By Martica Sawin
Two years have gone by and the Whitney Biennial is here again on Gansevoort Street and will be with us until September 22. This is fortunate because, although it is not overwhelming in size or clamorous in appearance, it is a sobering, thought-provoking show that requires time to listen to and absorb its many distinct voices. When the Whitney exchanged its Breuer-designed concrete fortress on Madison Avenue for an industrial site with a broad river-view, it opted for an open-form structure with an inviting glass-enclosed ground floor, cantilevered upper terraces, direct connection to the High-Line, and free-flowing interior spaces with re-used wood factory flooring. Renzo Piano’s design signaled a wide-open populist approach that promised a new inclusive policy embracing change, encouraging experiment, and, one might add, bracing for controversy.
At the 2017 Biennial the controversy focused on a painting that showed Emmet Till in an open coffin (as it had been displayed in his Chicago hometown), by white artist Dana Shultz. This year’s commotion started when it became known that a member of the Whitney’s board, Warren B. Kanders, was the founder of a company that made Triple Chasers, tear-gas grenades reportedly used on would-be border-crossers. Demands for his resignation ensued while the museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, gratuitously explained that it costs money to run a museum (a single admission is now $25). Space in the exhibition was allotted to a video on Triple Chasers by the London-based activist collective, Forensic Architecture and Praxis Films, run by Laura Poitras, whose documentaries were featured at the Whitney in 2017. The controversy seems hypocritical when one considers how little artwork is on view in our city that does not have some historical link to human exploitation or the ill-gotten gains of patrons of the arts? Isn’t there an applicable reference in the Bible to camels and the eye of a needle?
Beyond fulfilling the function of provoking a needed examination of the responsibilities of tax-exempt institutions the 2019 Whitney Biennial offers a new kind of exhibition experience that depends not on the fulfillment of artistic precedent, but rather an expansion of possibilities. After visiting three hundred studios around the country the two young curators, Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta, selected seventy-five artists, mostly under forty, of diverse ethnic and national origins, and nearly fifty percent female (as opposed to twelve percent in my first Biennial in 1950).
This year there is little to entice a viewer from one selection to the next, nothing evokes stirring associations with the grand trajectory of art. Each work requires being seen on its own, preferably with time and patience to read the explanatory label. My response after an initial visit was one of dismay at the bleakness of the contemporary outlook. After a second time around and after learning more about the artists and reading several thoughtful articles on the show (in the New York Times and on line at Hyperallergic), I began to realize that each of these works was opening up a different perspective—on materials, attitudes, experiences—and that there was something to be said for the way each piece stood on its own instead of blending into an interlocking ensemble. Maybe, during the next four months it will begin to cohere in the memory as a milestone in redefining an art museum’s potential.