New York

View of the Whitney Biennial, 2014. From left: Joel Otterson, Camp, 2014; Joel Otterson, Curtains Laced with Diamonds Dear for You, 2014; Sheila Hicks, Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, 2013–14; Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Notley, 2013. Hanging, from left: Joel Otterson, 187 Bottoms Up, 2013; Joel Otterson, 84 Bottoms Up, 2013. Photo: Chandra Glick.

View of the Whitney Biennial, 2014. From left: Joel Otterson, Camp, 2014; Joel Otterson, Curtains Laced with Diamonds Dear for You, 2014; Sheila Hicks, Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, 2013–14; Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Notley, 2013. Hanging, from left: Joel Otterson, 187 Bottoms Up, 2013; Joel Otterson, 84 Bottoms Up, 2013. Photo: Chandra Glick.

the Whitney Biennial

View of the Whitney Biennial, 2014. From left: Joel Otterson, Camp, 2014; Joel Otterson, Curtains Laced with Diamonds Dear for You, 2014; Sheila Hicks, Pillar of Inquiry/Supple Column, 2013–14; Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, Notley, 2013. Hanging, from left: Joel Otterson, 187 Bottoms Up, 2013; Joel Otterson, 84 Bottoms Up, 2013. Photo: Chandra Glick.

I SUSPECT THAT VERY FEW PEOPLE in the art world—whether artists, curators, dealers, or collectors—expect the Whitney Biennial to present an absolute version (or even a vision) of the current state of affairs. Nor do many of us think that any genuine discoveries will be made. (As you can see, like so many others, I am skirting the crucial question of whom these exhibitions are for.) Sure, we might see work by someone we didn’t know, but in today’s hypermediated art scene, no one actually expects to be bowled over by anything “new.” This makes a kind of sour sense, since the new as a value was pretty thoroughly debunked in the twentieth century and, well, here we are in the twenty-first. So, too, the idea that the Whitney Biennial—or any biennial, really—would offer the “best” art of the past two years seems as old-fashioned as ordering an egg cream in a New York deli. Most of us have given up on the idea of the best, ever since Duchamp, Conceptualism, and identity politics made the concept of universal aesthetic criteria pretty much untenable. But who can get maudlin about it? Better to watch the roundtables on the demise of criticism gather digital dust.

It’s a tired situation, one brought about by the truism that the demise of the critic supposedly catapulted the curator—or even worse, “the curatorial”—to the putative center of things. Today, the curator is the personality who makes judgments—in a field without criteria for them—and presents her findings (preferably as a result of peripatetic travel) in a public forum. When it was announced that the 2014 Whitney Biennial would involve three different curators, none of whom work at the museum, each organizing his or her own exhibition on a separate floor, this seemed a canny assessment of the current condition. No more teamwork, no more institutionally sanctioned judgment, no more full-time salaried employees. Instead, we were offered the specter of three distinct personalities—all of whom are white, well known, and highly regarded for work done outside New York—which set the stage for an exploration of contemporary curating as much as of the state of artists’ studios. In this regard, the exhibition did not disappoint, as it permitted a fairly gimlet-eyed view of things: three different groups of artists (with no overlap!), three different modes of presenting the work in the catalogue, and three nominally different sets of aesthetic and/or political concerns. I say nominally because, in truth, I came away from the exhibition thinking that it privileged similarity over difference—an experience that confirmed my nagging sense of the paucity of, dare I say, “rigor” within the contemporary curatorial field.

I went through the exhibition from top to bottom, assuming that each floor would be as dissimilar in look, feel, and affect as the curators, and the artists they had chosen, were from one another. And there are indeed differences: Michelle Grabner’s floor feels like a messy loft party, where a few different generations of folks—1980s Pictures artists, old-time ’70s feminist painters, and today’s “artists’ artists,” in my crude reduction—keep bumping into one another, not knowing whether or not it’s appropriate to flirt across party lines. So a room with Gretchen Bender and David Diao gives way to a room where Amy Sillman’s investigation of abstraction is within spitting distance of Dona Nelson’s deconstruction of the definition of painting. On Stuart Comer’s floor, works that pay close attention to the convergence of performative practices, politics, transgender identities, and general queerness sit cheek by jowl. Comer doubled down on fluid identities with work by A. L. Steiner and Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst and did the same when it came to artists or groups such as Julie Ault and Triple Canopy, who here deploy the exhibition as their medium. Anthony Elms’s section traffics in big, unruly ideas (e.g., self-immolation, literature, the archive) rendered in cool conceptual gestures; the atmosphere is complete with the requisite black boxes for video projection and small rooms dedicated to idiosyncratic individual pursuits (Public Collectors and Joseph Grigely’s presentation of the Gregory Battcock Archive). Elms’s floor seemed sparer than the other two, until I realized that big-ticket items on other floors, such as Zoe Leonard’s camera obscura and a sprawling My Barbarian installation, were part of Elms’s selection but were allowed to behave as if they weren’t.

Given that the artists are so different on each floor, it is bewildering how similar each mode of presentation is. To my eye, the floors all looked and felt overwhelmingly the same, so much so that I tried to imagine how I would explain to a non-art-world-professional how and why they weren’t. After a while, the entire thing blurred together and the experience started to feel more like a trial of endurance—one I associate with art fairs and trips to IKEA—than the authored (even if that authorship is subject to critique and complication) and calibrated experience that I long for in a museum exhibition. Throughout, art is installed with little attention paid to traditional curatorial gestures like sight lines or something as old-fashioned as emphatically placed works on “major” walls. (Remember William Rubin’s hyperbolic installation of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, alone on its own wall at MoMA, offered as a watershed moment in the history of twentieth-century art?) I was hard-pressed to glean meaning, much less frisson or distinction, from juxtapositions of works in any of the three sections. Frequently, the arrangements feel arbitrary: Why are Steiner’s experiments with twenty-first-century sexuality and the logic of the iPhone image installed across from Morgan Fisher’s architectural model–cum–sculptural investigation of the definition of a room? What does interspersing the conventional figuration of Elijah Burgher with the run-of-the-mill porn fetishism of Gary Indiana tell us about either well-worn form of picture-making?

When placement does appear to be a conscious consideration, affinity seems to be the guiding principle, as when objects that are formally similar are brought into proximity, like Joel Otterson’s hanging beaded curtain visually rhyming with Sheila Hicks’s suspended cords of color. At other times, the affinities are structural, so when Keith Mayerson’s room of floor-to-ceiling paintings smoothly segues into a room of Ault’s preciously arranged fragments of material history, the viewer is ostensibly made aware that installation as such is not a given. Yet when such formal and structural likenesses do occur, they more often than not border on pseudomorphology, bringing together things that look alike but that in fact perform radically different operations and possess diverse historical and social contexts. This all leads me to feel that the curators did not actively engage in one of curating’s most hallowed acts: the creation of meaning through placement.

The art of hanging pictures, to steal a phrase from Kerry James Marshall, is a bit like the craft of using words to make sentences, which in turn cohere into paragraphs, which accumulate in the service of an idea. It is part didactic instruction, part ineffable feeling about what things work well together. Both rely on the principle that the space between pictures is not neutral, that the pictures themselves are not autonomous (unless they are placed in a way to suggest that), and that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Historically, in Western museums, arrangements of works thus took the form of curated rooms that were frequently nationalistic in nature; often they were teleological, championing some linear narrative of cultural progress. And these are the aspects of museology that came under justifiable scrutiny during the days of institutional critique and identity politics.

But the arrangement of pictures, to steal another phrase, this time from Louise Lawler, wasn’t bound up with master narratives alone. It was also inextricably tied to the primary methodology of art history: that of “compare and contrast.” Famously extolled by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945), compare-and-contrast was the binary system of looking at any two works of art simultaneously (made possible by the advent of the slide lantern), which led, from the nineteenth century onward, to the establishment of art history’s fundamental categories—stylistic shifts, early and late styles, nationalist movements, ideological differences. However it was deployed, the underlying idea was that meaning is built through syntax, that syntax requires difference, and that difference is something to be staged or spatialized or, at the very least, invoked through the act of adjacency.

True, this binary logic tended toward old sawhorses like “progress,” the “canon,” and “genius” (all contrast and no comparison). But I fear we may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater when we sought to debunk and eliminate all forms of binary thinking. In the end, wasn’t what was wrong with binary logic its unthinking production of hierarchies, almost all of which were designed to maintain the status quo? And yet today’s status quo is virulent pluralism. Too many recent exhibitions have taken their installation cues from art fairs and the like, more prone toward leveling than toward difference, more inclined toward the presentation of opinion than toward the dexterity of argumentation.Is there no way that we can imagine holding on to the productive syntactic function of compare-and-contrast? Is there no way we can imagine opening up the binary nature of the gesture to encompass the Barthesian third term? Have we totally given up on art history as the governing methodology, or even the deep structure, of museum exhibitions?

Elms actually suggests as much when he writes in his catalogue essay, “A curator simply needs to listen to artists and be an advocate for what astonishes. The worst would be to try to answer some shapely concern, and art history is far down the to-do list.” I dunno, what’s more astonishing than the history of art? Isn’t paying attention to the history of art a form of “listening to artists”? I’ve been asked to be postfeminist and postracial, do I really have to be post–“some shapely concern”? If astonishment is now its own virtue, is the best way to display it via the logic of sameness and accumulation, a presentational strategy of one thing after another, all the time? Can astonishment not withstand being tested against other forms of astonishment? I feel as old as the hills. But, of course, you only know something is a hill if you already know the difference between the flatlands and the mountains.

The Whitney Biennial is on view through May 25 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Helen Molesworth is the Barbara Lee chief curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston.