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Is It Time to End the Whitney Biennial?

With the recent announcement of the Whitney Biennial’s 2021 curators, the next iteration has juddered into production; but should it? From its inception the Biennial’s organizers have made grandiose claims that they had no way—or no intention—of achieving. Nevertheless, it is regarded as the preeminent survey of art-making in the United States. For artists it remains the most sought after exposition in the country, lately posturing as “an unmissable event for anyone interested in finding out what’s happening in art today.” That is if one is in, or can afford to get to New York. If not, then non-attendees would be left to their ignorance, which is a closer characterization of what the art system thinks of the public it pretends to serve.

The Museum is aware of that statement’s falsehood, which makes it a lie. The Biennial is quite missable because it does not—and cannot—begin to scratch at the immeasurable output of America’s creative diversity. No exhibition could—and certainly not as seldom as every two years, through a mere seventy artists (many of whom are no more interesting than multitudes of others) herded under concocted themes. When the warm cladding is stripped from the Biennial’s promotional bombast it is revealed as little more than the slim opinions of two or three people. Nor does the Biennial highlight the most exciting, or interesting art in America, because there is no such thing. Individual taste necessarily precludes a singular consensus of artistic superiority (with rare exceptions) even if an institution insists otherwise. And the Whitney Museum, through its Biennial, has been insisting on its favorites for a very long time.

In 1932 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney initiated two biennials which split mediums across alternate years—one for painting, the other for sculpture, drawings and prints. The Biennials were an extension of the museum’s aim to “champion the work of living American artists.” It must have been terribly difficult for Whitney (herself a noted sculptor) to resist the nepotistic opportunity to include her own art—so she didn’t, and went on to insert her work into seven Biennials over the next decade.

In 1937 the Biennials were rebranded as the Annual, still dividing mediums over a two part exhibition bookending each year—but they were in effect, separate exhibitions. From 1957 there was one exhibition a year, until 1973 when today’s bi-annual format began. The Whitney Museum has always purported to “look to artists to lead us forward” which sounds noble and humble, but what emerges from the Biennial’s eighty-seven year history is an extraordinary effort to do the opposite. Its management sought to dictate which artists would be indispensable in their quest to turn the museum into the vascular system in the American body aesthetic. That process involved making some staggering commitments to preferred artists. 

Between 1932 and 1969 painter Isabel Bishop, participated in 43 Annual and Biennial exhibitions, including an astonishing run of 31 consecutive years; Paul Cadmus appeared 37 times, and Adolph Gottlieb, 32—both of whom enjoyed consecutive 16 year runs; Edward Hopper was admitted on 29 occasions; Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis, 27 a-piece; Robert Motherwell, 25; Georgia O’Keeffe, 21; Philip Guston, 20; Willem de Kooning was honored 18 times (Elaine de Kooning, just once in 1961); and Louise Bourgeois, 18. Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and dozens of other latterly well known artists, received multiple invitations. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko seem positively under-endowed with their very average 9 showings each, while Roy Lichtenstein, and the ego that was formerly Richard Serra, were robbed blind at just 7 Biennials. Andy Warhol who remains the most famous artist of the Whitney’s timeline at least proves that the Museum didn’t have a total monopoly on sanctification, with only 2 showings.

These impressive numbers propelled certain artists into the canon, and from them grew the story of twentieth century American art. They occupied hundreds of Biennial slots over the years that could have been shared more expansively. No matter how much smaller the pool of artists was then, how unknown regional scenes were, or how important New York was becoming, no artists were so vital to an egalitarian prospect that feting them so intensely could be justified. But the Whitney wasn’t concerned with being a museum of American art, it only needed to be a museum of some American art. It decided what, or who, was happening in the narrowest inclinations of an extremely private club. It functioned as a factory for the production of American art stars whom it hammered into the scaffold of history to rival and surpass those of Europe. Whether those artists were representative—sexuality, class, race, gender—or not, was of no interest. The endeavor was an understandable aim in the context of international competition but it required very few icons to achieve its goals, and presented a limited scope of who was making art. The irony of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is that it ignores entirely, most American art. Each era, decade, or movement was funneled through a predestined set of practitioners, who were usually straight, white males. It is not dissimilar to how religion or politics corral individual belief through approved denominations or parties. The result is always the same—control.

The overall numbers though, are still insignificant. If 3600 artists have been exhibited through the Biennial, then tens to hundreds of thousands, have not. Even the majority of that small number gained little to nothing from having been in a Biennial. The art world is littered with artists who, after a momentary bump, were left as anonymous as before when the Biennial moved on. That makes the Museum’s pretension about supporting legions of artists, a shade disingenuous. It is even arguable that being in a Biennial could do more damage than good—a taste of elevation followed by a return to the wilderness. Of course there have been marvelous artists in the Biennial, but that isn’t the point. Has it been worth the fraction that were exalted, for the legions that weren’t, in the race to establish American dominance?   

During the 1970s the Biennial began to professionalize. Directors’ forewords, and curatorial statements became longer, and context was expanded. Rather than lean on bloated claims of universality, focus moved to aspects of production, new media, and art that was causing the most “creative excitement,” which is a phrase that means as much as it means nothing. The number of artists included in each Biennial was halved, from an average of 160 in the Fifties and Sixties, to approximately 80 during the Eighties and Nineties. This had the unwelcome effect of making the event even more exclusive. In 1975 there was a drastic cull of repeat offenders, with the catalog confirming that its artists “have not become known through participation in previous Whitney Biennials.” That was a monumental rejection of its past. The Whitney was trying, but struggling, to accommodate the practical limitations of its unwieldy promises in an anxious bid to remain relevant. 

But by the very next Biennial in 1977, curators were reverting to previous participants—John Baldessari, Richard Serra, Chuck Close—and performing awkward textual acrobatics to explain why. It was also the first year of corporate sponsorship. Could there have been a connection? Director, Tom Armstrong, wrote in the catalog that “Artists who received extensive public attention in the 1960s are not in the exhibition.” He was unaware then that one of his exhibitors that year, Agnes Martin, had been in three consecutive Biennials from 1963-1967, rather undermining his assertion.

Petrification was also manifest curatorially. While there was (generally) a greater rotation of artists, the facilitators remained essentially the same for the next twenty years, so that every Biennial between 1973 and 1991 was overseen by the same blinkered eyes. That is a very mean lens for such a supposedly vanguard event. The Museum’s addiction to its darlings continued into the 2010s, with Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Nan Golden and others showing in consecutive Biennials, or multiple times over the past thirty years. Do these artists—rich, famous and decidedly average—possess any humility with which to decline an invitation? Kelley has (so far) been in six editions including one post-mortem—so much for supporting America’s living artists.

The Whitney continues to contend everything while remaining terrified to define anything. The sheer banality of its marketing is almost original. In 2010 artists provided “diverse responses to the anxiety and optimism characteristic of this moment;” On the choices of the 2014 curators Donna de Salvo, then senior curator, dithered that there was “little overlap in the artists they have selected and yet there is common ground.” And the 2019 Biennial took “the pulse of the contemporary artistic moment.” They should have called 911. 

Today, new troubles undermine the Whitney and its flagship event. The building has become the place du jour for protesters who know they will gain maximum press attention. Unfortunately it is the misguided or duplicitous aspects of their demonstrations that are most remembered, rather than the reasonable thrust of their arguments. These have included fascist calls for the destruction of an artwork, and a naive insistence on a board member’s resignation, over which eight Biennial artists displayed the most fantastic cowardice and chicanery in withdrawing their work two months after the Biennial opened, leaving plenty of time to reap spoils before their “rebellion.” Did they pocket their dirty-money honorariums before deciding how grubby they were? If all rich board members whose dowries are drawn from distasteful sources are removed, there won’t be any museums left to protest; idealism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness rarely deliver functionality. It is unlikely that with so many so ready to be offended, there isn’t already a group setting its sights on the 2021 Biennial, whether or not they know yet what they’ll condemn. The calf is just too fat to resist. Inevitably what is lost in the melee is the work on view, and the artists who produced it. The hysteria surrounding these events has stymied the Museum’s ability to keep the focus on the work, side-lining some valuable artistic commentary. It is a distracting trend, unlikely to abate.

The art press continues to prop up the pretense by unquestioningly covering every Biennial, in competition to see which writer can out-ejaculate the others. A recent article on tawdry blog Hipsterallergic at least broke down connectivities between 2019 Biennial artists and their resumes. However, that the selection process is largely a sordid nest of inbreeding among gallery livestock-traders, their box-checking yearlings, and the museum’s hierarchy, is unsurprising. A pity that the grotesquely self-regarding author took no substantive position—the derelict standard for what passes as criticism today—allowing his math project to miss the point entirely. Is he a statistician or a critic? Even if the Biennial were as ethically balanced as possible, it could still never do what it says on the tin. Critics might be unaware of, or ignoring the issue, but ultimately the Whiteny Biennial’s own insurmountable premise—questioned, tweaked, but retained through the years—renders it a fraud, whether by accident or design.

Why single out the Whitney Biennial? No other recurring exhibition in the United States comes close to its influence. The New Museum’s production rolls around every three years, but its attempts to scour out a mote of innovation are painfully contrived, and its notices are hollow caricatures as non-specific as a urinary tract infection—words in a blender applicable to any exhibition. In 2018 its artists engaged “with new and traditional media in order to reveal the built systems that construct our reality, images, and truths;” while in 2015, they explored “the effects of an increasingly connected world both on our sense of self and identity as well as on art’s form and larger social role.” With three years to resolve its literary content that bedraggled clutch of sentences was, sadly, the best that the New Museum could do. And with silly, flashy titles, like “Younger than Jesus,” it’s more of a try anything than a triennial.

Elsewhere in the city “Greater New York,” is an oxymoron, and a poor barometer of artistic accreditation. At five years between shows it’s a kind of institutional comet speeding silently by, once in an age, without impact. The last approach was in 2015, when PS1 turned somersaults to shift this allegedly current, or future-forward project into the retrograde abomination that it was—weepy melancholia; lazy queer cliches—The Center’s magnificent archive would have provided something old and new had anyone looked; and Mary Beth Edelson’s “Kali Bobbit,” which is an unparalleled example of why the art world is a laughing stock outside of its temples. It was co-organized by Douglas Crimp, who commented that curating it would once have been, “the last thing I wanted to do.” It is an irony that he died shortly after, which should be a reminder to PS1 that patricide is necessary for the progression of cultural discourse. 

There can be no equitable understanding of art in America, while the Whitney Biennial exists, because it obscures, rather than highlights. Its corrupting presence is too massive; it bends the larger reality to its limited predilections and fantasies; obscures its inconsistent quality beneath a veil of New York celebrity; and is lavished with disproportionate and undeserved attention that it spins into aesthetic authority. It claims public appeal and a wide net, but transacts in elitist disdain and surgically exclusive currencies. The Whitney’s practices are incongruous to an age when artists need not be in New York to be successful, when they can pick up opportunities from Instagram, and when art scenes across America are more suited to agitation than the metropolis. Every median to large city has a museum of art (many with inventive ideas) so that the power vested in the largest coastal museums and galleries sits increasingly less comfortably.

The passage of time has bestowed a patina of jurisdiction upon the Biennial that fixes if not belief, then at least acquiescence within the public consciousness. But it has also grown obese and slothful. If the Biennial must persist, move it out of New York, and into the America that it is supposed to be interested in. The Biennial cannot expect to remain rooted in the most parochial city, in the least creatively viable urban site in America, and retain its mantle. Several geographically distinct co-host museums—different each time—would begin to connect the Biennial with constituencies it has never paid attention to. And if the Whitney Museum of American Art itself were to relocate to a more just home, in Maryland, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Kansas or Utah, it might begin to attain the integrity that its name suggests. The entitled howls of New Yorkers will insist that it can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done—but it already has.  

Otherwise, the Whitney Biennial will continue to perpetuate the most sclerotic aspects of the art system, and an irresponsible construction of art history rotted by dismissal, nepotism, prejudice and subjugation. Imagine, for a moment, that the Whitney Biennial no longer existed. Think beyond the pearl-clutching unthinkable, to the realization that its absence would cause no lasting deficit to anyone. If the divisive and frustrating schism that the Biennial has carved between the gilded few, and the bypassed majority were bridged by expansive new engagements; more agile, experimental platforms; and unbiased outreach to a more democratized national field; then the Whitney Biennial’s demise would not be cause for dismay, but optimism. 

Darren Jones is a Scottish, US-based critic of the art system. His writing has appeared in the Sanpete Messenger, Utah; Key West Weekly, Florida; and Glasstire, Texas.

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02/02/2020 10:13 am

Reading a few years back that the Whitney decided to let the curators of five major NY galleries decide the content was the last straw for me.

Derek Guthrie
03/02/2020 1:12 pm
Reply to  Miklos Legrady

Thank you, Miklos, for your research. This is a fine example of the corruption that has nullified the New York art scene. The museum is a not for profit institution. A gallery is for profit. Why nor remove the not for profit privilege from the Whitney and give it over to the galleries?

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