The most significant aspect of this year’s Whitney Biennial is its exhibition design. For the first time since 2016, the museum’s fifth floor has been restored to its Renzo Piano-designed primordial state, forgoing walls in favor of a field of fragmented, Tetris-like half-walls arranged in no discernible order or pattern, bookended by city and Hudson River views. The sixth floor, by contrast, is a funereal warren of black walls and black carpet: a “dark video hallway,” as my friend put it. It’s a mess. But bless this mess; it’s the biennial postponed because of a global pandemic, following the Black Lives Matter protests, and at the dawn of what feels like another world war. With “Quiet as It’s Kept,” curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards peer into the broken mirror of the past three years, gathering shards to figure out what just happened, and where to go from here.
If you take the stairs—climbing up past Rodney McMillian’s wonderfully homoerotic, eighty-foot-tall painting stretched over a column, titled shaft (2021-22)—the first thing you see on the fifth floor is Dyani White Hawk’s shimmery geometric composition, which she and her assistants made out of thousands of glass beads. Wopila | Lineage (2021) references a long-standing Lakota quillwork tradition. It also references Geometric Abstraction (Kenneth Noland and, later, Frank Stella, come to mind), but White Hawk seeks to show that abstraction has long been an integral part of Indigenous art and culture, even if art history was unable to recognize it as such. Installed on the back side of the armature that holds up the White Hawk work are a selection of photographs from Mónica Arreola’s ongoing series about Valle de San Pedro that depict hollow concrete buildings. They look like modernist cubes, yet they derive not from theory but from austerity—these are buildings in Tijuana, where the artist lives, that were left unfinished following the 2008 financial crisis. The pairing of Arreola and White Hawk initiates one of the exhibition’s central explorations, into how contemporary abstraction and politics feed into each other in novel ways.
The works on the fifth floor compete with the architectural noise, and they don’t always win: majestic paintings by James Little and Ellen Gallagher look less grand than usual, more like stuff and less like portals. The only painter who seems to escape this fate is Leidy Churchman, who presents a delightful three-paneled interpretation of Monet’s water lilies, and that’s because it has been literally rolled to the far side of the gallery on its cute little clawed wheels. Artworks in other media seem more at home in this chaos, including Jason Rhoades’s scaffolding piece, Sutter’s Mill (2000), which is partly about misplaced construction work. Ralph Lemon seemed to be most in on this joke: his works, arts-and-crafts-like paintings of circles and other shapes, are irreverently affixed to the inside of his wall segment with push pins. He also embellished his museum label with one of his works, obscuring some of the text. This is performance studies’ revenge on the museum: the curators’ selections look like they are cosplaying as artworks, embarrassed to be discovered like this, hanging in a museum.
If the exhibition design is the most controversial thing about this biennial, then the Whitney is likely breathing a sigh of relief. It’s not as if its other problems have evaporated: the museum union distributed pamphlets at the VIP opening, calling attention to their stalled negotiations, and we can still find objectionable figures on the museum board (a recent piece in Vanity Fair rounds up the remaining questionables). The curators don’t nod to those explicitly political issues, but, in a more elevated reference to politics, cite the “identity”-driven 1993 Biennial instead, even including five artists who were part of it. But few of the works on display this time reach the incendiary level of Daniel Joseph Martinez’s iconic project of that prior era, in which he remade the museum’s customary admission tags by replacing the Whitney acronym with snippets (and sometimes the whole) of the sentence, I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE. His work in the current biennial, like most other contributions, seems to have mellowed; Three Critiques . . . is an undated suite of photographs in which the artist has costumed himself—Hollywood prosthetics-style—as various science fiction characters, in an exploration of “post-human” futures, as if he swapped human politics for a more planetary outlook.
Other works on the upper floor (in that funereal warren, to which your eyes have to adjust) concern themselves more explicitly with social justice. Alfredo Jaar’s video, 06.01.2020 18.39 (2022), is so cheesy I was almost embarrassed to watch it, but it is admittedly effective, if not authoritarian, in its mode of installation: black-and-white footage of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, in which helicopters circle overhead, runs in a black box where massive fans replicate that intense wind. Numerous nearby projections are offset by a prominently hung Cy Gavin painting, Untitled (Snag), 2022, which is stubbornly abstract, a quivering orange mass on the black wall. The pairing echoes that of White Hawk and Arreola, suggesting that some looming abstraction rests at the center of the videos’ social agitation.
But abstraction. Is there a word more belabored in the history of art history? Abstraction is back . . . again, after a surfeit of figurative painting in recent years. It’s a bold assertion brokered on relatively traditional terms, though this time it is resuscitated by new practitioners, and revitalized by performance and Black studies. James Little’s 2021 Stella reduxes—from his series of “Black” paintings—are meant to trouble “figure/ground oppositional hierarchies of race,” as Zakiyyah Iman Jackson writes in the catalogue, which might have something to do with the way whiteness produces race as a “difference” against its “ground.” Denyse Thomasos’s startling cross-hatched canvases call to mind hot-button sites of the academic study of Blackness: prisons and the holds of slave ships. It’s abstraction, but in the service of rendering the histories and interiorities of marginalized subjects.
Which brings us back to the exhibition’s central abstraction: the design itself. A small dark room on the sixth floor that Edwards and Breslin call an antechamber is something like a climactic curatorial abstraction: a room of unattributed objects. Inside is, allegedly, Thomas Edison’s last breath, displayed as a test tube in a vitrine; a barely there soundtrack by Raven Chacon of what might be someone breathing; and Near silence, an unattributed black monochromatic relic, positioned high on the black wall opposite the Edison vial, which you have to strain your eyes to see. This last piece is presented without a wall label, an inarticulable center symbolizing grief or loss, in a bold and chaotic exhibition.