The Biennale off The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York not only has a long history – the first edition took place in 1932 – it also has a reputation for being high profile. That makes it the most important American biennial. As soon as the names of the trustees are announced, speculation begins, a parlor game in which the American press excels. It gets a premature continuation when the list of artists is published. Once the presentation is there, the emotions usually loosen right.
The 1993 edition is the ultimate example of this. Critic Jerry Saltz, who likes to go into exaggeration, describes the biennial as ‘the so-called multicultural, identity-political, political or just bad biennial’. One of the curators was Thelma Golden, now director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. The political nature of the presentation and the participation of an unprecedentedly high number of black artists were mainly blamed for her. That the curatorial team had the audacity to include the infamous video of agents beating Rodney King as a work of art was misunderstood by many visitors and critics. I saw people leaving the museum furious. The predominantly white museum world was hit in the face. The access button could have warned them. It contained the text: “I can never imagine wanting to be white.”
How controversial would the current biennial be? Did she justify the excitement I felt beforehand, would the emotional impact of two years of covid and two months of serious threat of war resonate in my perception of what was being offered?
There is another factor that often makes this biennial unique: it pretends to highlight the latest developments in the visual arts. Talent is identified at an early stage, and incentives for change are given prominence. Later it turns out that the curators’ insight into contemporary American art is beyond doubt. Often, not always.
Work on the curators of this edition, Adrienne Edwards (African-American) and David Breslin (of Irish descent), both senior curators of the museum, began in late 2019. Their main task was to zoom around the pandemic and ultimately make the exhibition a year off. They chose ‘borders’ as a binding theme to question the concept of America. What is American? Why does the border with Mexico end when countless Mexicans live and work in the United States? Why can a Korean artist with the right papers be called American? Why would a Canadian native artist be any different than the average Native American? Boundaries are fluid and arbitrary. To make this concrete, they selected a number of Mexican and a number of Canadian artists. It has never happened before. Definitely not at this museum, which claims to focus on American art.
Yet this friendly and sympathetic concept may inadvertently take on a different meaning, at a time when a superpower is ignoring borders with brutal power, driving millions of victims of this policy beyond their own national borders, and Europe suddenly seems to know no one. borders.
2022 edition is good but not controversial. She does not exclude the outside world, but she does not want to confront it either. She does not want to celebrate the day profusely. Rather, it seems to pave the way for reflection on the outside world. It sounds boring, but for an audience that is emotionally charged by a pandemic and the threat of war, it probably does not feel that way.
It is striking that there is almost no figurative art on display. The abstraction wins. A development that was also reflected in other recent exhibitions. For example, from black artists who have been making abstract art for over 25 years – Jack Whitten, Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas – and who are now widely appreciated and presented.
This exhibition shows that abstraction has different sources. The colorful hanging rugs by Lisa Alvarado (1985, San Antonio) evoke cartographic references. In fact, they take advantage of the traditional designs of Mexican fabrics. That the artist also admires and plays John Cage’s minimalist music makes the choice of abstraction more explicable.
James Little (1952, Memphis) is one of those artists who enjoys the renewed interest in abstract art. He also made it 25 years ago, but then the art world passed by, also because a black artist was expected to make narrative art. For Little, abstraction equals freedom. He does not want to be original, but to build on a modernist tradition. Put Mondrian to his will. Because his latest works are an interplay of geometric black lines and intersecting shapes, you would be inclined to put the stamp ‘gloomily’ on them. To him, they are precisely representations of the freedom to associate with blacks without conveying a political message.
For Roberts, the war industry and the entertainment industry are increasingly intertwined
The curators have chosen a lot of video work. An entire floor has been arranged for this. It pays off, because it provides the best work. Coco Fusco (1960, New York) is an artist who almost always does political work. She wants to be heard. In its twelve minutes Your eyes will be an empty word she is rowing in a small white boat to Hart Island, an uninhabited island near New York. She tells the terrible story of the island in aesthetic (drone) images. It is the burial place of people who have no relatives who died anonymously, who were not picked up from the morgue by anyone – it also happened with covid victims – who died in absolute loneliness. Because she calmly tells that story with beautiful pictures, the effect is huge. The fact that the prisoners are responsible for the last burial makes the story even more gripping. Eventually, she leaves a white flower on the black water. As a tribute.
Adam Pendleton (1984, Richmond) surprises with pictures on the skin of an interview with activist Ruby Sales. Sales was shot in 1965 by a white seminary student. She survived the attack. Without any sense of hatred, she tells you how you can be a black eye for your potential and your opportunities. One must look ahead and not get stuck in a miserable past. Impressive, especially because of Sales’ calm tone and self-effacement of Pendleton, an artist who usually attracts loud attention in his large, abstract black-and-white paintings and murals.
The boundaries may is fluid according to the curators, input from the Mexican and Canadian artists does not seem to confirm this. It is more topical and political, thus exceeding the limits that most other participants have apparently set themselves.
The youngest participant, Andrew Roberts (1995, Tijuana), does the most impressive work. a video installation, Listen to it, which shows digital animations of young men’s heads from eight upright screens. Those heads look like they’ve been dead forever. The skin is affected. Yet they stare at you and speak and move. On their clothes is a logo for one of the entertainment industry’s powerhouses: Netflix, Google, Nike, Disney, Uber Eats …
Roberts lives close to the US-Mexico border. He knows what death and deadly violence mean and what they look like. In his view, the war industry and the entertainment industry are increasingly interlinked. They determine the picture and thus create racism and violence. He ‘decorates’ his installation with macabre sculptures: severed arms and lower legs. It’s an installation that will not go away from my retina. It is also an installation that is unique because it involves confrontation. The only one. Does it make you think I actually need it?
More subtle are without title photographic works by the also Mexican Mónica Arreola (1976, Tijuana). She photographs houses and buildings that stand unfinished. Because the money ran out, the permit did not work, or because the future owners changed their minds. They are deserted in a dry landscape. They inevitably evoke the images of the bombed and burned houses in the cities of Ukraine. Whether Mónica Arreola wanted it or not does not matter. Current events have colored her photographic works politically.
The work of the Canadian Rebecca Belmore (1960, Uppsala) also seems more topical than that of the ‘real’ Americans. She chose in her installation Prototype for Ish Code (Fire) like Arreola for the indirect method. A figure wrapped in a painted duvet – a man or woman, it is unclear – is protected by a wreath of bullets draping around her or his feet like a jewel. The lighting makes the balls shine. As a result, they are disarmed. Beauty must, in her eyes, win over violence. Perhaps naive, but nonetheless a catchy symbolic message that politicians should embrace.
The 2022 Whitney Biennale may be less exciting than many of its predecessors, but it can better meet the limits of an exaggerated spirit of the times. Edwards and Breslin have a good reason Quiet as it is kept selected as title. The recording of ‘foreign’ artists from Canada and Mexico has undoubtedly provided extra quality and surprises.
While the riot in 1993 was mainly related to the selection of an unprecedented number of black artists, although of course it was not openly admitted, they are also widely present at this biennial, but no one cares about that anymore. Whether this required 1993 remains an open question.
Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept, through September 5 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. whitney.org