THE ROOTS OF THE WHITNEY BIENNIAL date to 1932. Originally an annual event, the exhibition was established as a biennial in 1973. Through the decades, organizers of the group show have sought to reflect the state of contemporary art and tap the pulse of what’s going on outside the museum’s galleries. As a result, the Whitney Biennial has been the site of bold artistic statements, objection to those works and views, and public protests.

 


Installation view of 2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-Sept. 22, 2019. Shown, From left, Dicko Chan, “Untitled,” 2018; Emerson Ricard, “Untitled,” 2018; Simone Leigh, “Stick,” 2019; Janiva Ellis, “Uh Oh, Look Who Got Wet,” 2019; and Simone Leigh, “#8 Village Series,” 2019. | Photo by Ron Amstutz, Courtesy Whitney Museum

 
Most Diverse Whitney Biennial in History

Co-curated by Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, the 2019 Whitney Biennial presents the work of 75 artists and collectives working in a variety of mediums—painting, sculpture, installation, performance, film and video, photography, and sound.

This year’s biennial is the most diverse in the history of the exhibition. About 40 percent of the participating artists are black, half identify as women, and in terms of age, they range from late 20s to early 80s, with 75 percent under 40 years old. The artist list includes Alexandra Bell, John Edmonds, Brendan Fernandes, Tomashi Jackson, Steffani Jemison, Autumn Knight, Simone Leigh, Eric N. Mack, Joe Minter, Wangechi Mutu, Jennifer Packer, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Martine Syms, and Tiona Nekkia McClodden, who won the biennial’s 2019 Bucksbaum Award.

More than 25 years ago, the show was notably diverse relative to previous editions. Thelma Golden was among the curators who helped plan the 1993 Whitney Biennial, which confronted identity politics and issues such as AIDS and poverty—somewhat divisive topics at the time, par for the course today.

Camille Billops (1933-2019) and James Hatch, Julie Dash, Renee Green, Byron Kim, Spike Lee, Glenn Ligon, Alison Saar, Gary Simmons, Lorna Simpson, Pat Ward Williams, and Fred Wilson were among the artists, photographers, and filmmakers who participated in the 1993 exhibition. Los Angeles artist Daniel Joseph Martinez distributed admission badges to visitors that read: “I can’t imagine ever wanting to be white.”

Two decades on, in 2014, YAMS, a self-described collective of “mostly black, and mostly queer” artists withdrew from the biennial over the inclusion of Donelle Woolford, a fictitious black female artist, and what the group viewed as a racially insensitive project by Joe Scanlan. A white New York-based artist, Scanlan’s work explored the life and work of Woolford and he often hired black women “collaborators” to portray her.

The 2017 biennial, the museum’s first in its new Renzo Piano-designed building in the Meatpacking District, featured two paintings of black people whose murders penetrated the news cycle in their time.

Brooklyn-based Dana Schutz contributed an abstract figurative work depicting Emmett Till in his casket. Titled “Open Casket,” the image upset many people and fueled sustained objections to the work. Some black artists were particularly vocal. Artist Parker Bright, stood in front of the painting partially obscuring its view to museum goers.

Others spoke up online and artist Hannah Black issued an open letter to biennial curators and staff. She took issue with a white painter portraying the mutilated black body of Till, who was lynched in Mississippi at age 14. She stated, “The painting must go” with nearly 50 additional artists, writers, and curators joining the entreaty by attaching their name to the letter. Posted on Facebook, the petition was taken down after about a week.

Artist Coco Fusco took the opposite position, publishing an essay in Hyperallergic asserting that “Censorship, not the painting, must go.” The museum stood by Schutz. The curators, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, issued a statement and organized a public forum to air the cultural concerns and opinions of various sides. The event, Perspectives on Race and Representation, was hosted at the museum in collaboration with Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute. The Emmett Till painting remained on view until the end of the show.

“Censorship, not the painting, must go.” — Coco Fusco


HENRY TAYLOR’s paintings on view at 2017 Whitney Biennial, including his depiction of Philando Castile, at right. | Photograph by Matthew Carasella, Courtesy Whitney Museum

 

Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor presented several paintings at the 2017 biennial, including “The Times Thay Aint a Changing, Fast Enough!” (2017), which was on display in the gallery adjacent to Schutz’s work. Taylor’s painting captures Minnesota resident Philando Castile dead in the passenger seat of a car with the torso, arm, and gun of the St. Anthony Police Department officer who shot him visible in the frame. While “Open Casket” by a white artist caused an uproar and a forum, the painting by Taylor, who is African American, caused no public protest and barely registered in reviews.

Writing for Artsy, Antwaun Sargent discussed the flap over the Schutz painting and also considered Taylor’s work. “A smaller group of black artists and museum professionals have expressed displeasure with Taylor, seeing his painting as a means to ‘profit’ from black death,” he wrote. “A sculptor and portrait painter, Taylor has spent his career representing mundane scenes of black life, and it was all the more powerful and chilling to see the artist work the canvas to show how black death is a common reality for so many black boys and men, like him and me. As with the call to destroy Schutz’s painting, the arguments around Taylor’s depiction of Castile ring hollow—at least for this writer.”

Another black critic, Tobi Haslett, writing for Artforum weighed in on Taylor’s painting. “The most striking of Taylor’s paintings, the canvas that blurts its own urgency, is The Times Thay Aint a Changing, Fast Enough!, 2017. …Taylor’s work shows us the death-by-policeman of Philando Castile in rough, jerky brushwork that smashes the scene into blocks of color. Expressive élan becomes harshly flat,” he wrote. “But the blurred smartphone footage of Castile’s slaughter—infamous and ubiquitous last summer—is also dignified by Taylor’s grand scale, which beams the kingliness of history painting at this latest racist crisis. I’m touched by the resigned humor of the title: It tunes the work’s emotional force, as Taylor declares the gravity of the occasion without languishing in his virtue. It seems right, now, to be rueful.”

After the 2017 biennial concluded, the Whitney Museum announced it was acquiring 32 works from the exhibition, including Taylor’s painting of Castile. “Open Casket” by Schutz was not among the additions to the collection.

To Remain Silent is to Be Complicit

Fast forward to the 2019 Whitney Biennial. Panetta and Hockley were named co-curators of this year’s biennial in December 2017. Both are on staff at the Whitney museum. At the time of the announcement, Panetta was an associate curator at the museum. A couple of months ago, she was elevated to director of the collection.

Hockley, joined the Whitney Museum as an assistant curator in January 2017. Early in her tenure, she mounted “Toyin Ojih Odutola: To Wander Determined,” the artist’s first museum exhibition in New York. Previously, Hockley was an assistant curator for contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum where she co-organized the traveling exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85” (2017-18).

 


From left, 2019 Whitney Biennial curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta. | Photograph by Scott Rudd, Courtesy Whitney Museum

 

The biennial was set to open in May 2019. Then, six months out, before the artist list had even been released, the museum was the target of public ire and internal dissension over a prominent board member.

In late November 2018, Warren B. Kanders, vice-chairman of the Whitney’s board of trustees, come under fire when the logo for a company he owns, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Safariland Group, was seen in news images on tear gas canisters and smoke grenades used by the U.S. government against asylum seekers at the U.S-Mexico boarder. Hyperallergic reported the connection, which prompted the museum’s staff to issue a public letter “to convey their outrage.” Their demands included a request that the board consider asking for Kanders’s resignation. “To remain silent is to be complicit,” the letter said. Nearly 100 Whitney employees endorsed the letter, including Hockley. Panetta did not sign it.

The letter from Whitney Museum staff included a request that the board consider asking for Kanders’s resignation. “To remain silent is to be complicit,” the letter said.

In response, Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum, issued a statement that didn’t directly address the controversial issue. Weinberg said, in part: “We respect the right to dissent as long as we can safeguard the art in our care and the people in our midst. …the contemporary museum, it is ‘a safe space for unsafe ideas.’ This is the democracy of art.” Kanders made a statement, too. “I am not the problem,” he said. Decolonize This Place entered the fray, protesting at the museum, calling for Kanders to step down, and organizing a town hall about the matter with Chinatown Art Brigade and W.A.G.E.

In February, when the artists participating in the 2019 biennial were announced, the New York Times reported Chicago-based artist Michael Rakowitz, had withdrawn from the exhibition in advance, in December, over the continued association of Kanders with the Whitney.

Later that month, Decolonize This Place let it be known the organization was mounting regular protests in the lead up the exhibition opening. Which it did. Thirty groups joined in the “Nine Weeks of Art and Action” launched March 22 with one goal: the removal of Kanders from the Whitney board.

In an open letter published April 5 on the Verso Books blog titled “Kanders Must Go,” more than 120 theorists, critics, and scholars called for the vice chairman’s ouster. The original signatories included Omar Berrada, Claire Bishop, Ben Davis, Nicole Fleetwood, Robin D.G. Kelley, Lucy Lippard, Mark Crispin Miller, Fred Moten, Tavia Nyong’o, and Mable O. Wilson.

On April 29, the Verso letter was updated with the names of artists who endorsed the letter. More than 300 have been added to the letter, among them: Chloë Bass, Hanna Black, Mel Chin, Chinatown Arts Brigade, Sam Durant, Guerilla Girls, Nan Goldin, Isaac Julien, Barbara Kruger, Zoe Leonard, Park McArthur, Laura Poitras, Michael Rakowitz, Cameron Rowland, Dread Scott, Xaviera Simmons, and Hito Steyerl.

About 75 percent of the artists participating in this year’s biennial also signed the letter, including Eddie Arroyo, Nicole Eisenman, Janiva Ellis, Kota Ezawa, Brendan Fernandes, Forensic Architecture, Jeffrey Gibson, Todd Gray, Steffani Jemison, Christine Sun Kim, Darius Clark Monroe, Wangechi Mutu, Daniel Lind Ramos, Carissa Rodriguez, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and Martine Syms.

 


Installation view of KOTA EZAWA, “National Anthem,” 2018, 2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-Sept. 22, 2019. Shown in background, At left, Elle Pérez, “Bloom,” 2019; Elle Pérez, “Sable,” 2019; Elle Pérez, “Jane,” 2019. | Photo by Ron Amstutz, Courtesy Whitney Museum

 
Not Radical Enough

When the 2019 Whitney Biennial opened May 17, Kanders remained on the board, and Decolonize continued to protest his presence with actions inside and outside the museum. Many artworks featured in the show reflect contemporary political and cultural issues. Hurricane Maria and the rich history of Puerto Rico inspired mixed-media sculptures by Daniel Lind-Ramos. Alexandra Bell, who points out bias in the presentation of news, analyzed 1989 coverage of the Central Park Five in the New York Daily News. Kota Ezawa transformed his watercolor paintings of NFL players taking a knee during national anthem into an animated video.

London-based Forensic Architecture, a research group participating in the exhibition, essentially focused its work on Kanders, presenting “Triple-Chaser,” a short film about an artificial intelligence algorithm it developed to track the use of a tear gas canister manufactured by Defense Technology, a subsidiary of Safariland. The documentary was made with Laura Poitras’s Praxis Films. According to the group’s findings, evidence of the Triple-Chaser’s use was detected in the United States, Mexico, South America, Quebec, Greece, North Africa, and the Middle East, including Egypt, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine.

After reviews written by white critics described the biennial as not radical enough, artists Xaviera Simmons and Simone Leigh pushed back.

One of the artists participating in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Simone Leigh noted “concerns about radicality” have been expressed regarding the group exhibition. On May 16, she posted on Instagram a litany of topics and cultural insights, stating that those not informed about the subjects are in no position to weigh in on her work.

Her citations include writers Saidiya Hartman or Hortense Spillers, Negritude and Léopold Sédar Senghor, FESTAC 77, Katherine Dunham, and Pauline Lumumba walking through the streets of Kinshasha bare breasted. If you have no idea about these things, Leigh says, “Then you lack the knowledge to recognize the radical gestures in my work. And that is why, instead of mentioning these things, I have politely said black women are my primary audience.”

Writing in The Art Newspaper on July 2, New York-based Simmons responded to descriptions from critics calling many of the works in the biennial “simple, preachy or heavy-handed.”

In an essay titled “Whiteness must undo itself to make way for the truly radical turn in contemporary culture,” she contends: “When viewing an exhibition as sexually and ethnically diverse as this biennial, the more essential question is: whose works and whose bodies should carry the weight of the radical impulse?” she writes. “…And if we don’t deliver it for your visual pleasure (though I believe some works in the biennial actually do), do not sulk or lament that you miss the rage of the radical. That is also yours to own.”

Simmons, whose work is not included in the exhibition, does not reference any particular critics or reviews. She is likely referencing assessments published by The Art Newspaper, ARTnews, and artnet News.

“When viewing an exhibition as sexually and ethnically diverse as this biennial, the more essential question is: whose works and whose bodies should carry the weight of the radical impulse?” — Xaviera Simmons


STEFFANI JEMISON, “Sensus Plenior,” 2017 (high-definition video, black-and-white, sound; 34:36 minutes), | Image courtesy the artist

 
Preserving the Public Trust

Meanwhile, Kanders wasn’t the only museum patron coming under fire. In the UK and the United States, the Sackler family (founders of Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin) and BP, the oil and gas company, both major supporters of the arts whose businesses many consider harmful to the environment and humanity, faced reprisals from institutions where programs, wings, and entire buildings are named in their honor. Museums have returned some financial gifts and rejected future funding support. The Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Tate Britain, the National Portrait Gallery, and Serpentine Gallery in London, are among those refusing donations from the Sacklers.

The Washington Post reported that Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said the Arthur M. Sackler name would remain on the Smithsonian’s Asian art museum in perpetuity as required by an agreement signed nearly 40 years ago.

Responding to a request from Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) that the Sackler name be removed, Bunch said the Smithsonian nevertheless recognized the gravity of the opioid crisis and the family’s association with it.

“The Sackler issue has been under examination at the institution for some time,” he wrote in a letter to Merkley. “Please know that we appreciate that, in order to maintain and preserve the public trust, we must meet the highest ethical standards in all of our activities.”

For years, climate activists from groups such as Greenpeace and BP or Not BP? and have demonstrated against BP’s support of the British Museum. In February, about 350 people occupied the museum protesting its relationship with BP. Nearly 80 British artists, including Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor, Christian Marclay, Gillian Wearing, and Rachel Whiteread, issued an open letter in July calling on London’s National Portrait Gallery sever ties with BP. The effort was led by artist Gary Hume, a judge for the museum’s annual BP Portrait Award. In 2017, the Tate museum ended a sponsorship agreement with BP. The British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery continue to accept BP support.

Museum connections with other oil giants, weapons manufacturers, and companies overseeing immigrant detention centers have also been rebuffed by artists.

 


WANGECHI MUTU, “Sentinel I,” 2018 (paper pulp, wood glue, concrete, wood, glass beads, stone, rose quartz, gourd, and jewelry, 87 ¾ x 17 ¾ x 22 inches / 221 x 43.2 x 55.9 cm). | Image courtesy the artist

 
Teargas Biennial

Two months after the biennial opened, Kanders remained on the board prompting another public outcry. On July 17, Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett published an essay in Artforum titled “The Teargas Biennial.” All three of the authors are black.

(Hannah Black posted the Facebook petition calling for the removal of Dana Schutz’s Emmett Till painting at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Tobi Haslett discussed Henry Taylor’s painting “The Times Thay Aint a Changing, Fast Enough!” in his Artforum review of the biennial.)

The essay in Artforum details the effects of tear gas and notes that Safariland products have been used at Standing Rock in North Dakota; Ferguson, Mo.; and in Puerto Rico to “disperse and defeat” anti-austerity protestors on May Day 2018.

It also emphasizes that participating artists should have expressed opposition to Kanders’s affiliation with the Whitney Museum by refusing to participate in the biennial. “There should have been a boycott,” the authors write. Later they add: “Even now, it remains possible that artists could act according to their conscience, political sensibility, or instinctive revulsion and remove their work before the exhibition closes in late September. It would be in every sense of the word a shame if this opportunity were to be entirely missed.”

“There should have been a boycott. …Even now, it remains possible that artists could act according to their conscience, political sensibility, or instinctive revulsion and remove their work before the exhibition closes in late September.”
— Hannah Black, Ciarán Finlayson, and Tobi Haslett

The authors then address the role race and privilege may play in decisions to stay in the biennial or go. “What has made refusal seem inappropriate or impossible?” Black, Finlayson, and Haslett ask.

“There has been resentment among artists, expressed privately and on social media, that the original (opaque and bungled) call to boycott or strike came from the art activist organizations Decolonize This Place and W.A.G.E.—the latter derided by some as the pet project of just one white woman.”

They continue: “But criticisms of these groups, true or not, are not adequate substitutes for a genuine assessment of the political circumstance or what it asks of us. We’ve heard, too, that the effort to politicize the Biennial amounts first, to racism, because it places an unfair burden on artists of color, who ought to be celebrated in this majority-minority Biennial, and second, an expression of class privilege, because’“artists must eat.’”

Raising an example of the power and influence the actions of even one artist can have, Black, Finlayson, and Haslett point out that it was photographer Nan Goldin, who spurred what has evolved into an international art world rebuke of the Sackler family, the target of major lawsuits in the wake of the opioid crisis. (Goldin threatened to cancel her forthcoming retrospective at Britain’s National Portrait Gallery if the museum accepted money from the Sacklers. She prevailed.)

As evidence that it practice what it preaches, the trio notes the following: “Two of the authors of this statement have recently rejected offers from the Whitney in explicit protest against Kanders.” (It unclear if the offers cited relate to participation in the biennial or some other projects or opportunities with the museum.)

 


Installation view of NICOLE EISENMAN, “Procession,” 2019, 2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 17-Sept. 22, 2019. | Photo by Ron Amstutz, Courtesy Whitney Museum

 
“It Has Been a Pleasure Working With You”

Two days later, eight artists withdrew from the exhibition. Frustrated with Kanders’s continued presence on the board, they asked that their work be removed from the show. Initially, four artists (Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman and Nicholas Galanin) expressed their intentions in a July 19 letter addressed to “Ru and Jane,” the co-curators.

The letter said in part, “This request is intended as condemnation of Warren Kanders’ continued presence as Vice Chair of the Board. We would appreciate if you presented this letter to the Board to let them know the seriousness of the situation. …[T]he Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists has made our participation untenable. The Museum’s inertia has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence.” They added: “We have enormous respect for you as curators and it has been a pleasure working with you.”

“[T]he Museum’s continued failure to respond in any meaningful way to growing pressure from artists and activists has made our participation untenable. The Museum’s inertia has turned the screw, and we refuse further complicity with Kanders and his technologies of violence.”
— Korakrit Arunanondchai, Meriem Bennani, Nicole Eisenman, and Nicholas Galanin

The next day four additional artists (Eddie Arroyo, Agustina Woodgate, Christine Sun Kim, and Forensic Architecture), let it be known they, too, were withdrawing.

Each of the eight artists who withdrew endorsed the Verso letter. None of the artists who pulled out of the exhibition were black.

With eight artists out, remaining artists were asked how they viewed the situation. Chicago-based artist and choreographer Brendan Fernandes, who signed the Verso letter, told ARTnews he intended to stay in the biennial. He is presenting a sculptural installation activated with regularly scheduled live performances by 10 ballet dancers.

“Working with collaborators, performers, and institutions, I have a responsibility to approach the questions raised by these artists in dialogue with the others involved in my work,” Fernandes said in a statement to ARTnews. “My hope is that the actions taken will result in deeper conversation and more direct action on the part of art institutions to address their complicated relationship with industries of oppression.”

 


BRENDAN FERNANDES (1979-), “The Master and Form,” June 7, 2019. Performers shown, From left, Mauricio Vera, Amy Saunder, Tiffany Mangulabnan, and Tyler Zydel. | Photo by Paula Court, Courtesy Whitney Museum

 
The Irony of All This

Six days after the artists issued their withdrawal letter and more than six months of sustained objections and protests, Kanders stepped down from the board of the Whitney Museum.

The New York Times first reported his July 25 resignation. “The targeted campaign of attacks against me and my company that has been waged these past several months has threatened to undermine the important work of the Whitney,” Kanders said in his resignation letter, according to the Times. “I joined this board to help the museum prosper. I do not wish to play a role, however inadvertent, in its demise.”

With Kanders out, the eight artists who had withdrawn from the biennial said their works, which had yet to be removed, could remain on view.

“Every museum director is looking at us right now and saying, ‘Gee, if the Whitney is being targeted, what’s going to happen to us?’”
— Adam Weinberg, Director of Whitney Museum

Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum, expressed disappointment at the outcome. “Here’s a man who has given a tremendous amount of his time and money to young, often edgy and radical artists—somebody who is very progressive—that’s one of the ironies of all this,” he told the Times.

“The Whitney Museum is one of the most progressive, the most diverse, the most engaged, open programs of any major institution in the country,” Weinberg added. “Every museum director is looking at us right now and saying, ‘Gee, if the Whitney is being targeted, what’s going to happen to us?’”

Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu keeps studios in Brooklyn and Nairobi. She just debuted “The NewOnes, will free Us,” the first-ever facade commission at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

She is also participating in the biennial. Mutu endorsed the Verso letter and has three sculptures in the show, including a pair of “Sentinel” figures, “larger-than-life earthy, android female forms,” composed of a variety of materials such as paper pulp, wood, concrete, rose quartz, stone, and bone. According to the exhibition description, “The Sentinels stand as harbingers of the acute imperative to improve our relationship with each other and our planet or to accept that environmental destruction will inevitably decide our fate for us.”

On Sept. 2, Mutu posted several images from the biennial and the following message on Instagram: #WhitneyBiennale2019 Looking at Art alone is so important… and wonderful. but looking at Art with family and friends can be really lovely! The two curators Of this years exhibition rocked it ! No internal or outside upheavals can take away from the fact that it was a brilliant, strong, intelligent, thoughtful, relevant, elegant exhibition with so so many Incredible Artists! CT

 

2019 Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, N.Y., May 17-Sept. 22, 2019. (Some Biennial works will remain on view in the Stairwell: Marcus Fischer, through Sept. 23; Lobby: Jeffrey Gibson, through Sept. 30; and on Floor Six: Various artists, through Oct. 27

 


Co-curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley introduce the 2019 Whitney Biennial. | Video by Whitney Museum

 

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