The Whitney Biennial has long held a reputation for being the most divisive exhibition within the United States, with its 1993 edition being its most polarizing one. That edition focused on what its detractors labeled multiculturalism and identity politics because artists dealt head-on with the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality at a time when that was taboo. In hindsight, many will now agree that the show was prescient for the ways in which it highlighted the lived experiences of people of color in this country through artistic expression.
There’s a special link between the 1993 Biennial and the 2022 Biennial, which had its press preview on March 29 and officially opens to the public on April 6: five of the artists in this show where also in the 1993 one. That’s an unusually high correlation for an exhibition that is typically pitched as presenting what’s new in contemporary art. But whereas the ’93 Biennial had an extraordinarily high percentage of detractors, that likely won’t be the case for this year’s Biennial, which is superb.
Organized by Whitney curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, the show brings together work both new and historical by 63 artists (including five who are no longer living). There is a lot of art to see, the majority of which is shown across the museum’s fifth and sixth floors. A few examples likely won’t be remembered past the show’s end date, but much of it—bracing, timely, political, poetic, heart-wrenching, and moving—likely will endure.
For the installation of the exhibition, Breslin and Edwards have divided the show into two distinct spaces, each with their own energy. The sixth floor is noticeably different, with black walls, black carpeting, and overall low light that engulfs visitors and reflects the downcast mood of the last two tumultuous years. The fifth floor is much airier. It’s completely free of any temporary walls, with works instead shown on custom-built, free-standing scaffolding.
In the introductory wall text, the curators mention that the show was planned beginning in late 2019, and that the exhibition developed alongside the events of 2020, from the start of the pandemic to the historical racial justice protests that swept the country in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. “Although underlying conditions are not new,” the curators write, “their overlap, their intensity, and their sheer ubiquity created a context in which past, present, and future folded into one another. We organized this Biennial to reflect these precarious and improvised times.”
The curators say their exhibition takes no overarching theme but follows on a “series of hunches,” from the power of abstraction to equally create and withhold meaning to art’s role in complicating the notion of what it means to be “American” today. (That has been an ongoing concern at the Whitney Museum of American Art since it moved to its current building and opened with the show “America Is Hard to See.”) But what is clear when taken as a whole is that the exhibition is undoubtedly how history impacts today and our future.
Below is a look at some immediate standouts from the 2022 Whitney Biennial, which runs through September 5 at the Whitney Museum in New York.
Correction, March 30, 2022: An earlier version of this article misstated the biennial’s closing date. It is September 5, not June 5.
The sixth-floor section of the Biennial opens with two large-scale abstract works by the late artist Denyse Thomasos, who died in 2012 at 47. (Early works by the artist are also currently on view at the just-opened Toronto Biennial of Art.) For these striking works, Thomasos was interested in creating the sense of claustrophobia felt by enslaved people crossing the Atlantic crossing and inmates being held in prisons. Her goal was “to capture the feeling of confinement,” she once said, per the wall text, as a way to explore how structures like ships and prisons have “left catastrophic effects on the Black psyche.”
For his contribution to the Biennial, Raven Chacon (Diné) looks to honor Indigenous women, both those currently in his life and his ancestors. In a series of lithographs, he creates poems, along with corresponding drawings, dedicated to the likes of U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, artist Ange Loft, and curator Candice Hopkins (also his wife). A moving three-channel video accompanies these works, in which three different Native women—Sage Bond (Diné), Jehnean Washington (Yuchi), and Mary Ann Emarthle (Seminole)—sing in their mother languages about the land, both that which they are currently on and the ancestral lands that their people have been displaced from by colonization, via, for example, the Navajo Long Walk or the Trail of Tears. One woman sings, “help us, help us, watch over us,” while another describes “endur[ing] patiently.” Chacon describes the videos as “songs of resistance” that “become a sonic testimony, an acknowledgement of shared survival, and a healing call in their mother tongues.”
In a slightly heavy-handed but nevertheless impactful black-box installation, Alfredo Jaar strings together clips of Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 that were held in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Visitors are required to wait until the beginning of the film to enter the room, which is then sealed. The grainy footage is still powerful, and quickly devolves into chaos as police, in riot gear, begin to launch flash bangs and tear gas into the crowd of unarmed protesters to disperse them. At one point, a helicopter hovers above, dangerously close to the people below. Jaar has recreated that sensation by having wind machines installed overhead gush air at certain moments. As with several other works on view, this piece doesn’t keep the brutality of violence today hidden.
This iteration of the Biennial is heavy on film and video works. One such contribution is by Adam Pendleton, who also has two large paintings on view in a different part of the sixth floor. This hour-long “video portrait” focuses on civil rights activist Ruby Nell Sales, who was almost shot by a segregationist in Alabama in 1965. (Jonathan Daniels, a white seminary student, took the bullet for her and died.) In the film, Sales discusses activism today, paying special attention to white Americans who seek to help Black people. She finds some white activists problematic because their “What can I do?” mentality allows for them to continue to hold power in the situation. She adds, “Even as we fix the world, we must begin to fix ourselves because we are the world and we’re the mess that’s in the world, and it’s up to us to clean up the hot mess that we’ve created.”
For this new video, Coco Fusco directly reflects on the death toll caused by the pandemic. We see her in a boat just off Hart Island, near the Bronx. The island has long been the site of New York City’s potter’s field, where unclaimed bodies are buried. At the height of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and ’90s, many bodies of people whose families had disowned them were sent here; over the past two years, it has again become active at an alarming rate. Fusco tapped poet and writer Pamela Sneed, an AIDS activist who penned a 2020 memoir Funeral Diva about that era, to provide the narration—written by Fusco—for this poignant mediation on death, loss, and grief. Over the course of 12 minutes, Sneed tells us that there could be as many as a million bodies buried here, but no one accurately knows. With the staggering total death totals from Covid, she notes, bodies become numbers in ways that make us forget the stories of those who are lost. Throughout the film, like a chorus, Sneed repeats, “‘When death comes it will have your eyes,’ he said.”
This biennial also has an exceptional grouping of abstract paintings on view. Three stunning black-and-gray works by New York–based artist James Little, who is part of a cohort of Black artists dedicated to abstraction that has included the likes of Jack Whitten and Stanley Whitney, command a wall. Depending on where one stands, the shapes in them fade into their black backgrounds and then come back into crisp focus. Per the wall text, Little has said of his commitment to abstraction, “Abstraction provided me with self-determination and free will. It was liberating. I don’t find freedom in any other form. People like to have an answer before they have the experience. Abstraction doesn’t offer you that.”
Four silver-framed photographs of the night sky as seen from L.A.’s Eastside jump out on the sixth floor. These images are by Guadalupe Rosales, an artist who has received mainstream attention for her acclaimed Instagram account @veteranas_and_rucas. They show the mystical “abstract quality of night that is potent with dreams and escape and journey” in this part of the city, which is home to a predominantly Latinx community. With these works, Rosales has captured the teetering balance between beauty and pain that she and others have experienced living here. In the wall text, she explains, “The night is where we could feel the complexity of being both free and chased. In this way, nights in East Los Angeles had its own reality. A surreality. Like a waking dream. This work is also about honoring the dead and the living.”
Rayyane Tabet’s art is present all across the Whitney. It’s in the stairwells that connect the floors of the Biennial together, on its facade, and even on the glass wall of a third-floor staff conference room. In these pieces, fragments of text pose succinct questions: “What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?” “When do we celebrate Independence Day?” “What is the political party of the President now?” These simple queries give way to nuanced answers. Drawn from the U.S. Naturalization test for citizenship, they form Tabet’s piece 100 Civic Questions, part of his series “Becoming America.” A similarly minded video installation from the same series is located on the fifth floor, with sections of those questions randomly appearing on four different old-school TV monitors, essentially spelling out a concrete poem. By taking these words out of their original context, Tabet, who himself is currently applying for U.S. citizen, looks for a more open-ended telling of what it means to become American.
Dyani White Hawk
Dyani White Hawk (Sičangu Lakota) may be showing only one artwork at the Biennial, but what a spectacular piece it is. From far away, the abstract work looks like a painting, but it was actually created by “affixing loomed strips of thin glass bugle beads onto aluminum panels,” according to the wall text. White Hawk says that her work is as much in conversation with postwar Abstract Expressionists like Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock as it is with the centuries-old beadwork of the Lakota people. In the United States, pure abstraction is still often credited to artists like Newman and Pollock; White Hawk wants us to consider the true originators of this style of art-making, in a moment when acknowledging that we are on stolen land has become commonplace in the art world. She says, “The work is uniquely Lakota, tied to a lineage of artwork that speaks to connections between land and life. The title, Wopila | Lineage, expresses deep gratitude for the interwoven network of ancestral and living communities that make the work possible. I believe beauty is medicinal. The work, as an offering of beauty, is a gift of reciprocity.”
A relatively modest installation within the crowded fifth floor comes courtesy of Chicago-based artist Lisa Alvarado, who explores themes around Chicanx art and activism in her work. Three abstract works are suspended at different heights. They are sumptuously layered pieces in which patterns and colors meld and merge in configurations resembling the cosmos. The pieces are all titled Vibratory Cartography: Nepantla, referring to Nahuatl word for “in-between” that was used by the late influential Chicana theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa to describe the state of mind that people living along borders, in particular the U.S.-Mexico border, experience throughout their lives. As Anzaldúa wrote, this is a state of belonging neither to here nor to there but somewhere in the middle. In the wall text, Alvarado describes the motivation behind her paintings: “Existing in the resonant frequencies between worlds, the paintings imagine topographies of interwoven pathways and bridges of regeneration.”
Sable Elyse Smith
Toward the back of the fifth floor is a commanding sculpture by Sable Elyse Smith made of black-painted tables that rotates like a Ferris wheel. These tables are made from ones used in prison visiting rooms that allow guards to easily surveil imprisoned people as they have short moments with their loved ones. The towering work—“a physical monument to our entanglement of violence and entertainment” that is done “at the scale of infrastructure,” per wall text attributed to Smith—moves slowly, almost innocuously. It’s a commentary on the insidious and continually operating nature of the prison-industrial complex, which continues to disproportionately impact Black and Latinx communities across the country.
The small hallway space of the Whitney’s third floor has been given over to a reading room for Cassandra Press, a publishing enterprise founded by artist Kandis Williams that is also currently being highlighted at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA PS1. In custom-built zig-zagging shelves, the press’s 31 readers—black-and-white bound tomes featuring various related and curated texts—act as places for visitors to read. They put “forward a critical apparatus centered around Black scholarship and radical dissemination,” according to show’s curators. One section is particular focuses on misogynoir, the term coined by African American feminist scholar Moya Bailey “to describe a specific form of discrimination experienced by Black women, one that compounds complex and nuanced traumas and caricatures.”