A month before the 2019 Whitney Biennial had concluded, the museum announced its curators for the 2021 Biennial. That was a well-oiled machine grinding into action, but it snatched any remaining thunder from this year’s Biennial which was already limping to a miserable end after being hijacked by protestors and artists demonstrating against one of the museum’s board members. Sadly, this is what the 2019 Biennial will be remembered for—not the art it showcased by a particularly diverse roster. Now the next iteration has juddered into production; but should it?
From the Biennial’s inception organizers have made grandiose claims that they had no way—or no intention—of realizing. Nevertheless, it became, and remains the preeminent survey of art-making in the United States. For artists it’s the most prestigious exposition in the country, lately posturing as “an unmissable event for anyone interested in finding out what’s happening in art today.” For anyone who isn’t in (or can’t afford to visit) New York then the Whitney would leave them to their ignorance, which is a closer characterization of what the art system often thinks of the public it pretends to serve.
The Biennial is not “unmissable,” because it doesn’t begin to scratch at America’s immeasurable creative diversity, let alone distill it into one event. Nor does the Biennial elevate the most exciting or interesting art in America, because there is no such thing. Individual taste precludes a consensus of hierarchical artistic worth, even if an institution insists otherwise; and the Whitney Biennial has been insisting on its favorites for a very long time.
In 1932 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established two Biennials which split mediums across alternate years—one for painting, and the other for sculpture, drawings and prints. In 1937 the Biennials were rebranded as the Annual, still dividing mediums over a two-part exhibition bookending each year—although practically, they were separate exhibitions. From 1957 there was one yearly exhibition, 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 handlers sought to dictate which artists would be indispensable in their quest to turn the museum into the vascular system of the American body aesthetic. That process involved making some staggering commitments to preferred artists.
A nepotistic mentality was initiated by Whitney herself (a noted sculptor) whose work was placed in 7 Biennials during the first decade. Between 1932 and 1969, painter, Isabel Bishop participated in 43 Annuals and Biennials, including a jaw-dropping arc of 31 consecutive years; Paul Cadmus appeared 37 times, and Adolph Gottlieb, 32, with both artists enjoying successive showings for 16 years; Edward Hopper was selected 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 well known artists received multiple invitations. Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko seem under-endowed with 9 showings each; while Roy Lichtenstein, and the ego that was formerly Richard Serra, were veritable outcasts, at only 7 outings.
These impressive numbers propelled certain artists into the canon, and from them was hung the inaccurate story of twentieth century American art. They occupied hundreds of Biennial slots over the decades that could have been shared more equitably. 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 functioned as a factory for the production of American art stars to rival Europe’s icons. Whether those artists epitomized the truth and scope of life and art in the United States—race, sexuality, gender, class—was of little interest. Each era or movement was funneled through a predestined set of practitioners—usually straight, white males—who emerged as the figureheads required to secure the museum’s narrative control.
During the 1970s the Biennial professionalized. Directors’ forewords, and curatorial statements became longer, and social context was broadened. Rather than insubstantial themes, focus turned toward aspects of production, 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 in each Biennial was halved, from an average of 160 in the 1950s and 1960s, to approximately 80 during the 1980s and 1990s. This had the unwelcome effect of making the event even more restrictive. For the 1975 Biennial there was an avoidance of familiar names, 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 limitations of its unwieldy promises.
But by the very next Biennial in 1977, curators (themselves often retained for a petrifying number of years) were reverting to previous exhibitors—John Baldessari, Richard Serra, Chuck Close. 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 must have been unaware that one participant, Agnes Martin, was in three consecutive Biennials from 1963 to 1967.
The Biennial continued to modify in the late 1980s, with a greater rotation of lesser known artists. But the addiction to its darlings continued, with Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, and other perennials cropping up multiple times between the early 1990s and the early 2010s. Only with the most recent Biennials does the Whitney seem to have thrown off the yoke of hero-worship, breathed more deeply, and exhaled more of what America looks like. Though it’s too soon to know if this will become a consistent approach.
The Biennial is still riven by a schizophrenic sense of what its role ought to be, contending everything while terrified to define anything. 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, hedged 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.” Someone should have called an ambulance.
An understanding art in America isn’t possible while the Whitney Biennial exists as it does because by highlighting, it obscures; it bends the larger field of vision through its limited predilections; the often meagre quality is insulated by a shroud of New York glitz; it is lavished with disproportionate critical attention that it spins into aesthetic authority; and it proffers public appeal, but transacts in elitist disdain. An infinitesimal fraction of artists in America (around 3600) have been featured since 1932. A small percentage of them became known. If the vast majority of this tiny minority received only fleeting consideration, then it isn’t artists, but the Whitney Museum that is the principle beneficiary of its own show.
Time has bestowed a patina of jurisdiction upon the Biennial that compels acquiescence to its assertions—if not belief. But its methods, and outcomes are incongruous to a digital age when artists don’t need to live in the biggest urban centers to find opportunity; and when local art scenes throughout America are more suited to agitation, ingenuity, and sustainability than the metropolis. If the Biennial must persist, move it out of New York, and into the America that it is supposed to reflect. The Biennial can’t expect to retain its mantle, while headquartered in the most expensive, least creatively viable, most parochial city in the country.
Each edition could travel to regions that the Biennial has never heeded. And if the Whitney Museum of American Art itself were to relocate to a more just home, in Alabama, Maryland, or Kentucky, it might begin to attain the integrity that its name suggests. Can’t be done? It already has, at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Arkansas. Otherwise, the Biennial will continue to perpetuate the most sclerotic aspects of an unseeing apparatus, and an irresponsible construction of art history.
Imagine that the Whitney Biennial no longer existed. Its absence would cause no lasting deficit to anyone. However inclusive the Biennial becomes, the schism it symbolizes between a chosen few, and the creative masses cannot be overcome; it is a fundamentally outdated model. But if the Biennial’s jealous consolidation of power were devolved into more agile initiatives, experimental platforms, and redistributed resources, to foster a truly democratized national framework; then the Whitney Biennial’s demise wouldn’t be cause for dismay, but optimism.