A Tornado Tore Through the Art World: The 2014 Whitney Biennial

The Whitney Museum of Art in New York City is currently holding its established Biennial exhibition, whose purpose is to present both American artists who are reputable in the art scene and to showcase those who are up-and-coming. The exhibition will be up in the museum from March 7th through May 25th. This is the last Biennial that the Whitney’s Madison Avenue space will house before the museum moves downtown to its new home in the Meatpacking district in the spring of next year. To mark this special moment, the Biennial took a new form this year with three outside curators (Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner) overseeing a single floor each. With a total of 103 artists participating in this year’s show (twice the number of artists in the 2012 Biennial), this made for the largest biennial yet.

However, this effort to create the biggest and best Biennial in the Breuer building results in a show which overloads the viewer with a confusing array of modern art held together by no predominant themes. A long-time target of art critics for being self-indulgent on the part of the curators and the New York art scene in general, this Biennial attempts to please too many constituencies without pleasing anyone, in the words of Andrew Russeth from his review of the show for Gallerist.[1] This year’s show included fewer hot young artists, market favorites, and New York based artists. Instead, the emphasis is placed more on older artists and ones from the Los Angeles area, with many of the participating artists having already been exhibited in other biennials or surveys. The Biennial seems less representative of the art world of 2014 and more of the art world of the past fifty years. It presents a rather incoherent mélange of abstract expressionism, pop art, modernism, and postmodernism. Its attempt to correct its critiques results in a show with little political content, and what political work there is recounts the past (integration in the south, the AIDS epidemic) rather than commenting on the present.

The unanimous word on the 2014 Biennial seems to be that the show reaches its zenith appropriately on the fourth floor, a position I share myself. Curated by Grabner, this floor held the majority of the work in the show and was just on the border of presenting too much. Grabner explains in her curatorial statement that her theme for the floor was pedagogy, with the work being displayed constituting as her curriculum. As a practicing artist herself (the first to curate a Biennial), Grabner’s overarching interest seems to lie in the work of other women artists, many of whom are in their mid to late stages of their careers and some of whom are no longer alive. She states that three overlapping themes with an angle of criticality can be distinguished in her space: contemporary abstract painting by women, materiality and affected theory, and art as strategy. She includes an impressive amount of female abstract expressionist work (a category historically dominated by men) such as the work of Louise Fishman. However, most of the abstract expressionist paintings are hung in a single gallery, creating something of an excess of brushstrokes and colors in one space. But it is Grabner’s choice of art with a strong statement that provide for some of the most eye-catching pieces on the floor. One such piece by the late Gretchen Bender reconstructed by Phillip Vanderhyden is titled People in Pain, a large black installation with backlit names of movies from the ‘80s. Bender’s work spoke to the incessant stream of information and images we are presented with in the modern age. Vanderhyden explained his efforts to reconstruct the piece (which fell to disrepair some years ago) as a way to emphasize how “our cultural experiences live and die,” and we are led to meditate on the recycling of ideas of the media with the names of movies such as Teen Wolf, which has been recently remade into a popular television show.

The art becomes progressively less interesting and meaningful as you progress down to the lower floors. Though the idea of three separate curators for each floor is an interesting one, one does not get the sense of true collaboration after having seen the whole show. Instead, one returns back to the lobby of the museum feeling worn out by the efforts of each curator to project his/her vision upon you. As Russeth concludes, this year’s biennial is in a sense an accurate depiction of the art world, caught between money and the museum and tangled up in competing visions. But one is left feeling both overwhelmed by images and underwhelmed by their weight, remembering a few standout pieces but quickly confusing and forgetting the majority.

[1] Russeth, Andrew. “The 2014 Whitney Biennial Disappoints, With Misfires, Omissions, Only Glimmers of Greatness.” Gallerist NY N.p., 6 March 2014. Web. 10 April 2014.

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