On the Whitney Biennial

March 1, 2014

By Ada Potter

People always complain and find fault with the Whitney Biennial. But it seems to me too easy to pick apart a show that sets for itself such an impossible task. Accurately depicting the totality of relevant, american art today is an inherently impossible endeavor. Therefore, it always feels to me life a low blow when I see the critics descend on the Whitney. The artists are too old, mid career or dead. The spectacle is simply a feeder for the market. The floors were too crowded etc. All this may be true and I am not saying critically isn’t important in approaching this institutional endeavor. Seeing where curators missed or failed is productive, but I also see the need to acknowledge the first-attempt-ness of the project.

The Biennial is a first shot at forming a collective consciousness. I am purposefully avoiding the term canon, which necessitates exclusion. Hopefully, the Whitney is not setting a militant course using discursive weaponry, although this may have happened in the past. I say collective consciousness to point to the community forming involved in this large group exhibition. The biennial allows young artists, like myself, to see what other artists, working today, are thinking about. I approach it with this attitude. who and what can I learn from this huge collection of current art? This pedagogical model allows me to walk through the show absorbing what resonates with me. I don’t need to read every wall text, but if an object demands my attention I can stop and study it. This subjective, self-selecting approach gives viewers agency and space even within the packed galleries.

This is one of the reasons Michelle Grabner’s floor is so compelling. In her curatorial statement she states “Although it may be far-reaching to think that a Whitney Biennial could be organized as a curriculum for other artists, aiming at pedagogy seemed a worthy ambition.”

Another weakness of the criticism I hear is its contradictions. One year the show has excluded and overlooked numerous artists and the next the show is not rigorous in it’s selections or too pluralist. Curators are damned either way. This year three Curators took a stab at showing American Art today.