Originating in 1932, the Biennial is the longest-running exhibition in the country and was introduced by the Museum’s founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Whitney initiated this exhibition as a way to chart the contemporary developments of art in the United States. This goal has been achieved, time and time again and has resulted in the keen description of the Biennial as a “snapshot” of American art.
The idea of a snapshot is reinforced by the range of artists, mediums, and ideas that are brought together in the exhibition. This year, curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley chose to feature seventy-five artists and collectives working in painting, sculpture, installation, film and video, photography, performance, and sound. To do this, Panetta and Hockley toured the country visiting artists in search of what they deemed to be the most important and relevant work during the past year.
While there is a myriad of ideas and techniques present in this exhibition, the cumulative effect is open-ended and thoughtful. Many of the conceptualizations behind the pieces are rooted in sociopolitical concerns and use productive experimentation to relay them and envision positive outlooks on society and themselves. Some of these issues and approaches brought up are explorations of the vulnerability of the body; considerations of race, gender, and equity; mining history to reimagine the present or future; and overall concerns for the community and how artists navigate the world.
Ragen Moss explores the human body in her pieces Driver (2018), Theoloogian (2018), Miner (2019), Shimmier (2018), Figure (2018), Author (2018), Romanettes (2018), Bullfighter (2019), and Ogler (2018). Hung in two rows from the ceiling of the gallery, these pieces appear to be floating torsos. Each piece is made by layering materials and culminating to be an exploration of space. Arranging the pieces in two rows further looks at spatial awareness, specifically to see what it would be like to be a “spatialized human.”
Staying with the idea of spatial exploration, Walter Price uses objects and memories in both figurative and abstract ways challenge perspective. Objects merge together, float above others, or simply seem disconnected. Stemming from past experiences and cultural symbols, Price shifts between everyday realities and invented worlds in his paintings. Whether the painting is monochromatic or extensively pallated, Price sheds light onto social engagement, thoughts of community, and personal interactions.
Tomashi Jackson calls into question community as well, but in a way that also looks into history to consider the present. Her pieces on display, including Hometown Buffet – Two Blues (Limited Value Exercise) (2019) shown here, use found materials to intersect personal, art-historical, social, and legal histories surrounding housing displacement in New York City. In doing so, she also highlights race and equity in New York City. These colorful pieces utilize the bright hues to encourage meditation on painful subjects, such as the razing of Seneca Village in 1857 and the current city government’s program that is gentrifying communities across New York. Jackson lights up her dynamic color clashing to resemble stained glass and engage the viewer in a deep way.
These three artists are just a tiny sampling of the seventy-five exhibiting their pieces at the Whitney Biennial. They help demonstrate the key issues and approaches within the exhibition. Though every artist has their own methodology and rationalization, the current climate of artists across the United States seem to be revolving around similar issues. The physicality of materials are emphasized by the presentation of each piece, which furthers the underlying message the artists aim to get across. All of these artists are brought together by the Biennial, forming a broad array of the contemporary artistic movement happening right now. 2019 is the 79th installment of the Whitney Biennial and closes on September 22nd.