the biennial was an object of disaffection to art critics. And not to the art critics working for Fox News or the Tomi Lahren equivalent of an art critic (if there would be such a thing), but many art critics at the New York Times or similar newspapers and magazines, without restraint, vilified the biennials. Here’s an overview:
The 1973 Biennial
AKA the gigagigantic iteration that filled all five floors of the former building on the Upper East Side. With 221 painters and sculptors, the show was two to three times the size of future biennials. Although it did not really get great backlash, Lawrence Alloway mentioned in The Nation that “the mixture seems more than twice as bad as when the two media were shown apart.”
The 1975 Biennial
A brave undermining of steep art marked prices, this biennial only included artists who had never been in a Whitney biennial (or annual) or who had not had a solo show in New York in the past decade. It was kindly coined “The Virgin Show” by Amy Goldin but not so kindly received by others like Emily Genauer’s description of being “Boring, Childish, Awful.”
The 1985 Biennial
Richard Marshall, the coordinator of the 1985 Biennial said about it: ”The museum, through the curators, is making a statement about the art being done now. Artists are now doing this, and this is their best work.” A widely disliked biennial that legitimized the free-for-all East Village art. Although Robert Hughes calls the show “the worst in living memory,” it included now international superstars like Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Sarah Charlesworth, Laurie Simmons (everybody’s unfavourite feminist mom), and David Wojnarowicz.
The 1987 Biennial
As a reaction to a serious lack of female artists and artists of colour in the 1987 Biennial, the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous feminist collective/‘conscience of the art world’, organised their own exhibition, The Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney, at The Clocktower, a non-profit New York gallery. They showed a range of stats exposing the museum’s poor record on exhibiting women and artists of colour.
The 1993 Biennial
In 1993, the Biennial curated by Elizabeth Sussman went in head first in identity politics. It included a bunch of artists that were diverse in terms of gender and race and disturbing and risky artworks. For example, George Holliday’s 1991 ten-minute videotape of the horrendous Rodney King beating was included. Some art critics quite literly hated the show. One particular piece rubbed up the wrong way. Artist Daniel J. Martinez created an artwork using the admission buttons. Each one of them depicted parts of a sentence which visitors could only figure out by checking the buttons of other visitors. It readI CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE. But not everyone was cynical. Roberta Smith wrote at the time: “the latest Biennial turns its back on the razzle-dazzle of the 1980’s and faces the harsher realities of the 90’s. […] In some ways it is actually a better show than usual, simply because it sticks its neck out.”
The 2012 Biennial
This iteration included dance, theatre, music, next to the more traditional media such as painting, sculpture, film, installations, and photography. It was in constant flux, with artists, works, and experiences varying over the course of the exhibition. Claudia La Rocco wrote for the New York Times “in some situations, walking out as quickly as you walked in is the only sensible response.”
The 2017 Biennial
During the previous iteration, the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s depiction of Emmett Till’s open casket, a black teenager who was lynched after “offending” a white woman, caused a scorched-earth debate over cultural appropriation. Some artists and visitors wanted the painting to be removed or destroyed. Since the artist was white, “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” wrote artist Hannah Black wrote on Facebook, calling contemporary art “a fundamentally white supremacist institution despite all our nice friends.” Schutz reacted “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America,” she said. “But I do know what it is like to be a mother.” Defendants of the artwork said it should not be censored. Clifford Owens wrote, “I don’t know anything about Hannah Black, or the artists who’ve co-signed her breezy and bitter letter, but I’m not down with artists who censor artists.”
The 2019 Biennial
This year, the 2019 Whitney Biennial will be organized by Jane Panetta, associate curator, and Rujeko Hockley, assistant curator, who wanted to create an exhibition with “as broad a range of artists as we could in all kind of senses of that word, whether that’s medium-wise, interest-wise, geographically, demographically, generationally.” The artists are “grappling with questions about race, gender, financial inequality, gentrification, the vulnerability of the body,” said Panetta. However, it already knows a slippery start. Before the release of the list of participants, artist Michael Rakowitz, pulled out of the exhibition in a protest against a museum vice chairman, Warren Kanders. At the end of last year, it became known that this chairman of the Whitney bought defence manufacturer “Safariland” that produces tear gas which was used on hundreds of Central American asylum seekers, including children on the US-Mexico border. Right afterwards, 100 Whitney Museum staff members wrote a letter to demand that the board of trustees “consider asking” for Kanders’ resignation and requesting “the development and distribution of a clear policy around trustee participation.” His reaction was basically: the company produces it, but can’t “determine when and how they are employed.” You can read the letter here.
Although the Whitney Biennial is almost never met without contestation, it launched a plethora of artist’s careers, and in some cases, it’s brave to shock and stir the art world which is more oldfashioned than one might think. But, I can’t stress this enough, museums, galleries and institutions have to be just about where the money comes from and which stories it should tell.
The 79th iteration will kick off May 17 mei and will stay on until September 22. For more information, click here.