New York

View of 2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. From left: Eric N. Mack, Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag—Permanently, 2019; Jennifer Packer, Untitled, 2019; Jennifer Packer, An Exercise in Tendernesses, 2017; Jennifer Packer, Untitled, 2019; Jennifer Packer, A Lesson in Longing, 2019. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

View of 2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. From left: Eric N. Mack, Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag—Permanently, 2019; Jennifer Packer, Untitled, 2019; Jennifer Packer, An Exercise in Tendernesses, 2017; Jennifer Packer, Untitled, 2019; Jennifer Packer, A Lesson in Longing, 2019. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

2019 Whitney Biennial

Whitney Biennial

View of 2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. From left: Eric N. Mack, Proposition: for wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag—Permanently, 2019; Jennifer Packer, Untitled, 2019; Jennifer Packer, An Exercise in Tendernesses, 2017; Jennifer Packer, Untitled, 2019; Jennifer Packer, A Lesson in Longing, 2019. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

THE 2019 WHITNEY BIENNIAL will go down as one of the most consequential in the event’s history—though for reasons that, frankly, make reviewing the art, some of which nearly came off the gallery walls two months before the show’s close, a thorny undertaking. The Biennial is always a critical flash point, and indeed this year’s edition seemed curated to anticipate and respond to the conflict over representation that scarred its predecessor. But even before the 2019 exhibition began, anxious meta-discussion over art’s audiences, its subjects, its spokespeople, and its paymasters had overdetermined the fragile, reparative beauty of this show—which, for all its insistence on the presentness and primacy of the made object, is thoroughly encrusted in a wall of discourse.

Forensic Architecture, Triple-Chaser, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 10 minutes 43 seconds.

On July 25, Warren Kanders, CEO and majority owner of the tear-gas-and-weapons manufacturer Safariland, resigned from his seat as vice-chairman of the Whitney’s board after eight artists requested to withdraw their work in the wake of a renewed call to boycott the show. This stunning event marked the victory of a long campaign for his removal by activists and members of the museum’s staff as well as scholars, critics, and artists. Its implications and consequences are only beginning to be worked through. The questions over toxic philanthropy and institutional funding, the strategy of protest in the cultural sphere, and the increasingly untenable contradictions between art’s hegemonic liberal-left values and its imbrication within structures of oppression and exploitation tremendously out-scale the comparably modest business of the review and might even seem to obviate its traditional task—the critical appraisal of a discrete aesthetic product. What this review can do, however, is put on the record some analysis of the aesthetic and ideological structures, gambits, and compromises of this Biennial: how its curatorial focus and institutional framing responded to new expectations and demands on contemporary art; how its organizers attempted to preempt controversy, while at the same time rendering the show particularly combustible, by emphasizing the ethics of its artists.

Martine Syms, Intro to Threat Modeling, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 4 minutes 32 seconds.

THANK YOU FOR THE SPACE YOU HOLD, declares the large cursive embroidery of Jeffrey Gibson’s patchwork banner Keep on Moving, 2019. Hanging above the ticket desk in the museum’s lobby, this first work encountered by visitors to the Biennial is darned together from slogans of resistance emblazoned against fluorescent orange, magenta, and lime-green grounds. Fragmented messages—SHE SPEAKS UP TO TAKE THEM DOWN; THEY FIGHT FOR CLEAN WATER—optically resolve into a heteroglossic Technicolor palimpsest of an American flag that, in addition to foregrounding the show’s commitment to diversity and inclusion (of the seventy-five participating artists and collectives, half identify as women and the majority as people of color), sets a tone of community and affirmation. Here and throughout the exhibition, these principles are yoked to an ethics of craft and embodied making. “These artists,” curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley write in the catalogue, “stake their claim to the current moment, as if to say I am here, making this now, with my own two hands” (authors’ italics).

Jeffrey Gibson, Keep on Moving, 2019, canvas, cotton, acrylic felt, quilt, nylon thread, cotton thread, glass beads, nylon fringe, Velcro. Installation view. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

Hanging loose from the fifth-floor ceiling, Eric N. Mack’s exuberant textile collage of multipatterned shmattes, Proposition: for Wet Gee’s Bend Quilts to replace the American flag—Permanently., 2019, poses another alternative to the bankrupt exceptionalism of the Stars and Stripes, honoring instead the artistry of black women quilters in rural southwest Alabama. Upstairs, Joe Minter, who was born and lives in that state, presents gothic assemblages of old machine parts, rusty signage, and dime-store rejectamenta that evoke traditions of Southern yard art and resemble the welded mixed-media sculptures of African Village in America, a protean environmental installation the seventy-six-year-old artist began three decades ago in his backyard in Birmingham. Cloistered in their own gallery on the ground floor, the dandified, Art Deco–ish fabrications of Diane Simpson, eight years Minter’s senior, flaunt an austere, hard-edge elegance that might seem opposed to the homespun aesthetics that dominate elsewhere. But they, too, are carefully executed by the artist’s hand and, like the works of Mack and Minter, gesture toward a material culture that has its roots outside art institutions, referring in their forms and titles—such as Jabot and Peplum—to the gendered labor of garment construction.

Daniel Lind-Ramos, Maria-Maria, 2019, metal basin, wooden seat, lamp, tarp, coconuts, palm-tree trunk, steel, rope, beads, fabric, tacks, wood, plastic tubing, steel bars, scissors, wooden box. Installation view. Photo: Ron Amstutz.

For the curators, this turn toward the handmade represents an antidote to the “ubiquity of digital space and the packaged presentation of the self common to it.” Hand-knotted by fair-trade artisans in Pakistan with the image of a static-filled screen, Nicholas Galanin’s tapestry White Noise, American Prayer Rug, 2018, transubstantiates the flickering agita of televisual media—the substrate of so much white resentment and right-wing radicalization—into a devotional object. A similar remediation occurs in Kota Ezawa’s National Anthem, 2018, projected large at the entrance to the fifth-floor galleries. Handpainted cel by cel in pellucid watercolor, the animation depicts Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in silent protest of police killings of unarmed black men. Appropriating footage from multiple football games, the film wrests its source material from the bilious churn of the twenty-first-century culture war, using laborious facture to create an intimate time-based relic of solidarity. Here as elsewhere, the Biennial prompts you to hold a kind of double image in mind: of the thing itself in front of you, and of the painstaking unseen act of making, offered as equally important as what you see.

Kota Ezawa, National Anthem (Buffalo Bills), 2018, watercolor on paper, 11 × 16".

Consider the Biennial catalogue, which the curators assert is not just a record of the show but a necessary window into the worlds of the artists. Each participant is given a space to depict their “Process” via eclectic, sometimes mysterious images of artworks, texts, places, rituals, etc. that influence them. Panetta’s and Hockley’s essays are replete with references to spaces and experiences indexed but invisible in the galleries, such as their visit to the Underground Museum, which organizes art exhibitions and programming like yoga classes and film screenings in the predominantly working-class black and Latinx Los Angeles neighborhood Arlington Heights; or their walk through the hurricane-damaged town of Loíza, Puerto Rico, with local artist Daniel Lind-Ramos, whose queenly figural sculpture Maria-Maria, 2019, draped in a blue FEMA tarp, is gorgeously installed in front of a river-facing window on the museum’s sixth floor. Reading the curators’ accounts, one begins to view their process of research and engagement with the nation’s various art scenes as the exhibition’s central event and the actual show as something of a by-product. “We felt it was important to visit nonprofit artist spaces around the country,” Panetta writes, “especially those that function in ways beyond simply mounting exhibitions—providing residencies and educational programming, serving as important sites for community activity.” As she notes, “A number of artists who themselves lead nonprofits or work as community organizers . . . are among those we selected to appear.”

Ilana Harris-Babou, Reparation Hardware, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 4 minutes 5 seconds.

The passage bespeaks certain assumptions about interpretation and judgment, ones that deliberately blur distinctions between an artist’s standing as a socially engaged or ethical individual and the aesthetic value of their work. Gestures that once might have seemed embarrassingly earnest or crunchy acquire a new currency in this context. But unalienated, craft-based labor doesn’t deliver us from that stubbornly omnipresent digital space; instead, this logic echoes familiar imperatives of neoliberal self-performance and superegoic self-management, which flow between virtual and meat space with ever-diminishing friction. Reverberating across the Biennial’s fifth floor, the looping voice-over of Martine Syms’s Intro to Threat Modeling, 2017, a staccato collage of art-world confabs and paranoid recriminations (“Who’s trying to fuck with me? . . . No one’s gonna profit from me except me”), deliberately amplifies these pressures and anxieties, while Morgan Bassichis’s gelastic, vulnerable stand-up set Nibbling the Hand That Feeds Me, 2019, evinced a sense of wary irony about the reification of identity. “They said we’ll count whatever this is as art if you make a show about Pride,” joked the queer raconteur, who then segued into a withering faux-naïf indictment of the museum’s vassalage to Kanders, whose company’s tear gas is used on migrants at the US-Mexico border and on protesters around the world, from Ferguson, Missouri, to Istanbul’s Gezi Park. (Notwithstanding Kanders’s spectacular exit from the museum, it’s important to bear in mind that Safariland products continue to be used as tools of state violence and repression.)

For all its insistence on the presentness and primacy of the made object, the show is thoroughly encrusted in a wall of discourse.

Kanders’s role as vice chairman of the Whitney’s board became a subject of intense agitation in the run-up to the show. In November, nearly a hundred Whitney staff members submitted a letter asking for his resignation, a demand later amplified by a petition signed by critics (including myself), academics, and artists (many of them Biennial participants); between January and March, the art activist group Decolonize This Place led weekly demonstrations at the museum. The curators directly addressed the controversy through their inclusion of the interdisciplinary research group Forensic Architecture’s much-written-about video Triple-Chaser, 2019, which also implicates Kanders through another of his holdings, Sierra Bullets, in child deaths and other war crimes in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Superimposed on this debate over funding structures and museum ethics were a series of online skirmishes over art criticism, identity, and representation, touched off by Simone Leigh’s Instagram-based challenge to unnamed white critics who had characterized the Biennial as safe or lacking in “radicality” to question their narrow, racially conditioned frames of reference. In July, three black critics, Ciarán Finlayson, Tobi Haslett, and Hannah Black (who was a key polemicist in the representation-oriented clashes around the 2017 Biennial) coauthored a clear and powerful statement calling on Biennial artists to push for Kanders’s resignation by removing their work from the show. The statement, titled “The Tear Gas Biennial” and published on artforum.com, sharpened the contradictions between “the disembodied, declarative politics of art” and the material politics of its production, patronage, and circulation. “The ease with which left rhetoric flows from art is matched by a real poverty of conditions,” they wrote, “in which artists seem convinced they lack power in relation to the institutions their labor sustains. Now the highest aspiration of avowedly radical work is its own display.” Against holding space, the authors urged the artists to vacate it. (Before Kanders’s resignation, nine participants had dropped out of the show. Michael Rakowitz did so in December; Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin requested that their work be removed on July 19 in a letter published on artforum.com; news of Eddie Arroyo’s withdrawal came that night, followed by those of Agustina Woodgate, Christine Sun Kim, and Forensic Architecture the next day. When Kanders departed on July 25, all but Rakowitz, who had left the Biennial before the list of exhibitors was released, allowed their work to remain on view.) 

Diane Simpson, Lambrequin and Peplum, 2017, painted LDF, crayon on polyester, copper tacks, 109 × 50 × 31".

In his foreword to the catalogue (published in June), embattled Whitney director Adam Weinberg works to suture together the divergent practices of art museums and the rhetoric of the progressive Left. The curators, he writes, “sought to reach beyond the domination of the art market, not so much to develop a counter narrative but in search of authenticity, an unadulterated but not uncomplicated heartbeat of artmaking at this moment.” The institutional quest for a pure, “authentic” art, of course, has a most unfortunate history, and Weinberg’s choice of words seems particularly regrettable, given that many works in the show advance well-established critiques of modernist-primitivist and colonial-ethnographic modes of knowledge and display, from Matthew Angelo Harrison’s resin-encased African antiquities (both real ones and touristic reproductions thereof) to Gala Porras-Kim’s opaque representations of an untranslatable Mesoamerican stele to Iman Issa’s arch collocations of Minimalist sculptures and archaeological labels. Weinberg assures his reader that the works in the show “are utterly lacking in pretension; they reckon with the real and the authentic in a world marked by the fake, the simulated, and the fraudulent.” The line could easily be a quote from one of Ilana Harris-Babou’s videos, which parodically skewer elite habits of redemptive cultural consumption.

Why this turn to sincerity, to the supposedly unmediated and the real? The virtuous, somewhat nervous tone of Weinberg’s prose betrays a delicate instrumentality, leaning heavily on this congregation of citizen-artists to solve, or at least symbolically indemnify against, problems—museological, public-relational, world-systemic—well beyond their individual resources and pay grade. As we have seen, the question of their collective agency, and our own, might be another matter.

Chloe Wyma is an associate editor of Artforum.