Easily one of the most important art events of the year in New York City, if not the entire country, is the Whitney Biennial, “the longest-running survey of contemporary art in the United States.” From its inception, the Biennial has brought new, young artists unfamiliar to American collectors and viewers to the attention of the U.S. art scene while at the same time displaying established artists side by side with the newcomers. Some of the best-known of the artists the Whitney Biennial introduced include Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and Jeff Koons. It’s been known as a showcase for less well-known artists, including those working in unfamiliar media and forms. In 2012, performance art was presented for the first time.
Since 2000, the Bucksbaum Award has been given to an artist exhibited in the Biennial “to honor an artist, living and working in the United States, whose work demonstrates a singular combination of talent and imagination.” Established by the Bucksbaum Family Foundation, the award is a $100K prize, the largest award in the world for an individual artist. (The 2017 Bucksbaum winner was Pope.L, also known as William Pope.L, a visual and performance artist known for his “interventionist” street art. In “Art as Intervention: A Guide to Today's Radical Art Practices,” Julie Perini defines this as art that “disrupts or interrupts normal flows of information, capital, and the smooth functioning of other totalizing systems.”)
As the name implies, the exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art occurs every other year, but when it began in 1932, it was a yearly event called the Whitney Annual. In the 1960s, the plan became to alternate each year between painting and sculpture, but by 1973, the idea evolved into a biennial show that combined both art forms and expanded to all media. As the art world evolved over the decades and visual artists experimented with new materials and forms, the Whitney Biennial developed with it. The 2017 Biennial, for example, in addition to paintings in a variety of pigment types on a range of foundations beyond traditional canvas, included assemblage art and installations, films and videos, and many different kinds of computer-based creations from screen prints to digital recordings (both audio and video) displayed on monitors to kinetic assemblages programmed by computer to several pieces in which a smart phone was a key component to virtual reality creations.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875–1942), a wealthy patron of the arts and herself a successful sculptor, founded the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. As an art patron, Whitney’s interest was in new American art, focusing on the avant-garde and the work of unknown artists. By the 1920s, Whitney had collected close to 700 pieces of American art and in 1929, she offered to donate 500 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met turned down the offer and, noting that both the Met and the new Museum of Modern Art, opened in 1929, were more interested in European art than American, Whitney founded her own dedicated to contemporary American art.
The museum, which began with a collection of 600 works, has been somewhat peripatetic over the years. Its original location was at 8-12 West 8th Street, between Fifth Avenue and MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. (Whitney maintained her own sculpture studio nearby on MacDougal Alley.) In 1931, Whitney had three townhouses on the south side of 8th Street converted into a museum. One of the buildings had been the location of the Whitney Studio Club, which Whitney had established in 1918 as exhibition space for American avant-garde art. In 1954, the Whitney Museum moved to a small building at 22 West 54th Street, directly behind MoMA’s 53rd Street location, between 5th and 6th Avenues; the museum’s collection had grown to approximately 1,300 pieces at the time of the move. (The West 8th Street space is now occupied by the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.)
When the Whitney outgrew the five-story 54th Street building, it made another move further uptown—and to the Upper East Side, the Silk Stocking District. In 1961, the museum began looking for larger quarters and settled on a location at 945 Madison Avenue. The museum hired Marcel Breuer and Hamilton P. Smith to design and construct a new building to house the collection and the new Whitney Museum of American Art went up on the corner of 75th Street between 1963 and 1966, a distinctly Modernist building in contrast with the understated, mostly Beaux-Arts townhouses and elegant post-war apartment buildings of the affluent neighborhood. Nearby, however, along with the up-scale art galleries of Manhattan’s established art scene, were the venerable, city-owned Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, between 79th and 84th Street on the west side of the avenue in Central Park) and the stunning, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1071 5th Avenue at the corner of East 89th Street). The Whitney Museum established a policy at its inception that it wouldn’t sell any art by a living artist lest it harm the artist’s career; it will, however, trade a piece of an artist’s work for another by the same artist, and by his time, the museum’s holdings had reached about 3,000 pieces of American art; the museum began a collection of photographs in 1991.
The museum continued to grow in the decades it resided at 75th and Mad and it occupied a number of satellite spaces such as at 55 Water Street (1973-83), a modern skyscraper in the Financial District in downtown Manhattan, or the gallery established in the lobby of the Philip Morris International (1983-2007), the tobacco company (later renamed the Altria Group), at 120 Park Avenue at 41st Street. (After the Philip Morris deal proved successful, the Whitney made similar arrangements with other corporations to set up galleries in their headquarters lobbies in the 1980s: Park Tower Realty, I.B.M., and the Equitable Life Assurance Society.)
Constantly short of exhibit space, the museum proposed several plans for expanding its Madison Avenue home, but cost, design problems, or local opposition always defeated them. Finally, in 2010, the Whitney Museum began construction of a new building in the far West Village, the old Meatpacking District that had become a trendy spot for boutiques, clubs, restaurants, and new residential highrises. Designed by Renzo Piano at 99 Gansevoort Street at the intersection with Washington Street, the southern terminus of the relatively new and very popular attraction, the High Line park (opened in 2009; see my blog article on 10 October 2012), the striking, new Whitney Museum of American Art opened in 2015 (less than two miles from its first facility on West 8th Street of 61 years earlier, and a very pleasant 20-minute walk through the Village from my home).
The $422 million new building rises eight stories (plus one below ground) above the surrounding structures, both the old 19th- and early 20th-century ones, former warehouses and meatpacking plants, and the new ones that have risen up in the past five or six years as the Meatpacking District has become trendy and popular with the 20- and 30-something crowd. It also stands out for its appearance, silvery-metal clad and angular with what look from a distance like turrets and bulkheads, as if perhaps the superstructure of a great ship were being glimpsed from dockage on the Hudson a short distance away. (Coincidentally, like a ship, the building is deemed to be water-tight, part of its flood-abatement system, designed into the plans after Superstorm Sandy five years ago.)
There are walls of windows and the ground-floor lobby space is glass-enclosed. From a block away, the glassed-in ground floor makes it look as if the building were hovering over the street like a weirdly-shaped mother ship. Piano told people at the opening, “The new Whitney is almost ready to take off. But don’t worry, it won’t, because it weighs 28,000 tons”! (I wonder if the Guggenheim had people making such comparisons when it was brand new and never-seen-the-likes-before?)
The new museum, the first totally new museum building to open in New York City in many decades, has 50,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space and another 13,000 outdoors. (20,500 square feet of gallery space is dedicated for the Whitney’s permanent collection.) A staff of 300 keeps the place running. Besides the galleries and the terrace spaces, the new Whitney houses a study center, a theater, and classrooms. The lobby encompasses the book store/gift shop, café, and a free gallery open to the public.
The museum’s current collection contains over 21,000 works of art. The still-viable Mad Avenue building was taken over in 2016 by the Metropolitan Museum as the Met Breuer, a satellite museum for exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. Over its 89 years, the Whitney Museum of American Art has exhibited the work of hundreds of artists, many of whom have become prominent. Among these have been Maurice Prendergast (1858-1925), Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Josef Albers (1888-1976), Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Man Ray (1890-1976), Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Louise Nevelson (1899-1988), Mark Rothko (1903-70), Arshile Gorky (1904-48), Willem de Kooning (1904-97), Barnett Newman (1905-70), Lee Krasner (1908-84), Franz Kline (1910-62), Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), Jackson Pollock (1912-56), Robert Motherwell (1915-91), Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93), Grace Hartigan (1922-2008), Kenneth Noland (1924-2010), Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), Andy Warhol (1928-87), Jasper Johns (b. 1930), Frank Stella (b. 1936), Mary Heilmann (b. 1940), Bill Viola (b. 1951), David Wojnarowicz (1954-92), Raymond Pettibon (b. 1957), Keith Haring (1958-90), Lorna Simpson (b. 1960), and many more recent artists with whose names and work I’m not familiar.
On Thursday, 8 June 2017, I walked over to the Whitney to catch the 78th Whitney Biennial before it closed on Sunday, the 11th. (The exhibit, the first Biennial in the museum’s new home, had opened on 17 March. Because of the move to new digs, the Biennial is a year late, the previous installment having been in 2014.) I hadn’t been to a Whitney Biennial since 2004 when my late mother and I went up to the Mad Avenue location because Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama was featured among the exhibitors (see my report on this fascinating artist, posted on 18 May). When the Whitney announced plans to build a new museum within my cruising range (Mother and I had walked the High Line twice when she came up for visits, made the rounds of the Chelsea art galleries, and shopped the Chelsea Market a couple of times), we started talking about checking out the new place as soon as it was open. (We had made a beeline for MoMA back in 2004 when it reopened after a two-year redesign.) Unfortunately, we never made that visit: the new Whitney opened on 1 May 2015 and Mother died on the 26th after nearly a month’s stay in a Maryland hospice. I had made plans for an earlier trip to Gansevoort Street a few weeks before the Biennial opened to see the new museum, but circumstances scuttled those plans.
Museum-going had been one of the activities Mom and I did together when I visited her in Washington, she came to see me in New York, or we traveled together anywhere there were museums or art galleries (San Juan, Quebec City, Vancouver, Istanbul). ROT-readers will know about this shared pursuit from my occasional reports on art shows that sometimes accompanied my theater reports. I hadn’t consciously stayed away because of the association with my mom—but it may have been subconscious, and it was definitely a transitory sensation I noticed when I entered the Whitney Museum building that Thursday afternoon. It wasn’t all that strong—I had a more powerful feeling of missing something when a friend and I went to MoMA to see Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934-1954 in February 2016 (see my report, posted on 4 March 2016). Though checking out the new Whitney would have interested Mom, she’d have loved seeing that Pollock show. Less than a year after her death (and the first art show I’d seen since then), it was just the kind of exhibit we’d have saved to enjoy together, and I never entirely shook that underlying feeling of loss. At the Whitney Biennial, though, the feeling passed as soon as I got up to the fifth floor to start my walk through the art.
(I must add, though, that seeing an art show by myself like that is an experience I’m not used to. I’ll go to a play or even a movie alone and be perfectly content, but art, while it can be enjoyed in silence, really demands to be discussed—at least for me and, as it happens, for Mom. We would point out pieces we thought the other should see—we didn’t stick together in the galleries—or compare notes as we went along through the exhibit. Afterwards, of course, we’d talk about what we saw and what we got from it—and there’d always be the customary plans for a “Midnight Shopping Trip”! ROTters will know what that little private joke means: it shows up in all my blog reports on art shows.)
Filling the galleries on the museum’s fifth and sixth floors (including outdoor spaces), plus scattered pieces throughout the rest of the new building, the 2017 Whitney Biennial, co-curated by Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, over a hundred pieces representing 63 artists. Though some of the artists are established in the art world, none is a celebrity yet and half of the participants are women or artists of color. (Both curators are Asian-American.) The museum identified a “key theme” of this year’s exhibit as the “formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society,” and the art on display was decidedly political, and left-leaning, making clear critical, and often strident comment on current American society and culture. Locks elucidated:
It became apparent that the idea of ‘humanness’ or what it means to be a human right now was an energizing force for the show. Many of the works in the show address interesting questions about how we view ourselves as human beings and the forces that bring us together and the forces that bring us apart.
The museum’s own description of the exhibit stated that it “arrives at a time rife with racial tensions, economic inequities, and polarizing politics.” (Lew and Locks actually began organizing the Biennial in 2015, when Barack Obama was still president and it was presumed that Hillary Clinton would be his successor.) A lot of the work on exhibit in the Biennial was created within the current calendar year and, though Donald J. Trump rarely appears in the art directly (his name comes up twice), is obviously meant to reflect the artists’ response to his election and presidency and his stated and implied policies on art and culture. The day before the Whitney Biennial opened, President Trump revealed his budget plan which includes his intention to zero out the entire budget of the NEA and NEH (the first time any president had proposed that). Adam D. Weinberg, the museum’s director, even includes a statement on the Whitney website declaring, “The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities . . . now face the threat of being abolished” and affirming, “As an institution specifically dedicated to presenting and discussing contemporary American culture, the Whitney Museum of American Art feels a special responsibility to speak as an advocate for the continuing importance of the NEA and NEH.”
My general response to the show was that it was more interesting than artistically stimulating. Part of that reaction comes from the unremittingly political nature of the art, which got repetitive in its intent after a few dozen works, and part—perhaps a greater part—because I find the latest trends in art, encompassing the 21st-century offerings, unengaging. This is not a new revelation to me: I noticed my coolness toward the newest art when I went to that last Whitney Biennial in 2004 and it was confirmed when I first went over to the then-new galleries in Chelsea, which began opening in the mid-1990, in 2011. By the 21st century’s second decade, the Chelsea art scene had entered its adolescence when, as New York Times art critic Roberta Smith put it, there were
mega-bucks, big-box spaces on the same block as holes in the wall not much larger than a walk-in closet; great work within a stone’s throw of schlock; older art alongside the freshly minted; and blue-chip brand names across the street from young and emerging artists or forgotten and overlooked ones.
I viewed early and mid-20th-century art (Picasso, Pollock, Rauschenberg, Noland) right up against work by artists whose names I hadn’t even heard yet. There were canvases, sculptures, and installations, and the pieces to which I responded most were the older ones—it seems wrong to call them “more traditional” since they were the height of radicalism in their days; these were the guys with whom so-called modern art got started! Still, the newer stuff mostly didn’t move me. At the 2004 Whitney Biennial, which I explained my mother and I attended because Yayoi Kusama was one of the artists exhibited, I had the same reaction to the new works—and even the current works of Kusama, as exemplified by the 2002 mirrored-room installation Fireflies on the Water. It left me rather cold. I don’t have a problem with political or socially-critical art per se, but the work in that 2004 Biennial didn’t have the social and political critical component that the 2017 exhibit had, so it was even less interesting than this year’s show. But the 2017 exhibit was unrelentingly socio-political and, as I intimated, that got enervating.
So, how do I evaluate my art experience at the Whitney Museum this year? Well, I found myself more focused on the media and techniques, the forms, of the art on display than the content or even the point. I noticed, for instance, how much of the art wouldn’t really work in someone’s home. That, of course, may have been the message of some of the artists—to create works that no one could own, that could only be viewed and shared in galleries and museums and public spaces. (Conceptual art, which started in the 1960s, was adamantly non-commercial and often transitory as well, defying both ownership and permanence.) There were a large number of works, maybe even half of the show, that relied on technology of one kind or another, especially recorded and projected images. That was another trend I spotted.
I also felt that most of the art at the Biennial was, for lack of a more precise word, angry. (That was also ultimately taxing—it’s hard to listen to people scolding, berating, and protesting constantly, even if their causes are righteous. Eventually, it sours the artistic experience.) Any artist in the Whitney Biennial who expressed something positive or joyful about our present time—and there are some, rare thought they may seem—was drowned out in the cacophony of discontent and deprecation. It also muddies the protesting artists’ messages because they just become part of the shouting.
I’m deliberately staying away from a discussion of the biggest controversy of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the painting Open Casket by Dana Schutz (b. 1976). As most readers will know, this was the artist’s 2016 rendering of the broken and mangled body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American teen lynched in 1955 by a Mississippi mob after a white woman falsely accused him of whistling at her, lying in his coffin. Schutz is white and black artists and other members of the African-American community demanded that her painting, based on a contemporaneous photograph, be removed from the show and even destroyed, arguing that she could not possibly capture the true horror of Till’s murder or the feelings of his mother (who ordered the open-casket funeral so the world could see what had been done to her son). First of all, the controversy, which turned bitter at times, has been extensively covered in the press both in print and on line—not to mention social media; besides the fact that I have no standing, I couldn’t possibly contribute anything more to this debate. Second, my own feelings are dichotomous and confused at this point—I understand and agree with some of the points of both sides of the disagreement, but I’m also, as I’ve often stated, nearly an absolutist on the First Amendment—so I don’t know what to say in any case. Third, my focus here is my overall artistic experience of the show, not one or two works on display.
By most critics’ estimation, this Biennial is the most overtly political since the 1993 show, which I didn’t see but which was roundly criticized for its focus on issues of the time rather than the art. While the 1993 “political” or “multicultural” Biennial, as it was frequently dubbed, generated lots of journalistic opprobrium, the 2017 edition was met with general, not to say universal, approval and praise. If nothing else, it’s a testimony to the turbulence of our moment in history and the virulence of the artistic response to it. Schutz’s Open Casket was inspired, for instance, by the Black Lives Matter movement. She has two other paintings in the show. Elevator (2017), which appears to be a comment on Americans’ inability to get along with one another, shows a crowd of people in an elevator violently tearing each other apart. (Commissioned for the Biennial, Elevator, which measures 12 by 15 feet, greeted museum-goers as they exit the lift onto the fifth floor. Co-curator Lew drew a connection to the museums large art elevator, which also carries passengers.) 2017’s Shame is a depiction of a monstrously contorted woman, a comment, I decided, on the state of female self-identity in our society today. Women’s identities, that is, where they fit in society, has been a serious issue at least since the start of the modern feminist movement in the ’60s (with echoes reaching back to the Suffragists of the 1910s and even earlier), but in the era of Trump and his macho-posturing followers and imitators, it has clearly become much more problematic. (By extension, Shame can be interpreted as a comment on all gender-identity issues. I don’t know if Schutz meant that, but art can have extensions beyond the artist’s intentions. After all, I’m a man looking at her painting, so I’m bound to see things differently from her or a female viewer.)
Among the sculpture, I found myself intrigued by John Riepenhoff’s Handler creations. This is a series of papier-mâché sculptures of the artist’s own body (from the waist down), dressed in perfectly casual pants and shoes, holding paintings or video art by other artists in his hands. (One was identified as a piece by Allen Ginsberg—the late poet, I presume, but I couldn’t confirm that. He also installed The John Riepenhoff Experience, a box in the ceiling of the gallery that was purportedly a little gallery itself, but viewers has to stand in line to climb up a ladder one by one to stick their heads into the box to see the exhibit and the line was just too long for me to wait on it. Reportedly, in the box gallery was a miniature reproduction of one of Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored Infinity Rooms.) It’s meta-art, a theme that ran through the exhibit often as a sidelight to the other socio-political issues treated in the Biennial: Riepenhoff (b. 1982), who’s also a gallerist, is combining his two occupations by spotlighting the art of other artists.
Another project about art, but with less of an homage air, was Debtfair, an installation by Occupy Museums. Formed in 2011 as an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, this activist collective shines a light on the economic and social justice failings of the art world in its treatment of and dealings with artists. Debtfair, the work of 30 artists, shows how artists have gone onto debt to the same corporations that have created the art boom among the wealthy who use art as investments. (The installation centers on artists of Puerto Rico, an island that’s in precarious debt itself and where poverty is a continuing problem.) While the corporate manipulators, who make up the majority of museum boards and the art-collecting public, grow rich from buying, selling, and reselling the art at ever greater prices, the artists go into heavier and heavier debt from which they can never extricate themselves. (The CEO’s and board chairmen of these maga-businesses that own the artists’ debt are in Donald Trump’s circle, possibly some are even his friends. Given the art and culture proposals he’s already made, and his thin skin when it comes to protests and disagreements, it’s a chancy tack to challenge this class right now, I’d imagine. I guess we’ll see if there are repercussions.) Debtfair is an exhibit taking up two large walls of a gallery, one filled with illustrative images and documents of the companies in question and the other lined with three computers which visitors are invited to use to log onto one of several sites they can use to buy up some of the artists’ debts. This is the most straightforward of several all-text exhibits in the Biennial that is not just more socio-politics than art, it’s all socio-politics.
One of the more remarkable works in the show is Samara Golden’s multi-story installation The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes (2017). Taking a page from Kusama’s installation manual, Golden (b. 1973) uses mirrors to expand space into infinity—in this instance going up to the heights and down into the depths. But while Kusama’s mirrored rooms were abstract and disconnected from the environment that surrounds them (that is, the museum structure), Golden’s construction is conceived to seem part of the Renzo Piano’s museum building. His environment is a glimpse into a highrise, using the Whitney’s floor-to-ceiling windows and the view out over the Hudson River from the fifth-floor gallery, that hosts incongruously juxtaposed medical facility-cum- beauty parlor-cum-prison, penthouse, middle-class apartment, waiting room, gym, restaurant, and office space. It’s a vertiginous stage set—or, more accurately, Hollywood soundstage with eight meticulously furnished interiors available simultaneously for telling a complex story we can make up ourselves. But it’s a funhouse set, the various locations upside down and endlessly reflected in the mirrors. Which images are reality and which merely illusions is impossible to discern, which doubles the sense of dizziness I felt. To add to the sense of being at a great height and looking over a thin balcony or rooftop rail, Golden incorporates a soft wind and sound effects. (I actually had to hold onto the handrails in the slight incline that leads to and from the artwork when I left. I felt a little foolish, I admit.) The structure looks solid, as if made from actual building materials—or, at least, movie-set resources—but the list of materials for the work of art are all flimsy and even ephemeral. It also looks full-sized, but it’s really half-sized. Illusion upon illusion. Assembling The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes, a name that seems to match the fantastic vision and the improbable story that must go along with it, surely took hundreds of person-hours.
Another installation, by Kaari Upson (b. 1972), was a collection of her soft sculptures (Supplement II, T.T., Snag, Eyelids, In Search of the Perfect Double I, In Search of the Perfect Double II, all 2016). These look like distorted and upended pieces of upholstered furniture—I sure thought they were, like found objects Upson repurposed—but they’re mostly constructed for the work of art. The assemblage occupies a gallery of its own, scattered around the floor as if some kids had found an abandoned room and just shifted all the left couches and chairs randomly. The curators asserted that the pieces suggest “at once the interior and exterior of the human body.” I didn’t see it.
Claim (2017), the installation by Pope.L (b. 1955), the 2017 Bucksbaum winner, is a large walk-through box constructed of whitewashed wood. On the walls of this room-within-a-room, inside and out, are nailed 2,755 rotting baloney slices, each precisely centered in a four-inch square—more or less: there was an error in the installation and Pope.L wanted it left—forming a grid. In the middle of each baloney slice (pretty smelly) is a small black-and-white portrait. Pope.L claims (in a text mounted in the box) that each portrait represents a percentage of the Jewish population of New York, a figure he’s arrived at by some arcane formula. But the artist’s figures “are a bit off”—the number of bologna slices is off by 2 and, what’s more, the photos on the slices were taken without concern for the subjects’ actual ethnicity. Not only is this a commentary on the arbitrariness of identity, both what we claim for ourselves and what others claim for us, but Pope.L is playing sarcastically with our obsession with data and numbers, leading, perhaps to quotas (something with which Jews are more than familiar) and how identity and data can be misused for nefarious purposes such as representation in legislatures or access to the vote.
This hardly even scratches the surface of what was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and it’s not even really representative of the art on exhibit. I didn’t even mention the works on film and video, or the computer-driven works. I can’t even say these few works were the ones that most impressed me for any reason—though they were among the ones that I remembered most clearly after I left the museum. The art critics were more thorough, and more impressed. Adam Lehrer called the exhibit “stunning” in Forbes magazine and listed “10 of my favorite pieces and installations” in the show. In New York magazine/Vulture, Jerry Saltz declared this years’ Biennial “the best of its kind in some time” and praised it for the way it shows “that artists are always addressing and channeling issues of the day. With gravitas, grace, intensity.” Peter Schjeldahl of the New Yorker asserted that the exhibit “is earnestly attentive to political moods and themes,” but caviled that it “already feels nostalgic.” Nonetheless, Schjeldahl found the show “winningly theatrical in its use of the Whitney’s majestic new spaces.”
Time Out New York’s Howard Halle made a curious statement about the very rationale on which the Biennial is founded. Questioning why “attention must be paid,” Halle wondered “why a subjective selection by a handful of organizers necessarily constitutes a definitive snapshot of contemporary art, which is how the show has always been sold. It doesn’t, of course, though that hasn’t stopped people from thinking otherwise, especially since the Biennial has the felicitous effect of stove-piping careers into wider art-market and museum acceptance.” The man from TONY concluded with a back-hand compliment to the Whitney: “The museum is to be commended for showing restraint in using its facility, and for trying to strike a balance between its role as a custodian of art and the compromises that follow. It will be interesting to see where the Biennial goes from here.”
On artnet, Ben Davis stated in his opening sentence: “Here’s a super-short, bottom-line, first-impression review of the Whitney Biennial 2017: It’s good.” He dubbed the exhibit “a stylish and professional affair” and affirmed, “There’s enough cool painting to satisfy that crowd, but also enough new media and other novelties to satisfy that other crowd.” Davis quibbled a tad that the exhibit “errs on the side of seriousness,” but acknowledged that “that’s as it should be.” His one complaint was that “the Lew-Locks formula . . . feels, maybe, a little formulaic, like the show doesn’t exactly have a big hook or curatorial conceit beyond smart taste-making and the expertly executed balancing act.” ArtNews’s Andrew Russeth called this year’s Biennial “an intensely satisfying display” and reported that he “left it feeling shaken and optimistic, with the exhilarating sense that exhausted tropes are falling away, that art is being propelled headlong into an uncertain future.”
Peter Plagens of the Wall Street Journal, proclaiming that this year’s Biennial “offers rewards to all those groups” and “is decorously political while at the same time good-looking.” At the end of his review, Plagens reported that he asked how much the show had cost to mount, “mentioning that movie companies provide that information.”
The response, which came with a smile, was, “We don’t give that out, but it was certainly much less than the $300 million Disney spent on its remake of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’” Which might be, by the way, not a bad working title for the 2019 Whitney Biennial.
In the Guardian’s U.S. edition, Nadja Sayej reported that the Biennial is “a politically charged show on the state of America but without the predictable satire.” Indeed, Sayej acknowledged that it “feels like a graveyard of the establishment’s broken promises with glimmers of hope from some of its suffering citizens.” Ariella Budick of the U.S. edition of the Financial Times admitted to approaching Whitney Biennials with trepidation: “I quail at the prospect of entering a bubble full of belly-gazers, recent art-school grads obsessed with arcane process, crude provocateurs and prolix polemicists.” This time, though, she “came away shockingly content.” Budick found, “This Biennial’s corps of artists soaks up the political energy crackling on the streets outside the museum and converts rage into creativity.” She concluded, “The divisions that demoralise citizens and supercharge outrage also give art a bracing sense of purpose and make for a trenchant show.”
On WNYC, the National Public Radio outlet in New York City, Deborah Solomon declared this year’s Biennial “the show that everyone loves to love.” She explained: “It goes out of its way to spurn fashion, slickness and unearned celebrity” so that “the show offers you a genuine acquaintanceship with new art, rather than just some lame buzz about who’s in and who’s out.” In conclusion, Solomon asserted, “The show attains a high level of aesthetic quality, and proves that making fun of the Whitney Biennial has become an obsolete sport.” Elizabeth Blair of NPR reported, “If you’ve been out of [the] loop on the American contemporary art scene, the Whitney Biennial is here to catch you up.” She observed that the “range of this year’s contributors” included “many new works that have never been shown before.”
In the New York Observer, David D’Arcy lamented that “this edition of the Biennial was underwhelming.” He complained, ”The purported rise of painting . . . doesn’t live up to its promise here. And the politics of the works on view, often presented with art’s version of a megaphone, reminds us why our expectations of Biennials are low.” Then D’Arcy added, “But there’s work to like and to admire.” Finally, the New York Times’ Roberta Smith declared that the Whitney Biennial’s “strength and focus make it doubly important at a time when art, the humanities and the art of thinking itself seem under attack in Washington.” Pronouncing the show “an adult affair” and “exceptionally good looking,” Smith did add, “It needs a little more edge.” At first look, she wrote, “it has some immature inclusions”; however, “Once you really start looking, there’s edge all over the place.” At a time when support for the arts is in danger, Smith asserted, “this exhibition makes and exciting, powerful case for art.”