Magazine article Artforum International

Whitney Biennial: Whitney Museum of American Art

Magazine article Artforum International

Whitney Biennial: Whitney Museum of American Art

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

I SUSPECT THAT VERY FEW PEOPLE in the art world-whether artists, curators, dealers, or collectors--expect the Whitney Biennial to present an absolute version (or even a vision) of the current state of affairs. Nor do many of us think that any genuine discoveries will be made. (As you can see, like so many others, I am skirting the crucial question of whom these exhibitions are for.) Sure, we might see work by someone we didn't know, but in today's hypermediated art scene, no one actually expects to be bowled over by anything "new." This makes a kind of sour sense, since the new as a value was pretty thoroughly debunked in the twentieth century and, well, here we are in the twenty-first. So, too, the idea that the Whitney Biennial-or any biennial, really--would offer the "best" art of the past two years seems as old-fashioned as ordering an egg cream in a New York deli. Most of us have given up on the idea of the best, ever since Duchamp, Conceptualism, and identity politics made the concept of universal aesthetic criteria pretty much untenable. But who can get maudlin about it? Better to watch the roundtables on the demise of criticism gather digital dust.

It's a tired situation, one brought about by the truism that the demise of the critic supposedly catapulted the curator--or even worse, "the curatorial"--to the putative center of things. Today, the curator is the personality who makes judgments--in a field without criteria for them-and presents her findings (preferably as a result of peripatetic travel) in a public forum. When it was announced that the 2014 Whitney Biennial would involve three different curators, none of whom work at the museum, each organizing his or her own exhibition on a separate floor, this seemed a canny assessment of the current condition. No more teamwork, no more institutionally sanctioned judgment, no more full-time salaried employees. Instead, we were offered the specter of three distinct personalities--all of whom are white, well known, and highly regarded for work done outside New York--which set the stage for an exploration of contemporary curating as much as of the state of artists' studios. In this regard, the exhibition did not disappoint, as it permitted a fairly gimlet-eyed view of things: three different groups of artists (with no overlap!), three different modes of presenting the work in the catalogue, and three nominally different sets of aesthetic and/ or political concerns. I say nominally because, in truth, I came away from the exhibition thinking that it privileged similarity over difference--an experience that confirmed my nagging sense of the paucity of, dare I say, "rigor" within the contemporary curatorial field.

I went through the exhibition from top to bottom, assuming that each floor would be as dissimilar in look, feel, and affect as the curators, and the artists they had chosen, were from one another. And there are indeed differences: Michelle Grabner's floor feels like a messy loft party, where a few different generations of folks--1980s Pictures artists, old-time '70s feminist painters, and today's "artists' artists," in my crude reduction--keep bumping into one another, not knowing whether or not it's appropriate to flirt across party lines. So a room with Gretchen Bender and David Diao gives way to a room where Amy Sillman's investigation of abstraction is within spitting distance of Dona Nelson's deconstruction of the definition of painting. On Stuart Comer's floor, works that pay close attention to the convergence of performative practices, politics, transgender identities, and general queerness sit cheek by jowl. Comer doubled down on fluid identities with work by A. L. Steiner and Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst and did the same when it came to artists or groups such as Julie Ault and Triple Canopy, who here deploy the exhibition as their medium. Anthony Elms's section traffics in big, unruly ideas (e.g., self-immolation, literature, the archive) rendered in cool conceptual gestures; the atmosphere is complete with the requisite black boxes for video projection and small rooms dedicated to idiosyncratic individual pursuits (Public Collectors and Joseph Grigely's presentation of the Gregory Battcock Archive). …

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