A Show So Nice, the NY Times Reviewed It Thrice: The Whitney’s Bifurcated Biennial

In what would seem to be a new technique for explicating an exhibition that’s exasperatingly inexplicable, the NY Times gave three critics—Jason Farago, Travis Diehl and Martha Schwendener—a shot at trying to make sense of “Even Better Than the Real Thing” (EBTTRT, for short)—perhaps the most confusing and confused iteration (in my decades-long professional lifetime) of the Whitney Museum’s 81-show Biennial series.

Maybe this critical overkill was one way of making up for the loss of the singular (and irreplaceable) Roberta Smith, who had just announced her retirement from her long, distinguished tenure as co-chief art critic of the NY Times.

Roberta Smith

Taking this critical shuffle a step further, Artnet saw fit to post an unilluminating dialogue between its national art critic (since 2016), Ben Davis, and contributor Danielle Jackson. This back-and-forth commentary struck me as more inane than insightful:

Jackson: I’m interested in the potential political argument that’s being made and less about what the works are and what’s interesting and what’s not and how it all hangs together.

Davis: This is a show that lends itself to this feeling like, “Did I get that?” It feels very indistinct and you have to spend a lot of time for it all to appear to you.

Jackson: [The title of the show–“Even Better Than the Real Thing”] is a lot more cheeky than the work feels to me.”

Davis: A lot of taking up space to say very little seems to be a trend. [We can only hope not!]

At a time when AI is flooding the Internet with fake images, misleading “scholarship” and dangerous misidentifications of people and events, the Biennial’s EBTTRT subtitle is right for all the wrong reasons. The undermining of “the Real Thing” by what convincingly seems real compromises the trustworthiness of everything from politics to scholarship to relationships. To my mind, this is a development to be feared, not celebrated.

That said, Davis’ review of the show, which I read before the two-critic debate hit Artnet’s website, struck me as one of the most astute critiques of EBTTRT that I had come across.

Ben Davis, Artnet’s National Art Critic

In its introduction to Ben’s dialogue with Danielle, Artnet linked to Davis’ (above-linked) review of the Biennial, but posted no link to Jackson’s take. Whether that omission was accidental or deliberate is anyone’s guess.

Here’s an excerpt from Davis’ review, which conveys the general confusion:

Ambiguity—intentional and unintentional—permeates the 2024 Whitney Biennial….The artists here seem to both claim art as a form of resistance and feel all resistanced out. Which fits the moment where art’s core audience seems both transfixed by politics and exhausted, oscillating between urgency and futility.

After attending the Mar. 12 press preview of EBTTRT (which, in itself, was the most confusingly organized such event I’ve ever attended), I considered throwing in the towel, admitting that I was too advanced in years and too behind in mindset to “get it.” I could just admit defeat and move on to my next project—perhaps the latest deaccessions from the collections of the Brooklyn Museum and the Met? (As CultureGrrl readers know, deaccession analyses are my sub-specialty.)

But it gradually dawned on me that, for all the wrong reasons, EBTTRT (to Aug. 11) uncannily captures the current zeitgeist (as Davis suggests). This is the Biennial of ambiguities, in which all matters of identity—professional, political, sexual—are hard to pin down. What’s more, the show’s muddled rollout under the museum’s new director, Scott Rothkopf (who in 2015 replaced the irreplaceable Donna De Salvo as the Whitney’s chief curator) is something I’ve never before encountered at a major museum.

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Donna De Salvo with then Whitney director Adam Weinberg at the press preview for 2014 Whitney Biennial
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For one thing, I didn’t encounter a single administrator or curator in the galleries during my entire visit to the press preview. An “updated” press release had told us that “due to a high volume of RSVPs, we will be altering the format of the preview to be an open house.” The customary formal remarks by museum officials were dispensed with, and the galleries were not particularly crowded, notwithstanding the supposed “high volume of RSVPs”:

Cannupa Hanska Luger, “Uŋziwoslal Wašičuta” (a Lakota phrase meaning “the fat-taker’s world is upside down”)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Like too many of the works in the show, this gossamer hanging came weighed down with a lot of accompanying verbiage to clarify the artist’s intention. As its catalogue entry informs us, it is intended to be an upside-down view of a tipi, though which the artist, Cannupa Hanska Luger, “celebrates Native technologies by using the shape of a tipi—a word that the artist has also turned into an acronym, standing for Transportable Intergenerational Protection Infrastructure” [!?!]. Luger looks at the complex structure as an example of the innovations created by his ancestors of the Northern Plains tribes. Luger’s materials, such as deadstock fabric, found objects, and clay, reflect the artist’s commitment to sustainability and reuse.”

No long-winded explanation is needed to convey the visual dazzle of Suzanne Jackson‘s “deepest ocean…”—one of her several suspended “translucent sculptural paintings,” as the catalogue calls them. But the complicated titles and the lists of eclectic materials that went into their creation are more eyebrow-raising than illuminating:

Suzanne Jackson, “deepest ocean, what we do not know, we might see?”—acrylic, acrylic gel medium, acrylic detritus, buckram/crinoline, shredded mail, deer netting, textile pieces, wood and D-rings
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In a photo-finish with Jackson’s work as CultureGrrl’s Biennial First-Place Winner was a very different entry that resonated with my historical perspective on art-museums in general and the Barnes Foundation in particular—Isaac Julien‘s five-screen video installation—“Once Again . . . (Statues Never Die),” which (as described by the Whitney) “reflects on the life and thought of Alain Locke, philosopher, educator, and cultural critic of the Harlem Renaissance.” According to the Whitney’s description, Locke had “urged members of the African diaspora to embrace African art in order to reclaim their cultural heritage.”

Julien’s videos unite Barnes (1872-1951) and Locke (1885–1954) in their appreciation of African art, which figures prominently in the Barnes’ permanent installation. In reality, the two (both played by actors) knew each other, but had a falling out, as described in Amy Cohen’s 2021 article—Alain LeRoy Locke: Father of the Harlem Renaissance and Philly LGBTQ Hero. As described in the Whitney’s label, the two debated about: “Who gets to define Black modernism? Who has the authority to speak? How do men negotiate power or queer desire?”

Arthur Lubow, in a 2022 NY Times review, noted that the Barnes Foundation, for its centenary, had commissioned Julien, “a Black English artist,” to create this black-and-white film installation. Lubow noted that “the patronage of Black art by a white millionaire is complicated, then as now. The acquisition of cultural artifacts from a society that is subjugated or impoverished raises ethical questions.”

Scenes from Isaac Julien’s five-screen video installation
Photos by Lee Rosenbaum

Locke also figures prominently in the Metropolitan Museum’s current Harlem Renaissance exhibition, where the introductory wall text and the installations highlight “cross-cultural affinities and exchanges.” As described by the Whitney, Locke “urged members of the African diaspora to embrace African art in order to reclaim their cultural heritage.” The Whitney’s installation highlights the cross-cultural resonances among works in Albert Barnes’ collection. The actor playing the role of that savvy collector, who commingled in his galleries Impressionist and modern masterpieces with historic African art, nods appreciatively at Locke’s pronouncements.

But back to the muddled rollout of this edition of the Whitney’s signature show: It was an unfortunate debut for the museum’s recently promoted director, Scott Rothkopf, who, as the senior deputy director (having joined the Whitney as curator in 2009), should have been able to hit the ground running. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by what seemed to be my newly elevated status when I received an emailed “Artist and Curator Information Packet,” inviting me to VIP events in which I had not previously been included, including an Artists’ Party and two cocktail receptions at the opening.

But my enhanced position was short-lived. An email titled, “UPDATED INFO” hit my inbox four days later, inviting me to access the “updated press release,” which informed me that “there will be no formal remarks” at the press preview but added, “Our 2024 Whitney Biennial co-organizers Meg Onli and Chrissie Iles will be available in the galleries from 10 am–1 pm to field questions and speak with journalists.” (They may have been there, but I never encountered them. No “Artists’ Party” for CultureGrrl.) The updated announcement invited me to click a link for more information. (If you click it now, you’ll see that the link has evidently expired.)

All of which is to say: The Whitney’s new regime seems to have a learning curve. Here’s hoping for better days (and better Biennials) to come.

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