A Coherent and Bold Whitney Biennial

The startlingly coherent and bold Whitney Biennial is a material manifesto of late-pandemic institutional culture. Long on installations and videos and short on painting, conventional sculpture, and straight photography, it is exciting without being especially pleasurable—geared toward thought. The innovative, intimately collaborative curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards ignore rather than oppose pressures of the ever-breaking art market, which can see to itself. (The hundreds of contemporary works that are always on view in commercial galleries constitute what might be described as a permanent floating Diurnal.) Delayed for a year by covid-19, the show consolidates a trend that many of us haven’t suspected: a sort of fortuitously shared conceptual sensibility that suggests an in-group but is open to all who care about art’s relations to the wide world. Even the most expressive of the artists who were selected by Breslin and Edwards seem oriented not to personal feelings but to hard facts of common experience. Away with moonbeams. Does the outward-looking spirit serendipitously coincide with the emotional convulsions occasioned by the war in Ukraine? It does for me.

Any concentration on specific works, many of which require lengthy explanation regarding their motives and nuances, should await registration of the show’s collective potency. (I suggest walking through the whole thing quickly, then doubling back to contemplate individual exhibits.) The effect is less cumulative than immediate in each of two main component sections. The museum’s vast, sunny fifth floor has been stripped of interior walls to become an open labyrinth of freestanding sculptures and white-painted wooden frameworks that display smaller pieces. The airy structures, in themselves sculptural, are deleterious to paintings and to anything else pictorial, which crave the serenity of flat walls. But the inconvenience to pictures is justifiable by a one-off (not fungible, I hope), terrific curatorial file. The gist is an orderly tumult of sensations fed by, and feeding, an impression of besetting emergency.

The Whitney’s sixth floor hosts a warren of black-walled spaces that allow for a viewer’s immersion in gnomic creations, several of which function in service to the show’s most overt embrace of identity politics, keyed to the past and present ordeals of Native Americans in ( let’s admit it) settler society, and to some of their enduring folkways and evolving artistic preoccupations. In addition to this focus, there’s an omnipresence on both floors—sometimes pointedly so, but in general matter-of-factly—of artists who define themselves as anything other than heterosexual white males, indicating a potential climax after years of strident agitation for diversity . Provisional togetherness reigns. If that seems utopian, so do the frail but stubborn wishes of many of us for a redemption of our multiply fractured America. We needn’t stop dreaming even when jarred alert by assaultive realities.

Don’t necessarily expect to understand much at a glance. A piece by Rebecca Belmore, an Anishinaabe artist from Canada, “ishkode (fire)” (2021), centers on a representation of a sleeping bag, cast in clay, that appears to cocoon a standing figure not otherwise in evidence. Surrounding it, on the floor, are thousands of small-caliber bullet casings intermixed with copper wire. It is beautiful both before you speculate on its thematic aim and after. I single it out for the glory of painstaking design that typifies scores of works in the show. I fancy that pandemic isolation, at once depriving and disburdening artists of career exigencies, has fostered lonely cultivations of perfection. The Biennial’s title this year, “Quiet as It’s Kept,” is that of a 1960 Max Roach album, and was subsequently employed in Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye,” in 1970, and for a show that was curated in 2002 by David Hammons, the New York provocateur in many mediums. The phrase befits art that, emerging from a spell of obscurity, is as insistent as an unexpected tap on the shoulder.

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Perfect, as a matter of course, are figures, placed outdoors on a fifth-floor terrace, by the commanding Californian sculptor Charles Ray. Hand-formed and then cast or machined in metal, three outsized, seated men—unprepossessing, regular guys, by the look of them—impose a force field of held-breath aesthetic tension and laconic pathos. A few other established stars on hand and in good form include Alfredo Jaar, Ellen Gallagher, Jane Dickson, Nayland Blake, and the late Jason Rhoades. But the bulk of the Biennial is devoted to artists unfamiliar to me, whose outputs run the gamut from hanging fabrics to compact narratives. Of incidental note is proof that video art, after nearly half a century of self-conscious experimentation, has come of age: a camera is as second-nature and ready to hand for many artists now as a pencil or a paintbrush. The scant paintings on view reverse an emphasis on figurative imagery in the 2019 Biennial, tilting toward a lately prevalent revival of abstraction in perfervid styles that have yet to demonstrate staying power.

A collection of photographic works by the Laos-born artist Pao Houa Her both document and poeticize her Hmong family and community in North America. There are fifty-two of the images, and none too many. The sense of an intricately braided history, unfolding in the present while irradiated by memory, left me with an appetite for still more. Such gestation in personal testimony, distanced aesthetically, is another frequent tone of the show. It infuses a poem by the mystically inclined NH Pritchard, a Caribbean-parented New Yorker who was steeped in art history, and was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop, a group of Black writers who met on the Lower East Side in the nineteen- sixties. He died in 1996, at the age of fifty-six. “Red Abstract / fragment” (1968-69) is a lyrical verse text typewritten on a brushy red ground and scribbled with restive cross-outs, revisions, and notes. Its meanings dance at the edge of comprehension, but with infectious improvisatory rhythms.

The quality of personhood turned inside out sings in a poignant film by the South Korean-born Berkeley graduate Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, which is projected on translucent cloth and includes haunting portraits—eyes closed alternating with eyes open—of the artist and of a sister of hers. In 1982, at the age of thirty-one, Cha, a tremendously erudite linguistic philosopher (concerned, she wrote, with “the roots of the language before it is born on the tip of the tongue”) and novelist as well as artist, was raped and murdered in New York, at the Puck Building, by a security guard. She figures in the Biennial as a too-little-recognized progenitor of ideas and forms that are still in play for art and nowhere near exhausted.

It’s not new for the Biennial to include deceased artists who seem relevant to present creative tendencies. The show has served, traditionally, not only to update the public on the state of contemporary art—mostly American, of course, that being a mandate emblazoned in the museum’s name—but also to propose benchmarks and challenges for upcoming generations, even by welcoming some foreign talents of local note. What sets this edition apart, for me, is the determined consistency of its taste in this respect, which avoids the baggy eclecticism that has enfeebled some years’ exhibitions. (Will our city’s art people love the result? Nah. Hating the Biennial is practically a civic duty, or a pledge of un-allegiance, for cognoscenti hereabouts—and bless us for that, as it fuels the contrarian passion that makes New Yorkers crave to be better than… well, whatever you’ve got.) I won’t forget the shock of learning Cha’s terrible fate. I was assailed by it, having first discovered and savored her work by her—stumbling from delight to horror in a few minutes. But the delight abide. Where art is concerned, death need be no more than an inconvenience, and, as in the case of Pritchard, being all but invisible may turn out to have been merely a speed bump.

Even among the living, death broods here and there in the catacomb-like sixth-floor rooms, where it finds explicit reference in my favorite work in the show. Indelibly disturbing and enthralling, “Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word” (2021), by veteran Cuban American artist and singularly plainspoken social activist Coco Fusco, is a gorgeous twelve-minute video exploration of Hart Island—New York’s potter’s field for unidentified or unclaimed corpses. Shots of the artist laboring in a rowboat along its shores are intercut with drone overviews of a really quite lovely place where rows of small stone markers perfunctorily memorialize innumerable lost lives. Beauty stands in for unconsummated mourning. The work can seem to invoke the cascading fatalities of the covid Pandemic and, by chance, the remorseless current carnage in Ukraine, where by the destruction of so many people occasions news headlines as sullen as those stones. To be alive now is to be overwhelmed by a consciousness of the untimely dead, who, in Ukraine, have resigned their parts in a drama of ever more urgent military, political, and humanitarian imperatives. Their silence roars.

On a far less dire but, in itself, weirdly elegiac note is “64,000 Attempts at Circulation” (2021), by the young Queens artist Rose Salane. It consists of tables heaped with incredibly various slugs—metal washers, casino and arcade tokens, religious medals, play money, and what all—that were used as counterfeit bus fare in New York between 2017 and 2019. (Salane acquired them at a Metropolitan Transit Authority auction of unwanted assets.) Call the content misdemeanor populism, representing in each instance the recourse of someone motivated by need or only petty cupidity. Most of those folks, if not including (shh!) ourselves, still walk among us, mute testifiers to the cussedness of humanity chafing at the constraints of law. The disconcertingly handsome ensemble drolly epitomizes this Biennial’s predominant detour, for now, from exalting autonomous art to braving the routine chaos of a world where no kind of comfort or conviction can be sure to persist from one day to the next. ♦

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