Is It Time to End the Whitney Biennial?

Darren Jones

With the Whitney Museum’s announcement of its 2021 Biennial curators the storied exhibition’s next iteration has juddered into production. But should it continue? From its inception, Biennial organizers have made grandiose claims about representation that they had no way–or intention–of realizing. Nevertheless, it became and remains the preeminent survey of art-making in The United States. It is the most prestigious exposition in the country for artists, lately posturing as “an unmissable event for anyone interested in finding out what’s happening in art today.” But suppose one is not in New York or cannot afford to visit. The Whitney’s claim suggests that its leaders think most Americans will remain ignorant of what matters in art, inadvertently betraying what the contemporary art ecosystem, of which the Whitney is a major part, thinks of the public it supposedly serves.

The Biennial is not “unmissable.” It does not, and cannot, begin to scratch the surface of America’s immeasurable creative diversity, let alone distill it into a single event. Nor does the Biennial elevate the most exciting or interesting art in America. Individual taste precludes any consensus of artistic worth, though the Whitney Museum has insisted on its favorites for a very long time.

In 1932, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney established two Biennials, which split mediums across alternating years–one for painting, and one for sculpture, drawing, and prints. In 1937, the Biennials were rebranded as the Annual, still dividing mediums over a two-part exhibition which took place at the beginning and end of the year. Practically speaking, they were separate exhibitions. From 1957, there was only one yearly exhibition until 1973, when the current bi-annual format began.

 From the start, The Whitney Museum has purported to “look to artists to lead us forward,” which sounds noble and humble. However, a close examination of the Biennial’s eighty-seven-year history shows an extraordinary effort to do just the opposite. Its handlers have always sought to dictate who would “lead us forward,” making some staggering commitments to their preferred artists. Nepotism first reared its head with the work of Whitney herself; a noted sculptor, her work appeared in seven Biennials during the first decade. Between 1932 and 1969, painter Isabel Bishop participated in forty-three Annuals and Biennials, including an astonishing run of thirty-one consecutive years. Paul Cadmus appeared thirty-seven times while Adolph Gottlieb was featured in thirty-two exhibitions; both artists enjoyed consecutive sixteen-year runs. Edward Hopper was selected on twenty-nine occasions; Charles Sheeler and Stuart Davis appeared twenty-seven times. Robert Motherwell (twenty-five); Georgia O’Keeffe (twenty-one); Philip Guston (twenty); Willem de Kooning (eighteen) (Elaine de Kooning was included just once); and Louise Bourgeois (eighteen). Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock, Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein, and dozens of other well-known artists have received multiple invitations.

 Such numerous appearances helped propel these artists into the Western art canon, creating a partial but powerful story of twentieth-century American art, while occupying hundreds of Biennial slots that could have been offered more equitably. No matter how unknown or inaccessible regional scenes were or how important New York was becoming, arguably no artists were so vital to justify such intense feting. But the Whitney was not concerned with being a museum of American art; it only needed to be a museum of some American art. It functioned as a factory for the production of American stars to rival Europe’s icons. Whether those artists epitomized the truth of life and art in the United States–race, sexuality, gender, class–was of little interest to curators. The irony of the Whitney Museum of American Art is that it ignores most American art entirely. Each era and movement was funneled through a set of preselected practitioners–usually straight, white males–who constituted the minimal number of figureheads required to secure the museum’s narrative control. 

 During the 1970s, the Biennial professionalized. Directors’ forewords and curatorial statements became longer, and social context was broadened. The focus turned away from insubstantial themes toward aspects of production and art that caused the most “creative excitement,” a phrase vague in meaning. The number of artists in each Biennial was halved, from an average of 160 in the 1950s and 60s to approximately eighty during the 1980s and 90s. This had the effect of making the event even more exclusive. The 1975 Biennial avoided familiar names, with the catalog noting that its artists “have not become known through participation in previous Whitney Biennials.” The statement was a monumental rejection of its past and showed that the Whitney was at least trying to make good on its unwieldy promises, likely in an attempt to remain relevant.

 But by the very next Biennial in 1977, curators (often retained for a petrifying number of years) were reverting to former exhibitors–John Baldessari, Richard Serra, Chuck Close. 1977 was also the first year of corporate sponsorship. Could there be a connection? In that year’s catalogue, Director Tom Armstrong wrote, “Artists who received extensive public attention in the 1960s are not in the exhibition.” He must have been unaware that one contributor, Agnes Martin, had been in three consecutive Biennials from 1963 to 1967.

 The Biennial continued to modify in the late 1980s, by rotating lesser-known artists. But it was still addicted to its darlings, with Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, and other perennials cropping up multiple times between the early 1990s and the early 2010s. Only with the most recent Biennials does it seem that the Whitney has thrown off the yoke of hero-worship and embraced a more reflective portrait of American art and artists. That said, it is too soon to know if this approach will become consistent.

A rather muddled sense of what its role should be still hampers the Biennial: it contends everything while terrified to define anything. In 2010, a Biennial missive blandly insisted that its artists provided “diverse responses to the anxiety and optimism characteristic of this moment.” In 2014, then Senior Curator Donna De Salvo, referring to the curators’ choices, hedged that there was “little overlap in the artists they have selected, and yet there is common ground.” The 2019 Biennial took, its organizers claimed, “the pulse of the contemporary artistic moment.” They should have called 911.

 A truer appreciation of art in America won’t be possible while the Whitney Biennial exists in its current form, for several reasons: by highlighting, it obscures; its reputation is too massive, bending the larger field of vision through its limited predilections; the often middling quality of work shown is insulated from detractors by a shroud of New York glamor; it is lavished with disproportionate, undeserved critical attention that is spun into aesthetic authority; and it pretends public appeal, but actually traffics in elitist disdain for any tastes but its own. An infinitesimal fraction of artists in America (around 3600) have been featured since 1932. And only a small percentage of them have become known. If the majority of this group received only fleeting attention, perhaps it’s not artists but the Whitney Museum itself that is the principal beneficiary of its own Biennial.

The passage of time has left a patina of jurisdiction on the Biennial that compels acquiescence to its aesthetic judgments and assertions. But its methods and outcomes are incongruous with a digital age when artists do not need to live in urban centers to find opportunity, and when, throughout America, there are art scenes more suited to agitation, ingenuity, and sustainability than a large metropolis. If the Biennial is to persist, it ought to be moved outside of New York and into the America it claims to reflect. The Biennial cannot expect to retain its mantle while remaining headquartered in the least creatively viable, most artistically parochial city in the country.

Each edition of the Biennial could travel to different constituencies that it has overlooked. And if the Whitney Museum of American Art itself were to be relocated to Alabama, Maryland, or Kentucky it might then begin to live up to the representation that its name suggests. Can it be done? (It already has) Otherwise, the Biennial will continue to perpetuate the most sclerotic aspects of a myopic apparatus advancing an irresponsible, fraudulent construction of art history, infected by dismissal and prejudice.

 To take it one step further, imagine that the Whitney Biennial no longer existed. Ultimately, its absence would cause no lasting deficit to anyone. If its resources were divested into expansive new initiatives, more agile, inclusive, and experimental platforms could emerge. Innovative investment allied with authentic outreach—geographically and socially—would encourage a more democratized national framework. Then the Whitney Biennial’s demise would not be cause for dismay, but optimism.