Whitney Biennial Hits the Books
by Pac Pobric
The Art Newspaper
Publishing is a theme this year of the sprawling survey of contemporary art
New York. Critics have not always been kind to the Whitney Biennial, which opens its latest edition in New York this month. In 1946, when it was still an annual event, the essayist Clement Greenberg began his review by saying that it was “no worse than last year’s— which amounts almost to an improvement, since each of the Annuals in the three or four years previous had been worse than the one before it”. Around 40 years later, Robert Hughes saw the work of the 1985 show’s youngest artists as “loud and, except in its careerism, invincibly dumb”. The 1993 edition, an unabashedly political one, included work by Daniel Joseph Martinez, who distributed badges to museum-goers that read: “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white”. In the New York Times that year, Michael Kimmelman said he presumed that “many have left the biennial, as I have, feeling battered by condescension”. And even before the 2014 edition opened, it had its detractors. The Huffington Post, for example, groaned that the show did not include enough minorities or women.
But this year’s biennial is difficult to pin down. With 103 participants, it is not the largest show in its history (the 1973 edition, for example, included 221), but its artists span the aesthetic gamut: painters, sculptors, performers, photographers, novelists, poets, appropriation artists and even one publishing house, Semiotext(e). Age does not bring the artists together either. The youngest two, Tony Lewis and Jacolby Satterwhite, each turn 28 this year, as the oldest, Etel Adnan, celebrates her 89th birthday. And although the show is being organised by three curators (Michelle Grabner, Anthony Elms and Stuart Comer), some of the artists involved are using the work of other artists in their own practice.
Can a show this sprawling amount to much more than a broad survey of contemporary art? “When it comes down to it, that is what it is,” Elms says, adding that any curatorial idea for the biennial is “loose, and I would be hard pressed to say that the artists I chose stay close to a line I might give”. But publishing is a theme that carries throughout: one of the artists she has chosen is the late American author David Foster Wallace, who will be represented by two research notebooks used in the preparation of his unfinished, posthumous 2011 novel The Pale King.
The theme is not restricted to novelists. For his part in the show, the artist Matthew Deleget has constructed a 20ft-long vitrine filled with books purchased at museum bookstores at discounted prices. In many instances, the books are on artists seemingly discarded from the art historical narrative. “It’s almost like raising the dead in some cases,” Deleget says.
It is an apt analogy: books speak to us from the past, having already been written. But publications are only one theme among many at this year’s biennial, and the central concern of the curators is that the work speaks for itself, one object at a time.
42 discounted & discarded art publications, vitrine
Site-specific installation for the Whitney Museum