Whitney Biennial/A Quick Look
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It’s that time again. The Whitney Biennial, the signature exhibition for the museum and the best known, most influential survey of contemporary American art opened on March 7th and runs through May 25th, 2014. With over 100 artists and artist-collectives, it’s packed to the rafters, but there are so many great pieces, it’s worth taking it all in.
There are lots of biennials these days, but there’s still only one Whitney. This will be the 77th exhibition in a series that began in 1932. The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a passionate supporter of American artists. When the 1913 Armory Show catapulted European modernists to fame in the United States, the spotlight turned away from American artists. The Whitney Museum and the Biennial sought to change that.
The Whitney Biennial has never shied from controversy or risk-taking. Over the years it has been at the forefront of introducing new artists and presenting new media. The 2014 Biennial is inclusive in ways that even previous biennials haven’t been. Artists who cross genres are a notable element. There are works by poets who paint, photographers and painters acting as curators, there are artists presenting archives of other artists, there’s even a piece by novelist, David Foster Wallace.
The Whitney, as an institution, and the Biennial, as an exhibition, has long been open to artists of every conceivable description, but has often focused on young and emerging artists. That’s changed in this Biennial. The artists this year include many accomplished, though possibly under-recognized artists in their 50s and 60s, all the way up to their 80s.
Sheila Hicks, a ground-breaking artist known for enormous woven sculptures rich with texture and metaphor and Louise Fishman whose energetic, bold abstractions fill canvases twice her own size, have powerful works on display. As in the past, time-based art, such as performance, video, sound art, dance and music are included, along with installations, drawing, sculpture, photography and a surprising amount of painting.
This year, three curators from outside the Whitney were invited to curate the exhibition, each given a floor of the museum. They are Stuart Comer (Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA), Anthony Elms (Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia), and Michelle Grabner (artist and Professor in the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago). Each brings a different perspective, grounded in distinct training and diverse geographical areas. Their visions and their personal points of view come through in their selections. Grabner, a painter herself, has included much more painting than has appeared in recent years, particularly abstract works by under-recognized artists, mostly women.
It’s hard for an 82 year old to stay fresh and new, but the Whitney Biennial is doing it, once again. And while there’s no shortage of biennials, triennials and art fairs presenting wide swaths of contemporary art, the experience of a Whitney Biennial can only be found at the Whitney.
Another thing that can only be seen at the Whitney is Zoe Leonard’s room sized camera obscura, capturing in a weird but familiar upside-down way all the activity of Madison Avenue below. It’s as site-specific as a work can be, and makes the most of the possibilities of the space.
2014 may be the last chance to see the Biennial in the famous Marcel Breuer building on 75th and Madison, before the Whitney moves downtown.
Whitney Biennial 2014, Mar 7–May 25, 2014
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
New York, NY 10021
Mary Gregory is a New York art critic, art historian and novelist.