Six Reasons Why the Whitney Biennial Matters

Matthew Israel
Mar 5, 2014 2:26PM

On March 7th, the 77th Whitney Biennial will open its doors to visitors in New York. Why should you attend, and why is the Biennial important? Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t miss it:

#1: It’s the most prominent and consistent statement of “what’s happening” in American Art.

Every two years the museum puts together the Biennial to take stock of contemporary American art—to say something about what artists are doing in this country, right now. 

While on one hand—in, the words of past curators, Francesco Bonami and Gary Carrion-Murayari—these exhibitions have “always [been] imperfect mirrors of their time, reflecting a subjective interpretation of American Art at any given moment,” they are usually the strongest attempt by a museum or arts organization to ask the very big, daunting question of how to define American Art in the United States at this present moment. Other institutions have annuals, triennials and biennials—but they’re not focused on American Art, and this domestic focus is arguably a harder challenge. Also, countless artists have garnered their first major critical attention because of the Whitney Biennial, which has a history of presenting new art forms and debuting artists to the public before they have ever been seen in other museum exhibitions. So, in short, the Biennial is an attempt to say what is now and what is new.

#2: The Biennial has deep historical roots and should be recognized as one of the major reasons behind the success of American Art in the 20th century.

The Whitney only occasionally discusses the Biennial’s history—such as in the catalogue for the 2010 show—but it is a long and incredibly impressive history, inextricably tied to the development of art in the United States. 

The museum itself (founded in 1931) has been one of the major forces, if not the primary force, behind the promotion of American Art in the 20th century. And the Biennial—begun in 1932 as an annual exhibition of American artists in the museum’s original home (a townhouse on West 8th Street, which had furniture and curtains on the windows)—has been one of their major venues for the promotion of American Art long before anyone cared about it. It’s worth remembering that until the postwar period, European art dominated the galleries and museums of the United States. American artists, in turn, consistently struggled for attention and legitimacy.

Early on, the museum even went so far as to directly encourage the sale of works within these annual exhibitions, advertising their availability; there was even a special agent assigned to manage sales during the show. In addition, artists’ addresses were published in the catalogs for potential buyers to contact them and, for a period of time, the museum also paid fees to artists for works submitted.

#3: The Biennial gives us a consistent opportunity to discuss the unequal demographics of the art world.

The exhibition’s diversity—in terms of both race and gender—is always discussed and dissected, and this is entirely understandable, since the exhibition presents itself as a statement on America art today. Sometimes these conversations have led to protests. For example, in 1987, the Guerrilla Girls protested the show for its alleged sexism—only 24% of the show’s artists were women—as well as its racism. They also created their own alternative exhibition at the Clocktower Gallery. (Notably in 1989, at the following Biennial, the museum substantially increased the percentage of women to 40% of the 70 artists exhibiting.) 

This year’s show has not been immune to criticism. While it calls itself “one of the broadest and most diverse takes on art in the United States that the Whitney has offered in many years,” it has taken some heat for the fact that of its 118 participants, only 38 are women and 9 are black.

The representation of minorities will consistently be at issue, and while one can always find the museum at fault, it should also be applauded for taking the difficult step of regularly even trying to represent the diversity of the art world, something no other American institution can claim.

#4: It’s always interesting to see how the Whitney deals with its identity as a museum of American Art in an increasingly globalized art world.

While at first the Whitney’s identity as a museum of American Art was an anti-establishment call-to-arms for the recognition of homegrown artists, since the 1980s, as the art world has become increasingly globalized, it has had to often re-examine its identity. For example, this year, the Whitney’s definition of Americanness “means artists whom live and work in the territory," suggesting that artists could only be temporarily in the United States or who identify more strongly with another country. However, this—to use the words of the museum—creates "an international profile though it is a national survey show of the country.”

#5: It’s the last one in the Breuer Building

If you’re partial to the Whitney’s Brutalist masterpiece by Marcel Breuer, you should know this will be the last Biennial housed in the building. The museum will move to its new space, designed by Renzo Piano, in 2015 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be using the Whitney’s Breuer building for the next eight years (from 2015) to show its collection of modern and contemporary art. 

#6: It’s always good to remind ourselves that major institutions have not always been what they are now—and looking at the Biennial’s history is a good reminder of this.

For example, while we currently know the Whitney Biennial as an invitational exhibition with guest curators and a theme, it has not always been this way. Here’s a few interesting ways in which the exhibition has changed over time:

-In the first decade, artists were invited to select their own works, which continued until it was observed that they would characteristically lean towards works that were for sale.

-At first the shows were annuals, then beginning in 1937, the museum held two annuals—painting in the fall and sculpture and other media in the spring. In 1959, the museum slowed its pace, alternating between painting and sculpture each year. Then in 1973 the shows were consolidated into a single exhibition that would feature all mediums, and what we know now as the Whitney Biennial began to take shape.

-From the 1930s through the 1960s, the same artists would often be shown again and again and again—something unseen in the modern Biennials. For example, from the start of the exhibitions through the 1960s, Georgia O’Keefe appeared 22 times, Charles Sheeler was in 29 of the exhibitions, and Raphael Sawyer was in 38. Other artists like Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Reginald Marsh, John Sloan, and many other artists also exhibited every year until their deaths. This evinced the Whitney’s allegiance to artists first affiliated with and collected by the museum. It also showed that, unlike other New York institutions of the period focused on abstraction as the only mode of modern and contemporary art and the only style worthy of critical attention, the Whitney believed in the ability of figurative and realist works to coexist with abstract art. This, in many respects, parallels the more pluralist attitude of the art world today.

Hopefully this has given you a few reasons
to not miss what is sure to be an engaging exhibition. And there’s plenty of time, as the show will be up through May 25th. 

Explore the Whitney Biennial on Artsy

Matthew Israel