The Whitney Biennial has long had a reputation as the most controversial exhibition in the United States, with its 1993 edition being the most polarizing. This edition focused on what its critics have called multiculturalism and identity politics because the artists tackled the intersections of race, gender and sexuality head-on at a time when it was taboo. Looking back, many will now agree that the show was prescient for the way it highlighted the lived experiences of people of color in this country through artistic expression.
There is a special link between the 1993 Biennale and the 2022 Biennale, which had its press preview on March 29 and officially opens to the public on April 6: five of the artists from this exhibition were also present in that of 1993 This is an unusually high correlation for an exhibition that is generally presented as showcasing the latest in contemporary art. But while the 1993 Biennale had an extraordinarily high percentage of detractors, that probably won’t be the case for this year’s superb Biennale.
Curated by Whitney curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, the exhibition brings together both new and historic works by 63 artists (including five who are no longer living). There is a lot of art to see, the majority of which is displayed on the fifth and sixth floors of the museum. A few examples probably won’t be remembered past the show’s end date, but much of it — bracing, timely, political, poetic, heartbreaking, and moving — likely will.
For the exhibition installation, Breslin and Edwards divided the show into two distinct spaces, each with its own energy. The sixth floor is noticeably different, with black walls, black carpeting, and overall low light that engulfs visitors and reflects the depressed mood of the past two tumultuous years. The fifth floor is much more airy. It is completely free of temporary walls, with works instead displayed on custom-built freestanding scaffolding.
In the introductory text of the wall, the curators mention that the show was planned to start in late 2019 and that the exhibition developed alongside the events of 2020, from the start of the pandemic to the historic racial justice protests that have swept the country in the wake of The murder of George Floyd. “Although the underlying conditions are not new,” write the curators, “their overlap, intensity, and sheer ubiquity created a context in which the past, present, and future became embedded. We have organized this Biennale to reflect these precarious and improvised times.
The curators say their exhibition does not take on an overarching theme but follows a “series of intuitions,” from the power of abstraction to create and also retain meaning to the role of art in complicating the notion of what means to be “American” today. (This has been an ongoing concern at the Whitney Museum of American Art since it moved to its current building and opened with the “America Is Hard to See” exhibit.) But what is clear as a whole, c is that the exhibition is undoubtedly how history impacts today and our future.
Below is a look at some immediate highlights of the 2022 Whitney Biennale, which runs through June 5 at the Whitney Museum in New York.