Last year there was no Whitney Biennial, but the exhibition’s cultural presence was felt nonetheless. Alongside a sprawling New Museum show called NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, critics and curators recalled the memories and ramifications of the influential 1993 Whitney Biennial. Dubbed in shorthand as the “identity politics biennial,” the show focused explicitly on issues around gender, race, and sexuality and was summarily panned. In 2013, the ’93 Biennial became historical, lauded as a brave step in museum programming that set the tenor for much American art of the 1990s.
It’s hard to imagine that kind of discursive impact happening again. Barring some clever activist interventions aimed at the Whitney, the biennials have become internalist affairs arousing the attention of the Euro-American artworld and not much else. Often dominated by a canon of contemporary artists, they appeared like auction house diagnostics, save for 2012’s well-received, restrained edition. 2014 has put things right back where they started: organized by a tripartite curatorial team of Anthony Elms, Stuart Comer, and Michelle Grabner, each assigned their own floor, the Whitney Biennial this year becomes not much more than a generalist catalogue, not devoid of strong work but missing the challenge and urgency of something like 1993.
Viewed as a whole, the Biennial misses the opportunity to challenge its institutional frame. Works abound in the lobby, hallways, and sculpture court, but the museum feels squarely secure as a repository of haute-commodities. Art world trends come and go with unproblematized ease (behold the complete conflation of artist, curator, and archivist roles this year). But viewed as three different floors, the exhibition does manage to register as unique parts. Grabner’s floor offers the most in ways of visual allure, with a bravura central gallery bookended by Joel Otterson’s opulent chandelier sculpture and Sterling Ruby’s corroded ceramics. The artist’s physical hand features notably for Grabner, with dedicated sections to craft and a strong grouping of female abstract painters such as Louise Fishman and Dona Nelson.
Comer relies, in short, on a bit more brand-name cachet and new media allure. He opens with Bjarne Melgaard’s already infamous installation conceptually aimed at the anthropocene and its deleterious effects as summarized by images and sculptures of sex dolls, torture, monkeys copulating, and children being run over by cars, to name a few. As abject Grand Guignol, the effect is indelible, but as a political statement, it merely argues “things are bad.” Elms moves toward the intimate in his presentation, which centres on plaintive understatement with some standouts like Michel Auder’s lyrical video work and Paul P.’s quietly bracing ink drawings, but overall rings a tad lethargic. Elms’s muted tone seems to advocate for the Biennial’s primary ethos: better safe than sorry.