Whitney Biennial

Review

of an Exhibition

by DANIEL ATKINSON

Published on June 22, 2019

  • Museum: Whitney

  • Visit Date: June, 2019

  • Description:

    As the “longest-running survey of American art,” reviewing the Whitney Biennial is an already overloaded effort. What does “American” mean here? Can one actually “survey” its art? How is this project altered by this particular moment? Reviewing it is a task that also somehow seems both impossibly too giant—the sheer quantity of artists, 75, is daunting in its range—and—in only covering a few galleries of the Whitney—woefully too small. Ordering the Whitney Biennial is always an impossible request for its curators, this time Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley. And the reviews always reflect this: the art is too political or not political enough; it is too focused on New York City or blue chip galleries and forgets a few major names; it does not include enough of this or that topic; it has too much painting or is announcing the medium’s rebirth (again). Add to this mix the complexities of the idea of America—or the reviewers’ ideas of America—and, unsurprisingly, people rarely come away from the exhibition convinced it is exactly right.

    Maybe my expectations for the Whitney Biennial are more modest than others. I count on the exhibition to foreground some of the major voices in American contemporary art today; I hope it will introduce me to a few artists I have not heard of in the States; I expect that there will be a couple of standout works to continue to mull over; I assume it will take on many but not all contemporary issues. In all of these respects at least the exhibition is a success. The show included works by Simone Leigh, Eric N. Mack, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Diane Simpson, Martine Sims, Jeffrey Gibson and many other artists who seem to be omnipresent at the moment. There were other artists who were new to me that had stunning showings: Alexandra Bell’s No Humans Involved: After Sylvia Wynter (2018-2019) was particularly poignant. The work is a small series of prints following the story of the Central Park Five day-by-day shifts in narrative as presented in The Daily News. By highlighting or blotting out images and text from its pages she emphasizes the dehumanization and subsequent outrage surrounding the innocent teenage boys of color who became wrapped up in its racist messaging. The series ends with Donald Trump’s full page ad with a headline imploring, “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY. BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” It is a simple yet powerful gesture.

    Somehow despite this work and others like it, many reviewers decided the show was not quite political enough, which makes me wonder what exhibition they saw. Most of the artists I mentioned or will mention are deeply political, although perhaps not always in an overt, explicit way or through the coordinates of traditional “political” art. My personal favorite work of the exhibition in this vein, and one of the most discussed in the press, was Nicole Eisenman’s epic sculpture Procession (2019). Situated on an outdoors balcony, the work consists of a series of oversized figures, stumbling and straining forward to some unknown and uncertain future. The bulbous, liquid bodies appear sculpted from a primordial sludge, concocted of equal parts animal detritus and deep-earth geology. They proceed in a persistent state of frustrated un-motion—held back by gum on their feet, square wheels on their carts, or the insurmountability weight of their compatriots. It is a truly Sisyphesean work, but one scripted in Comic Sans. As a scene they are reminiscent of a parade of Rodins—if Rodin was funny: they contain less of his existential male brooding and instead seem gassed of their masculinity entirely. “Gassed” is a fitting word, as one of the prostrate sculptures periodically breaks wind, much to the delight of visitors (or, at least those with a sense of humor). If patriarchy has an apocalypse Eisenman has envisioned it, the whole toxic project imploding not with a bang but a whimper:—or, a fart.

    I can go on, but we should get to the heart of the matter: does the Whitney Biennial deliver on its promise to survey American art? Yes, in a way; no, in other ways. It is an impossible promise anyway. There are vital artists making work in America that almost no one knows or whose practice will not make sense for years to come. There are other artists who might just as well have been included, particularly more digitally focused practitioners. I would also argue that the exhibition could have probably done without so many fussy paintings. And so, the Biennial feels, as it always does, partial. Perhaps, inadvertently, that is part of the point: a show about America will always feel unfinished, will always be debated, and will always be contested. And, in a way, isn’t that all, well, deeply American?

Latest Comments (1)

Great review!!

by Kathleen Mclean - June 23, 2019

Daniel, you created what I consider to be an excellent exhibition review: You set the stage with some questions and assumptions you had going into the exhibition, then you described your experience and how it provoked you to think or feel, and then you reflected upon the whole experience. Very thoughtful, it really helps me consider the purpose, intent and, execution of the exhibition, and really makes me want to experience it for myself. This is a publishable piece! Thanks.

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