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Whitney Biennial: The Most Narcissistic of all New York Art World Events

December From My Window, 1993/Collection of the artist; courtesy Callicoon Fine Arts, New York Photograph by Chris Austen

Does anybody actually remember the Whitney Biennial of two or ten or twenty years ago? I doubt many museumgoers remember any of them very clearly, if indeed they remember them at all. You don’t have to take my word for this. In the catalogue of the 2012 Biennial no less an authority than the Whitney’s very own director, Adam D. Weinberg, observes that “memories are relatively short.” So before I even walk into the 2014 Biennial, which is opening to the public this weekend, I thought I would try and refresh my memory about Biennials past, by pulling out of a closet the thirty years worth of Biennial catalogues that I have salted away.

Collection of the artist. Copyright Stephen Lacy
Academy Records's still from The Bower, 2011-13.

The first thing to be said about the Biennial, which began in 1932, is how astonishing it is that after all these years people still care. Year after year, the critics and sundry cognoscenti conclude that the show is a mess of one kind or another. One year it seems to be a better sort of mess, another year worse, but there is something about the nature of the mess that keeps people coming. As Weinberg observes in the 2012 catalogue, there is a fascination in watching each new set of curators “wipe the slate clean” and “do something that contrasts with the previous one. It’s amazing that even in a short, two-year period, people want to put the prior one behind.” That remark brings us to the enduring electricity of these exhausting events. At least in the last thirty years, it’s become the out-with-the-old-and-in-with-the-new show, which sometimes involves recycling the old things as new things; after all, how much in the world is ever really new? The Biennial is the most purely narcissistic of all New York art world events, an orgy of navel-gazing that can leave a bad feeling—a sense of unease, if not disgust.  

There’s a but-enough-about-me-let’s-talk-about-me slant to a great many of the Whitney catalogues. “How can the Whitney Biennial remain relevant?” the curators asked in 2006. And in 2010, the curators explained that “if the curators of the 1993 Biennial were called to curate the 2006 Biennial, they would have shaped a completely different exhibition than the one they curated thirteen years before.” Jump to the 1993 Biennial and you find David A. Ross, the director of the museum at the time, announcing that the museum is “depart[ing] slightly from the organizing principles that have guided these exhibitions in the past two decades.” Four years later, Lisa Phillips, a Whitney curator, is announcing that the museum is “breaking with precedent,” while the Biennial after that is accompanied by a declaration that the six curators from across the country who have been assigned to organize the show will bring “fresh thinking … to a time-honored but ever-contentious exercise.”  So is it any wonder that when you open the catalogue of the 2014 Biennial you find that “the museum has taken this process of experimentation a step further?” A step, by the way, that sounds an awful lot like steps taken at one time or another in the past, “with two in-house curators acting in the role of advisors and three external curators asked to organize the exhibition.” The Biennial has been reorganized so many times that it’s a miracle it hasn’t been reorganized out of existence.

The Whitney Biennials are restless, unwieldy, banal, belligerent, sporadically engaging, and at times just plain batty. Although they nearly always contain work of some consequence, the overwhelming impression is of anxiety and hysteria, a show that no matter how much it reaches beyond Manhattan tends to reflect the very worst of New York, the city’s vanity and one-upmanship and frenzied zeitgeist readings. It’s a show that demands a reaction, that demands to be new every time. The fever begins with the catalogues themselves, which for at least the past thirty years have been engineered for obsessive distinctiveness. No two are the same size or shape or color, and hardly any one of them can be said to be well designed. 2006 is thick and chunky, “designed and bound so that it can be pulled apart to create ninety-nine posters designed by the Biennial artists.” 2004, big and square and bound in grey velour, is accompanied by a box full of bumper stickers, decals, and assorted pamphlets and goodies by the artists in the show. 2002 sports a bright red CD on its cover, which suggests a high-tech bellybutton.

Courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Photo by Jason Mandella
Charline von Heyl's Folk Tales, 2013. Acrylic, ink, wax, and charcoal and collage on paper.

Back in 1995, when Klaus Kertess organized the Biennial, he titled his introductory essay “Postcards from Babel,” and that will do very nicely as a title for any Biennial of the past twenty years. Kertess, a man of refined sensibilities, thought to include an old-timer, the Abstract Expressionist painter Milton Resnick, in a lineup that emphasized recent stars such as Matthew Barney, Stan Douglas, Carroll Dunham, and Cindy Sherman. Something-old-something-new is a reliable Biennial trope, with this year’s sentimental favorite probably being the eighty-year-old fabric artist Sheila Hicks, whose finest work is very fine indeed. Kertess hoped that there was some kind of mysterious metaphoric language—a language that emphasized “visual plasticity, ambiguity, and multivalence”—that might knit together the Babel of the Biennial. But my exceedingly vague memories of Kertess’s Biennial—refreshed with a look at “War Stories,” an essay I wrote at the time and included in my book Eyewitness—suggests that finally Kertess didn’t do much better than any other curator before or since. I will, though, take Kertess’s hipster aestheticism in 1995 over the emphasis on “the geopolitical, the psychosocial, and the body’s politic” of the 1993 Biennial.

Courtesy of the artist
Alma Allen's Untitled, 2013. Marble sculpture on an oak pedestal.

As for the 2014 Biennial, isn’t it a fact that everybody is approaching the show with the expectation that it’s going to be Babel all over again? Perhaps a somewhat different brand of Babel, but Babel nevertheless. Because this is the last Biennial to be held in the Whitney building designed by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue—the museum moves to new quarters in the Meatpacking District in 2015—there may even be more narcissism and navel-gazing than in some Biennials past. The self-reflexiveness begins with the mottled textures on the cover of the 2014 catalogue. I had no idea that there was some particular significance to these patterns, until I read the catalogue introduction by curators Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner, in which the patterns are said to “come from rubbings of the surfaces of the Breuer building.” This building, much maligned as an upside-down ziggurat when it first opened in 1966, is now regarded by some as an idiosyncratic architectural masterstroke. The “rubbings” from the building’s uneven surfaces (I am quoting the curators) become “a motif meant to ground the reader of the wide-ranging content in the physical facts of the exhibition experience”—a motif that appears not only on the cover but on decorative pages within the catalogue.

Anybody who has followed the Whitney’s furious battle to remodel or reconfigure or entirely reject the Breuer building will be amused by this sudden burst of sentiment. The building is being treated as if it were an old gravestone in a New England cemetery—an object of veneration. The Whitney gang hasn’t even left Madison Avenue and they’re repackaging the building for nostalgia value. That’s certainly in line with the Biennial mentality, which holds that only when you are safely speeding into the future can you afford to look back. As for the curators who are in charge this year, they’re stuck in exactly the same place as every Biennial curator has been for the past thirty years, excited to be “rethink[ing] how American art is understood, articulated, and debated.” One of these eons, the curators might try thinking instead of rethinking.