ESSAY: A Whitney Biennial For An Institution And Country In Turmoil

Installation view of the Whitney Biennial 2019 (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-September 22, 2019). Nicole Eisenman, Procession, 2019. Courtesy of the artist, Vielmetter Los Angeles, and Anton Kern Gallery, New York. Photograph by Object Studies
I can only imagine how impossible it must be to put together a biennial that everyone likes—to curate a group of works over the course of several years that will need to speak to the issues on everyone’s minds in the here and now, even though the news cycle moves at the speed of light. Yet, of course, the theme can’t be too zeitgeisty, or else it will come across as opportunistic or following a trend; you can’t appear to be performatively “woke,” or you’ll come across like that one Pepsi commercial. But most of all, you can’t tack too hard in the direction of casting the museum gallery as a bubble, free from the troubles of the outside world, a place where you can focus only on beauty and aesthetics, and not feel at least a little bit uncomfortable. You have to take a stand on what contemporary American art means—whom it serves, what it can convey, what its purpose is in increasingly hopeless and frightening times.

At the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the curators, Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, admirably present a group of artists that aren’t just a bunch of young white MFA students. A majority of the seventy-five artists are people of color, and half are women—so the galleries look a good bit more like the world outside the museum walls than your typical setup. And many, many of works are explicitly political, as if the show is purposefully rebuking the notion that art can be apolitical. Common societal issues related to gender, race, class, nationality, and other forms of difference are addressed, as well as specific targeting of particular individuals or institutions that embody and/or implement acts of bigotry and injustice. Climate change also makes an appearance, as it’s never far from anyone’s mind these days.

The show is a collection of intermittently compelling works of art, but the whole does not equal or exceed the sum of its parts. It comes across in some regards as half-baked, as if the curators fashioned their curatorial statement and then didn’t return to modify or reconsider it even as the scope of the works included shifted over time. Right off the bat, a line like “an emphasis on the artist’s hand suggests a rejection of the digital and the related slick, packaged presentation of the self in favor of more individualized and idiosyncratic work” in the curatorial statement presents a bit of a boondoggle. Not only does it imply a value judgment about the properties of “slick,” “digital,” “packaged” artwork, as if the curators are taking a dig at influencer culture, but it also creates a false dichotomy between digital and, I guess, analog, “handmade” forms of artistic expression, which is an oddly combative stance to take. Furthermore, this implication that this biennial will focus on the “physicality of [the artists’] materials” is not even borne out by the show’s contents: going per the catalogue, there are at least twenty works that involve video. Why purposefully state that there’s a “rejection of the digital” when some of the most dynamic works are video art?

Christine Sun Kim, Degrees of My Deaf Rage in The Art World, 2018. Charcoal and oil pastel on paper, 49 1/4 × 49 1/4 in. (125 × 125 cm). Collection of Ms. DU Yan / 杜妍女士. Image courtesy the artist and White Space, Beijing
When the curators talk about celebrating “idiosyncratic” works that make use of the “artist’s hand,” they’re likely thinking of works like Christine Sun Kim’s series Degrees of Deaf Rage as the best illustration of that point. Here the artist uses charcoal and oil pastel to demonstrate the relative amounts of rage she feels in confronting anti-Deaf ableism in various scenarios ranging from the classroom to the art museum, creating geometric diagrams with filled-in angles in smudged black. It’s as if her rage itself is another form of media: you can literally envision her pressing the charcoal against the paper harder and harder as her frustration grows, furiously scratching out and rewriting captions. While the forms are not complex, they simmer with palpable anger—showing the power of the artist’s intention and hand in shaping the work just as much as the physical media she uses.

Degrees of Deaf Rage is a work that balances the message with the medium, inviting the viewer to both study the mark-making and reflect on how microaggressions can reinforce one another, each little act of thoughtlessness merely another straw on the proverbial camel’s back. Other works, however, present politics, and then step back, as if the mere presentation of political content is the most important thing. I’m thinking specifically of Marcus Fischer’s Words of Concern, which consists of a three-minute looped tape on which the artist has recorded people expressing their fears about the then-looming Trump presidency. While the creative display of the tape recorder’s ribbons looping up towards the ceiling and back down again warrants a glance, the actual content of Words of Concern doesn’t really offer anything that you wouldn’t read on social media. You can look at Words of Concern, listen to the voices talking—maybe even relate to some of their expressed concerns—and then walk away. It is precisely what it is.
Marcus Fischer, Untitled (Words of Concern), 2017. Tape recorder, tape loop, spindle, sound; 3 min., overall dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist
One of the more impressive works in the biennial is Nicole Eisenman’s Procession, a massive sculptural installation located on the sixth-floor balcony. Enormous humanoid figures are presented in a general cluster/line formation, staggering along after one another. One standing figure drags along a wagon with another form collapsed on top of it, either in supplication or despair or both, while a figure playing cymbals sits atop another figure crawling on its hands and knees. The mood is one of weariness and perseverance, of bone- and soul-crushing tiredness that still can’t put out that ember of life. And crucially, this survival is collective—the bodies are all linked in their communal determination.

What is most interesting and significant about Procession to me is where it stands in relation to other artistic traditions—namely, how it reinvigorates the ideals of 20th-century Social Realism, a genre that fell out of favor in the United States after the second World War, when abstraction took over as a more acclaimed art form. The label text states that “this tension [between being downtrodden and carrying on] poses questions about what it looks like to be disenfranchised, but also part of a community, and how to protest when protests feel like a constant cycle.” Procession embodies Social Realism’s goals of creating comprehensible art that expressed relatable political and social concerns to encourage community and solidarity. You didn’t need to know what “semiotics” meant in order for it to be meaningful, and this doesn’t mean that the work has to be overly didactic or bound to a specific allegory. On a formal level, Procession also reminded me of WPA-era works by Ben Shahn and his ilk—Eisenman’s figures could have been painted on a wall in the 1930s to symbolize the suffering of ordinary, anonymous people during Great Depression or in the Dust Bowl, and they wouldn’t be out of place.
Jennifer Packer, An Exercise in Tenderness, 2017. Oil on canvas, 9 1/2 × 7 in. (24 × 18 cm). Private collection. Image courtesy the artist; Corvi-Mora, London; and Sikkema Jenkins & Co, New York. Photograph by Matt Grubb
Other works in the biennial play with the art historical canon to similar degrees of delight. Jennifer Packer’s semi-abstract portrait paintings are incredibly striking. One untitled painting, a vertically-oriented image of a seated figure, arrests with the ripeness of a purple bruise, the bony limbs reminiscent of Egon Schiele, while another untitled work lays out a foreshortened, partially-nude figure with the rawness of Gustave Courbet. Lucas Blalock’s digitally-manipulated The Nonconformist brings to mind Rene Magritte’s penchant for strange, fleshy textures in wrong-looking shapes. Milano Chow’s series of multimedia architectural drawings combine the gray-scale mystery of M.C. Escher with the attention to detail of Edward Hopper’s paintings of storefronts.

The elephant in the room when I entered the museum was how, if at all, the biennial was going to position itself in relation to the current political turmoil that is engulfing the Whitney. There were no occupying artist/activists when I visited; the “Crisis at the Whitney” fake brochure-intervention was nowhere to be seen. Was the biennial going to address the Kanders issue? Could it address the Kanders issue in a way that demonstrated the strength of the firewall between the curatorial and administrative departments? The biennial threads the needle in a way that feels like a last-minute inclusion. The video piece Triple Chaser details the Goldsmiths’ Forensic Architecture program’s work into developing an algorithm that scours the internet for uses of Triple-Chaser tear gas canisters, which are manufactured by a subsidiary of Kanders’ Safariland. Notably, the work’s label states that “Triple Chaser was made in response to an open invitation to participate in the 2019 Whitney Biennial and was independently funded,” making it even more of an outlier.
Forensic Architecture, Triple-Chaser, 2019, video, color, sound, 10 minutes 24 seconds. Courtesy of Forensic Architecture
Triple Chaser is both fascinating as an educational tool, and, naturally, horrifying. It’s one thing to read about immigrants being tear-gassed and another to see it happen before your eyes. I wonder: do members of the Whitney Board of Trustees skip this particular work when they visit the biennial? Will Triple Chaser inspire visitors to put pressure on the museum to remove Kanders from the board? Is that the goal? Ultimately, while the work itself is a powerful inclusion, it’s unclear as to what the intention, or possible action, moving forward will be. Will the administration of the museum consider Triple Chaser to have been a suitable response, and move to wrap up the controversy through further stonewalling? Or will they see the curators’ choice to include it as a message to reconsider their policies of what kind of funding and affiliations are acceptable? Indeed, the legacy of Triple Chaser, and of the 2019 biennial as a whole, actually depends quite a lot on what the Whitney does in the near future.

One of the reasons I knew I needed to see the 2019 Whitney Biennial is because I wanted to know how a large institution—which must necessarily change slowly—was going to position itself amidst both internal and external turmoil. Rather than showing contemporary American art at its best and brightest, which is ostensibly the goal, the biennial has peaks and valleys, moments of triumph and moments of disappointment bumping up against one another and jostling for attention. It doesn’t tell a coherent story, or assemble a unified message about what contemporary American art is, leading me to wonder if that’s even possible in a country, and in a world, that feels increasingly polarized. Right now, I cannot help but see the United States similarly—as a place and as an idea that is facing internal and external existential angst over its identity, ideals, and purpose, if those can even be organized into discrete categories. There is no easy form of synecdoche, no singular political figure, no sole ideology, no work of art that will help us understand who we are as a nation, and how we should act in the world as we struggle with the competing urges to find common ground, to acknowledge the past, or to push forward into an unknown future. Perhaps, then, the 2019 Whitney Biennial is truly representative of the United States at this moment in time—just not in the way that it would like to be.