How do you know the curators of the Whitney Biennial, America’s most important gathering of contemporary art, have done a good job? By the criticism.
According to critics, this Biennial is simultaneously political, not political enough, political, but possessing politics insufficiently radical–“a raised fist in an opera glove” according to The Wall Street Journal–political only under close inspection and superficially political.
The Whitney Biennial became synonymous with politics and the culture wars long before Trump took office and many critics were anticipating a full-frontal assault on his presidency. His direct image appears nowhere here. How often his influence can be felt beneath the surface rests on the viewer.
You can read critiques saying the Biennial has more painting than usual, not enough painting, that the paintings are inferior generally and that, “some (are) rather good.”
One critic complained anonymously to The Art Newspaper he couldn’t find anything to hate in the show.
In the completely subjective world of art, criticism as scattered and groping as that received by the Whitney Biennial, which opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on May 17th, tells us the exhibit’s curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, hit the mark with their selection of works and artists.
“We were interested in work that was strong and resonant, but were also committed to including a broad range of artists who had not been part of previous Whitney Biennials,” Panetta and Hockley jointly responded when questioned by Forbes.com via email. “Understanding what a difficult moment it is for emerging artists, and accordingly what an important opportunity and platform the Biennial provides, we were really conscientious about this.”
Putting this exhibit together, the longest-running survey of American art, is a big job. An important job.
Panetta and Hockley not only serve as the two most important tastemakers in contemporary American art, their taste becomes codified by what goes on display. Inclusion in the prestigious Whitney Biennial defines careers–not only of the artists, theirs as well–and steers the art historical cannon.
It also serves as a time capsule.
“Each installment serves as a snapshot of art in the United States at a particular moment, which means that the exhibition as a whole holds a special place historically,” the curators said. “When we look back at past iterations, we are able to glean something unique about what was happening in not only American art at that time, but American culture and society at large.”
The Whitney Biennial dates back to 1937. Its almost 4,000 alumni include Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein, Ellsworth Kelly, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jeff Koons, along with virtually every other American artist of major significance over the past 80 years.
More than half of the invitees to this year’s Biennial are women, minorities and under 40-years-old. The curators also leaned heavily on first time participants.
“A really wonderful aspect of putting together the Biennial was getting to travel to new places, meeting artists and our peers in the field across the country,” the curators said.
Panetta and Hockley conducted over 300 studio visits before selecting the 75 artists included in the show, a process which took “almost exactly a year” according to them.
Their job is to scour every nook and cranny of American art from high-profile, high-end, white-cube, New York galleries to ramshackle roadside stands in the rural South and say, “this is the best, that is not.”
No wonder it’s been called “the American art world’s most-argued-about event.”
A title befitting the Biennials’ prestige. If it didn’t matter so much, it wouldn’t be worth nitpicking.
“The exhibition is intentionally broad in scope, but it does explore key themes, including the mining of history as a means to reimagine the present or future, a consideration of questions of equity along financial, racial, and gender lines, and explorations of the vulnerability of the body,” the curators said. “Artists in the exhibition are also engaged with notions of community.”
The Whitney Biennials’ “community” is America and whether or not the nation’s current political climate induces a feeling of dread inside you, that’s not the mood the curators are going for. They are shooting for “hopeful.”
Find out for yourself through September 22.
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