Preview: The Whitney Biennial

By Peggy Roalf   Friday March 8, 2024


For those who complain, with some reason, that there’s a lack of an avant-garde zeitgeist in contemporary art, The Whitney Museum offers something to argue about every two years. This invitational, which began life as an annual in 1932, has morphed over the years as a survey show alternating between painting and sculpture, becoming a biennial that combined both in 1973. Since then, it has variously emphasized photography, video, digital art, and installation in addition to traditional art forms. It has been criticized for anything a critic might come up with, from sloppy painting, to lack of diversity, to political over artistic meaning. Above: Cannupa Hanska Luger, “Uziwoslal Wašiuta” (from the series “Future Ancestral Technologies”), 2021, coming to the 2024 Whitney Biennial

The 1993 show was considered by many to be overtly political, with a number of non-white, non-male artists taking up themes related to race, gender, sexuality, and class explicitly in their work and were perceived as having created bad art by a set of predominantly white critics. Among them, NY Times critic Roberta Smith wrote that it was “less about the art of our time than about the times themselves.” In the same newspaper, the critic Michael Kimmelman had a less nuanced take: "I hate the show." 

More recently, complaints about too much diversity—artists who live in the US but come from elsewhere and work from different parts of the world—have been heard. About the 2019 biennial (which was dubbed “the Tear Gas Biennial”) the NY Times  wrote, “The New York area still supplies the lion’s share of participants. Los Angeles still runs a distant second. This year’s exhibition has no artists located in the Great Plains or Mountain West, and only three currently working in the South. For all of the country’s regional art scenes, artists who made the cut for the most prestigious American contemporary exhibition still work in many of the same places as they did decades ago. Now, when nearly half of the artists in this year’s Biennial live in New York City, the vast majority of them list addresses in Brooklyn. It suggests that despite the gentrification and the rising cost of studio space, artists — especially the younger ones — still find a benefit in remaining in the city, and are finding ways to make it work.” Above: Installation view, 2019 Whitney Biennial


The 2021 Biennial placed artists at the heart of the event. Organized by Whitney’s photography curator Elisabeth Sussman and then-independent curator Jay Sanders, it elevated the act of curating as an art itself, inviting artists to organize mini-shows within the ur-exhibition. Critics hailed it a signal achievement, with the New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl writing, “The startlingly coherent and bold Whitney Biennial is a material manifesto of late-pandemic institutional culture. Long on installations and videos and short on painting, conventional sculpture, and straight photography, it is exciting without being especially pleasurable—geared toward thought….  Delayed for a year by covid-19, the show consolidates a trend that many of us haven’t suspected: a sort of fortuitously shared conceptual sensibility that suggests an in-group but is open to all who care about art’s relations to the wide world. Even the most expressive of the artists who were selected by [co-curators] David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards seem oriented not to personal feelings but to hard facts of common experience. Away with moonbeams. Does the outward-looking spirit serendipitously coincide with the emotional convulsions occasioned by the war in Ukraine? It does for me.” Above: Ralph Lemon, Untitled, 2021, coming to 2024 Whitney Biennial 


The title of the 2024 Whitney Biennial, “Even Better Than the Real Thing”, will present work by 71 artists who focus on concepts of reality in the age of artificial intelligence and the fluidity of identity. The 81st edition of the Biennial will feature 69 artists and two collectives, and includes emerging creatives, such as the duo of Gbenga Komolafe and Tee Park, as much as storied artists, including Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Pippa Garner. The theme and title, focusing on ideas of “the real,” will also investigate how artificial intelligence has challenged discussions about identity—hence the inclusion of Holly Herndon and Mat Dryhurst, whose joint work has explored the impact of A.I. on art and artists. In a joint statement, co-curators Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli called the exhibition “unharmonious in its collectivity” and a “dissonant chorus,” borrowing words from artist Ligia Lewis, who will present a dance-based film installationAbove: Carmen Winant, “Women’s blueprint for survival I and II” (2022). This installation of inkjet prints and sun-bleached construction paper gathers records from archives of domestic violence support organizations. In the Whitney Biennial, Winant is also showing “The Last Safe Abortion,” with thousands of snapshots of abortion care workers in offices or meetings.

“It is striking how many artists are contending with relationships between the psyche and the body, and the precarity of the past few years,” the curators’ statement continued. “Artists are continuing to grapple with history and identity; we have made an exhibition that unfolds as a set of relations, exploring the challenges of coming together in a fractured moment.”

Opening March 20; for members, preview March 14-March 18. The Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY Info