At the 2022 Whitney Biennial, Compelling Works Are Overshadowed by an Inaccessible Space

Ayanna Dozier
Mar 31, 2022 5:58PM

Installation view of “Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It's Kept” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Ron Amstutz. Courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY.

Museums are sites for translation. They, unlike galleries, include a sophisticated network of departments that work diligently to make the work accessible to the public. The 80th edition of the Whitney Biennial, “Quiet as It’s Kept,” seems counter to this mandate. Curated with a strong conceptual vision by the Whitney Museum’s DeMartini Family Curator and Director of Curatorial Initiatives, David Breslin, and Engell Speyer Family Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, Adrienne Edwards, this year’s biennial feels inaccessible on multiple levels and leaves one asking exactly who the intended audience is.

Split across the entirety of the fifth and sixth floors of the museum with singular installations occupying the third and first floors, the biennial’s layout seems to take precedence over the art. The primary floors appear as opposites to one another in form, content, and tone. The sixth is a chamber with black walls, dim lighting, and cramped interiors on a carpeted floor. Presented as its opposite, the fifth floor takes advantage of the space’s freestanding, wall-less structure only to present the artworks in a manner reminiscent of an art fair. The works collide with one another in the open space, and lack a thematic organization.

Installation view of “Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It's Kept” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2022. Photo by Ron Amstutz. Courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY.


During opening remarks at the press preview, the curators described their aim of delivering an affective experience that amplified tone and mood, in addition to extending their voices to be in dialogue with the exhibiting artists. While they certainly achieved this effect, the biennial raises some serious accessibility concerns for those who are neurodivergent and not able-bodied.

The exhibition’s strong layouts feel inhospitable to our presence. Both the fifth and sixth floors present obstacles to the mobility of wheelchair users, whereas the sixth floor contains a variety of sensory triggers for those who experience vertigo or are on the autism spectrum. While some of the individual artworks contain signs and are curtained off due to the presence of flashing lights or sensitive content, the overall experience on the sixth floor overwhelms those that are sensitive to dim lighting and impacting sounds.

To be clear, the boldness of Edwards and Breslin’s vision should be commended, but after navigating the space, it’s difficult to not walk away feeling that form and content were in misalignment with the execution—inevitably distracting from their excellent selection of artworks.

Guadalupe Rosales, Winter Solstice / Hazards, 2022. © Guadalupe Rosales. Courtesy the artist; Commonwealth and Council.

And what a gathering of artists who are included in this year’s offering. The 2022 Whitney Biennial delivers on the press release’s promise of crafting an intergenerational and cross-cultural exchange of artistic practices. One standout is Guadalupe Rosales’s hauntingly beautiful photographs of Los Angeles that are exhibited across the fifth and sixth floors.

Rosales’s images evoke wanderlust for roaming amok at night while eerily reminding the viewer of the dangers that lurk in the shadows, specifically for women. The work is both abstract and tangible as Rosales captures communities through location without relying on the physical presence of individual members. These incredible photographs, though, are not aided by the darkness of the sixth floor, which shrouds the detail and adornment casted onto Rosales’s silver frames—an additional layer of the artist’s storytelling, one that evokes L.A. Chicano car culture and performance. And therein lies the running motif of the biennial: Lovingly curated works collide against the spatial demands that undergird the exhibition.

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, still from Permutations, 1976. © University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Courtesy of the Theresa Hak Kyung Cha Archive.

Other standouts include the return of filmmaker and novelist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha through an assortment of her videos and works on paper. Cha, who was murdered in 1982 in an act of gendered and racialized violence, has haunted the art world since her reemergence in 2019 at Performance Space, where a marathon reading of her 1982 novel Dictee was held. Cha’s experimental poetry and video work emphasizes the body as a site of demarcations where gender, race, and class are constantly sliding into one another to determine the visibility of one’s personhood. Cha’s work reveals the ways that racialized bodies are abstracted to make violence against them more permissible.

Lisa Alvarado extends this idea into the realm of painting by using abstraction to grapple with the in-between space of identity. Titled Vibratory Cartography: Nepantla (2021–22)—which means “in between” in Nahuatl, an Indigenous language of central Mexico—the work explores the convergence and disconnect of Mesoamerican legacies. The resulting painting resists complete representation of a person, place, or thing, but allows audiences to configure an image or space for something else.

Lisa Alvarado, a selection from the series Vibratory Cartography: Nepantla , 2021–22. © Lisa Alvarado. Courtesy the artist; Bridget Donahue; LC Queisser; The Modern Institute / Toby Webster Ltd.

James Little’s latest work from his “Black Paintings” series (2015–present) similarly uses abstraction as a way to index cultural identity rather than represent it. Though in the process of creating these pieces, Little still draws upon cultural figures and experiences. Works like these open audiences to more expanded notions of cultural work that is not hinged upon representational likeness or completed narratives.

Abstraction as a space for the political is the running theme for the biennial, for even when representation is foregrounded, the pieces themselves move away from narrative resolution to leave audiences with open-ended answers. We see this in Raven Chacon’s video installation Three Songs (2021), which features American Indian women singing the history of a landscape. The songs themselves collapse time, and narrate a story of the land that encompases its past and future for Indigenous peoples.

James Little, Borrowed Times, 2021. © James Little. Photo by Ron Amstutz. Courtesy the artist; Kavi Gupta Gallery.

Several of the biennial artists are deceased, which includes the aforementioned Cha, poet N.H. Pritchard, installation artist Jason Rhoades, painter Denyse Thomasos, and Steve Cannon, founder of the multicultural interdisciplinary arts organization A Gathering of the Tribes. Edwards and Breslin’s curatorial decision to include the dead is a powerful one, for it uses the space of the gallery as a way to animate their memories. However, within the biennial’s inaccessible layout, death never fully occupies the atmosphere as a felt presence or haunting of remembrance as many of the works convey.

The title of the biennial is also of question here in terms of accessibility. “Quiet as It’s Kept” has a variety of uses within a regional Black Southern feminist politic. During the press preview, Edwards located Max Roach’s, Toni Morrison’s, and David Hammons’s uses of the phrase as sources of inspiration. In the curatorial statement, its meaning is defined as stating something obvious, but what is lost is the specificity of the term’s origins within a Black Southern regional politic around domestic abuse when roughly 6 of the 63 artists included in the biennial are Black Southerners.

Moved by the Motion, still from MOBY DICK ; or, The Whale , 2022. © Wu Tsang. Courtesy of the artists.

The open-ended use of the title brings audiences back to the uneasy relationship that the exhibited works on view have with the biennial’s overarching vision. In the curators’ efforts to prioritize feeling through conceptual ideas or “hunches,” as they described in the curatorial statement, we lose sight of the attention to the body itself and how different bodies might move through gallery spaces to experience those ideas.

The staging of the biennial inevitably obfuscates some of the artists’ narratives and arguments. Again, there are some incredibly evocative works on display—Moved By Motion’s EXTRACTS (2022) and Sable Elyse Smith’s A Clockwork (2021) are nothing short of installation wonders to behold. The shroud of the curation presents a roadblock for audiences who try to meet the artists halfway, not only culturally and intellectually, but more concerning—physically and neurodivegently. The install interferes with how some bodies can occupy and move through the space. The biennial is a constant for the Whitney Museum; it is an exhibition that audiences seek out to tap into the pulse of the now. With these accessibility issues in mind, one cannot help but feel that the pulse for this year’s offering is belabored, and perhaps that’s the point.

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.