NEW YORK — The Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial is about the “now” of art and reflects the new in architecture through its Renzo Piano structure and the ever-changing nature of New York City.
But it’s also a reminder of the “then,” the many artists and biennials that came before, the museum’s previous home in the Marcel Breuer building on the Upper East Side, and the move to Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district of lower Manhattan.
As a contemporary art lover, and sometimes hater, I consider the Biennial a rite of passage every two years, taking me forward with new ideas to contemplate, keep, throw away and even love. I hope to be astonished by a new artist, and outraged, and entertained. The one thing I can count on is that I won’t be bored.
The show is intended as a snapshot of contemporary art in the United States. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was a sculptor and a supporter of current American art, founded the Whitney in 1930. The museum opened in 1931 in Greenwich Village, and the show began in 1932 as an annual event. It became a biennial in 1973. After relocating several times, the museum moved to the Marcel Breuer building in 1966 and to the new building designed by Renzo Piano in 2015.
The museum picks new curators for every biennial and this year chose from within its own staff: co-curators Rujeko Hockley, an assistant curator at the Whitney, and Jane Panetta, an associate curator. In their curatorial statement, Hockley and Panetta said they made hundreds of studio visits over the past year and a half, which they described as “an undeniably intense and polarized time in this country.”
Woodgate attached sandpaper to the clocks’ hour and minute hands so that the numbers on the clock faces were slowly being scraped off. Most of the clocks were in sync but the few that had fallen behind or run ahead stood out dramatically.
“Key issues and approaches emerge across the exhibition: the mining of history as a means to reimagine the present or future; a profound consideration of race, gender, and equity; and explorations of the vulnerability of the body … Many of the artists included emphasize the physicality of their materials, whether in sculptures assembled out of found objects, heavily worked paintings, or painstakingly detailed drawings.”
This “emphasis on the artist’s hand” suggested “a rejection of the digital and the related slick, packaged presentation of the self in favor of more individualized and idiosyncratic work,” they wrote.
The show featured 75 artists and collectives working in painting, sculpture, installation, film and video, photography, performance, and sound, on four floors of the sprawling 220,000 square-foot, 8-floor building.
Of the pieces I’m still contemplating, Agustina Woodgate’s Detail of National Times, 2016, stood out as a socio-political allegory. Lining up 40 analog clocks that one might see in a classroom along the walls of a sterile, brightly-lit gallery, Woodgate created what is known as a “master-slave” configuration in which all of the clocks were controlled by a central digital clock high on one wall. Woodgate attached sandpaper to the clocks’ hour and minute hands so that the numbers on the clock faces were slowly being scraped off. Most of the clocks were in sync but the few that had fallen behind or run ahead stood out dramatically. The terminology of Master-slave is still used today for technology in which one device has control over one or more other devices but the metaphor extends to the relationship between timekeeping and labor.
In Degrees of My Deaf Rage in The Art World, she describes her anger at the Guggenheim Accessibility Manager, as “acute rage” with an acute angle. She illustrates “obtuse rage” at “visiting artists who aren’t comfortable with interpreters” with an obtuse angle, and so on.
A moving two-minute watercolor animation, National Anthem (Buffalo Bills), 2018, by Kota Ezawa depicted football players taking a knee, accompanied by a soundtrack of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the practice to protest police violence toward unarmed African-American men. In 2017, President Donald Trump said that NFL owners should fire players who protest the National Anthem. Ezawa used media footage of multiple teams to make small watercolor paintings that became frames for the animation. His watercolor interpretations transformed the imagery into a poetic memorializing of the events. However, instead of softening the message, Ezawa heightened the issues of race, violence and politics.
The pervading tone of the show was very serious, but some humor could be found in the charcoal drawings of Christine Sun Kim, a deaf artist, using charts depicting mathematical measurements to depict degrees of “deaf rage.” In Degrees of My Deaf Rage in The Art World, she describes her anger at the Guggenheim Accessibility Manager, as “acute rage” with an acute angle. She illustrates “obtuse rage” at “visiting artists who aren’t comfortable with interpreters” with an obtuse angle, and so on. She also uses charcoal to smudge and put her fingerprints on her “legit rage,” also called her “right,” against the Bard MFA, a rage depicted with a right angle. Her other works, such as “Degrees of Deaf Rage While Traveling” and “Degrees of Deaf Rage Concerning Interpreters” were a powerful reminder of the struggle for accessibility and equality among those who exist outside society’s norms.
Unforgettable was Alexandra Bell’s series of prints “No Humans Involved,” made from articles in the New York Daily News covering the 1989 Central Park Five case in which five teenage boys of color were accused of assaulting and raping a white female jogger in Central Park. On some prints, Bell used a yellow highlighter to emphasize racist violent language, such as the headline “Wolf Pack’s Prey” that also described the boys as “savage.” On other images she redacted photos and parts of the text to draw attention to the lack of journalistic objectivity. The title referred to the acronym NHI, “no humans involved,” that public officials in Los Angeles used to describe cases involving young black men such as Rodney King, who was brutally beaten by police officers in 1992. The Central Park Five were ultimately found innocent when the perpetrator, Matteus Reyes, confessed, but all served between six and 13 years in prison.
From Breuer to Piano
As a setting for the Biennial, the Piano building is a contrast from the somber nature of the Breuer’s enclosed spaces and brutalist heavy form. Notably, the new building has outdoor terraces that look out onto the meatpacking district, encouraging visitors to engage with the city. In New York, it’s unusual to have the opportunity to go outside and come back in, to walk up and down between floors outside. This easy flow between inside and outside is more of a California experience, such as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where visitors must walk outside between buildings to see all of the art and can step out onto decks overlooking Los Angeles.
This Biennial reflected that architectural and metaphorical dialogue between the inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion. It’s a tremendous dose of contemporary art to take in all at once, so go outside, take a breather, enjoy the view.
The Whitney Biennial runs from May 17 to September 22 at The Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY