The dead are alive at the just-opened 2022 Whitney Biennial, a tender, understated survey of the American art scene as it stands right now that also acts as a means of processing the grief of the last two years. In this show, zombies peer out at viewers mournfully, specters flit across screens, and people who passed away years ago are reanimated. The terror all of this inspires is shot through with a muted kind of sadness.
There is no shortage of monsters in the work of Andrew Roberts, the youngest artist in the Biennial. He’s showing a group of computer-generated people whose eyes—bruised, decaying, oddly realistic-looking—meet their viewers’. His characters all wear shirts featuring the logos of tech giants, such as Netflix and Uber Eats; a sculpture nearby takes the form of a severed silicone arm emblazoned with the Amazon logo.
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Roberts’s digitally inflected work finds its analog equivalent in a suite of photographs by Daniel Joseph Martinez, who transforms himself, by way of convincing prosthetics, into creatures inspired by Westworld, The X-Files, and other films and TV shows with boogeymen. In some of these pictures, Martinez’s prosthetics fall away to reveal his true face. Beneath his costumes’ covered-over eyes and cyborgian flesh lies a real, breathing human.
Curated by David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards, the 2022 Whitney Biennial evokes the loss that has been experienced by so many during this pandemic via works by Roberts, Martinez, and many others. More often than not, the focus is communities who suffered violence and loss well before 2020, but who have long persevered in spite of it: people of color, the disabled, the poor, citizens of nations where the threat of colonialism remains a reality. The largely non-white artist list is a reflection of this nation’s shifting demographics, a dynamic that is also mirrored in the exhibition’s wall texts, which are printed in both English and Spanish—a rarity for biennials in the U.S.
Around half of the show is presented in an elegiac set of darkened galleries; another large part is shown on a grand floor without any walls. Film and video, long cordoned off in a separate program screened theatrically, mingle freely with painting, sculpture, and photography. There are few show-stopping works, and even fewer pieces with shock value. What this stately show lacks in stunt pieces that typically appear at the Whitney Biennial, it makes up for in the intelligence of its inquiry into the difficulty of perseverance.
These are times in which we are bombarded by images of death daily, but do not expect any of that here. The curators have largely spared us anything too graphic, instead suggesting that life continues on after passages of all kinds.
Take Raven Chacon’s sound installation Silent Choir (2017), which, at first glance, does not appear to feature very much at all, aural or otherwise. A wall text reveals that the low, muffled sounds heard within were recorded during a protest over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which Native American communities said would contaminate the water they consider to be sacred. The only object in the room is a glass vial that is said to contain the last breath of Thomas Edison, a cruel reminder that some final gasps get memorialized and others do not.
Carnage in all its many forms haunts this biennial. Rebecca Belmore’s achingly beautiful sculpture ishkode (fire), 2021, features at its center a human-sized clay form resembling fabric that appears to cover an unseen person. A ring of bullets surrounds this mysterious figure. Na Mira pays homage to the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, an artist who was raped and murdered in 1982, with the knockout video installation Night Vision (Red as never been), 2022, which features sputtering, strobing footage of the artist re-performing Cha’s choreographies, along with clipped pieces of text such as “how do the two selves meet?” Tony Cokes explicitly alludes to American-perpetrated wartime violence against Iraqis and others in unsettling videos set to pop songs.
Alfredo Jaar’s video installation 06.01.2020 18.30 (2022) is the show’s grandest, most straightforward evocation of death, and also this biennial’s biggest flop. It features black-and-white footage of Black Lives Matters protestors demonstrating in Washington, D.C., following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, only to be met by officers in helicopters that shot tear gas into the crowd. The video’s spectacle is enhanced by its volume—ear plugs are made available by the Whitney—and by a series of fans installed overhead that simulate the wind caused by the helicopters. The rare piece here to outright portray the events of June 2020, 06.01.2020 18.30 implores viewers to tough out its violent imagery, but to see its onslaught of brutality will likely prove traumatizing rather than edifying for most.
In the Abstract
The market-supported craze for figurative painting isn’t going anywhere, but you wouldn’t know it based on this biennial, where abstraction is the dominant mode.
Some artists are keen to put their own twists on age-old art-historical tropes. Dyani White Hawk’s painting Wopila | Lineage (2021), featuring two rows of triangles whose tips touch, may resemble the abstractions of 20th-century giants like Hilma af Klint and Barnett Newman. But its medium—glass beads, a traditional material in White Hawk’s Sičangu Lakota community—differs this painting greatly from anything af Klint and Newman ever produced. Awilda Sterling-Duprey’s abstractions, with their swirls of impasto paint against dark backgrounds, recall Georges Mathieu’s paintings made in postwar France. Sterling-Duprey’s works are the product of a performance that occurred during the installation of the Biennial in which the artist blindfolded herself and performed movements drawing on Afro-Cuban traditions to apply the paint. A smattering of striped abstractions by James Little, done in shades of barely distinguishable shades of black, draw on the perception-bending Op art of Bridget Riley with a sly twist.
The tendency toward abstraction even winds its way here into photography and film, two mediums which produce figurative imagery by default. Lucy Raven’s masterful film Demolition of a Wall (Album 1), 2022, predominantly features static shots of deserts in the American Southwest that feel reminiscent of Edward Weston’s photography. These are interrupted by slices of pure color that are punctuated by a loud boom caused by explosions that go unseen.
White Hawk, Sterling-Duprey, Little, and Raven’s works excite because they recall art from the past that we know all too well and then subvert it before our very eyes. In their hands, art history is not a given but something to be redefined. Take Little’s words for it. “I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he told the biennial’s curators for an interview quoted in labels for his paintings. “I’m just trying to improve on it.”
The emphasis on abstraction also suggests a state of life in which figuration is not enough to picture the chaos we all experience. And with communication breaking down as Covid continues to wreak havoc, it’s no surprise that even language is broken out of its typically orderly form and rendered anew.
Whether it’s the wall of text that greets viewers in Jonathan Berger’s installation or the concrete poetry of the deceased writer N. H. Pritchard, words in this show verge on abstraction itself. Bureaucracy is short-circuited in the process.
Rayyane Tabet, a Lebanese-born artist currently seeking citizenship in the U.S., has arranged appropriated bits of text from government-facilitated tests around the Whitney. On any given day, you may find curators meeting in a conference room beneath text that reads “WHAT DID THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE DO?” For a piercing work called Death by 7,865 Paper Cuts (2019), Emily Barker photocopied medical bills accrued during her recovery following a spinal cord injury. They’re stacked in a small tower, where the words pile up and form a text that, if read sequentially, would likely take days to finish.
The Past Is Present
Text is present in another prominent form in this biennial: archives. The practice of offering up printed matter from years past at art biennials across the globe is now standard fare (and often groan-inducing). If it’s the curators who typically amass these archives in biennials, it’s the artists who do so at the Whitney Biennial as a means of more inclusive record-keeping.
Cassandra Press, a closely watched publishing imprint launched by Kandis Williams (an artist who is also in this exhibition), is given a sizable space to present something of a library of its offerings, which here span a book on the sculptor Sanford Biggers and a reader of misogynoir. Likewise, A Gathering of the Tribes, a literary magazine that has since become a nonprofit, is paying homage to its founder, the late Steve Cannon, through an assemblage of his personal effects as well as artworks he owned, including some by David Hammons.
Cassandra Press and A Gathering of the Tribes’s aim of collecting the histories of the under-represented is shared by the Whitney Biennial curators, whose show also bears out another related tendency: an emphasis on dead artists. If the Whitney Biennial is often thought of as a forward-looking survey, this show proposes that we can’t peer into the future without also scouring every corner of the past.
When the curators lean on these dead artists to tell us something about what’s going on right now, the results are mixed.
The show has two paintings Denyse Thomasos, whose overlaid grids have their basis in her studies of slave ships, prisons, and burial sites. These are stunning works, and they make a good case for why the Whitney ought to stage a Thomasos retrospective right away. Meanwhile, a mini-survey devoted to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the artist Na Mira paid homage to with their video installation, is very possibly this biennial’s best offering. It includes rare text-based works that attest to how the artist toyed with how our reactions to the spoken word vary dramatically, depending on where we are and how we hear it. But a gigantic sculpture by Jason Rhoades that resembles a half-built home, armature and all, is unsuccessfully shoehorned in as a vague statement on the “conditions of manual working-class labor,” as the curators write in the wall text.
All of this is rife with insider-baseball allusions to Whitney Biennials past. Edwards says in her catalogue essay that the Cha and Cannon installations are references to a Joseph Cornell show that appeared at the 1962 edition. Rhoades is a Whitney Biennial mainstay, having appeared in three editions not including this one. (So too is the sculptor Charles Ray, who, with the 2022 edition, is now on his sixth Whitney Biennial.) As if to close the feedback loop, Cassandra Press’s contribution to the catalogue is a survey of publications, ephemera, and imagery related to previous Whitney Biennials.
This is a head-spinning amount of self-referencing, and you don’t necessarily need to know any of it, or even to care, in order to understand this show, whose curatorial framework can sometimes verge on pretense. What’s notable, however, is the number of artists in this edition—five, to be exact—who also showed at the 1993 Whitney Biennial. That show went down in history because of the ways its artists dealt head-on with race, gender, sexuality, and class, and because of the bilious takes leveraged against that exhibition by a predominantly white set of critics. Once considered by some to be one of the worst Whitney Biennials, it is now believed by many to have been one of the best.
The lesson to be learned from the 1993 Whitney Biennial is that art history is in constant need of revision. The most notable works of our time, such as a series of museum tags produced by Daniel Joseph Martinez produced for that exhibition, are often right in front of us. It is only with distance that we realize that.
And so it is worth heeding a quotation from the poet Paul Valéry that Renée Green, an alumna of the 1993 edition, has included in an installation in the 2022 edition, Lessons (1989): “Rare or beautiful things / Wisely gathered here / Touch the eye to see / As never before / All things in the world.”