The Whitney Biennial’s Flimsy Promises

From the Whitney Museum of American Art, the pitch right now is all about authenticity, sincerity, and depth—a resistance to the fakery and bombast that afflict our culture in the age of Donald Trump. So, for instance, the museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, speaks of its current Biennial as an effort to “embrace complexity, subtlety, ambiguity, and poetry in a world that is increasingly binary and polarized and wants simplistic answers to overwhelmingly complex problems” and to “reckon with the real and the authentic in a world marked by the fake, the simulated, and the fraudulent.” As a result, he says, though “replete with indirect and direct sociopolitical concerns, this is not an exhibition made up of one-liners that are hectoring or finger wagging.” After crossing the country to find some of the bright spots on our cultural scene, Rujeko Hockley, one of the show’s curators, reports observing “a turn away from the slick and hyperfinished. In its place, we found an interest in and commitment to the work of one’s own hand, the process of making, and the provisional.” The show, says co-curator Jane Panetta, highlights “work that leans into the subjective, the poetic, and even the opaque. While the work often acknowledges our frightening reality, it offers alternative visions for what our world could be and what the future might hold.”

That sounds like an exhibition I’d dearly love to see, but it wasn’t quite what I experienced when I visited the 2019 Whitney Biennial. The show talks the talk, but the walk turns out to be more of a stumble than a steady forward stride. Too many of the pieces on view looked generically familiar, like slightly cleaned-up and straightened-out versions of things I’d seen somewhere else. The primarily young artists in the show are respectful of history—which is all to the good. Rightly, they seem to see the art of the recent past as a resource, an emergency supply of tools and strategies for crafting their own responses to the anxieties of the moment. But I couldn’t help feeling that in many cases they were too respectful, too careful in framing the answers to their own questions, like honor students who still want good marks from a pedagogical authority they no longer trust.

I’m inclined to blame the curators for this, suspecting that, like so many others in their profession, they’ve cultivated a familiarity with topical issues while scanting the critical reflection on their own aesthetic judgments necessary to develop sharper eyes. If that’s the case, then I could assume that an essentially similar but better, more sharply focused biennial could have been assembled by better connoisseurship—that is, simply by choosing some others out of the many artists out there whose work aspires, as Panetta says, to the subjective, the poetic, the opaque. I’ve felt similarly about some previous Whitney Biennials, essentially thinking that different personnel could better fulfill the job description, whatever it happened to be that time. But now I’m wondering, does the museum itself impede an appreciation of what the artists are doing or trying to do?

I started to suspect that the museum was at cross-purposes with the art it is trying to showcase after noticing that even works I had been enthusiastic about when I saw them elsewhere seemed harder to appreciate here. Take the assemblages of Robert Bittenbender, whose dense and intricate wall-mounted constructions struck me as downright magical when I saw them last summer at the gritty LOMEX Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which occupies an apartment formerly occupied by the artist Eva Hesse. At the Whitney, I had to work hard to reconjure Bittenbender’s magic. Somehow the pieces just looked tidier and less potent than before, maybe in part because of the scale of the museum space makes them feel a bit lost and also because they’ve been installed near a big window that floods them with light; these are works that crave a domestically scaled environment and whose depths would actually be more apparent under less brilliant illumination.

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