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Looking Back at the 2014 Whitney Biennial on Hyperallergic

by Jillian Steinhauer on May 29, 2014

Reflections in Shana Lutker’s “Protestations!” (2014) at the 2014 Whitney Biennial (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

This past weekend, the 2014 Whitney Biennial drew to a close (sort of — the third floor remains in place through Sunday): another two years, another entertaining show and a questionable attempt to survey the field of contemporary American art. Over the decades, for better or for worse, the art in the Biennial has often been eclipsed by the discussions that art engenders. This year was no exception. There was a lot to discuss.

And so we did! To date Hyperallergic has published 16 pieces about the show — and we’re not even finished yet. That may sound like a lot, but it’s a testament to the Whitney Museum, the curators, and the artists of the show that they gave us so much to think and write about. And since the next Whitney Biennial won’t actually be for another three years, in the institution’s brand new Renzo Piano–designed downtown Manhattan home, we may as well spend a good, long time unpacking what’s recently transpired. Let’s start here.

Pre-show

Curators Michelle Grabner, left, and Anthony Elms, right (photos via Grabner’s and Elms’s Facebook pages)

We began covering the 2014 Biennial long before it opened: specifically in late 2012, soon after the curatorial announcement was made. Writer Alicia Eler conducted an interview with the two “Midwesterners” picked to organize the show, Michelle Grabner and Anthony Elms, about the Chicago-ness of their curatorial styles. Nearly a year later, when the artist list was released, I played Debbie Downer and tallied some depressing statistics for what was being called “one of the broadest and most diverse takes on art in the United States that the Whitney has offered in many years.” The discussion had begun.

Reviews

Sterling Ruby’s “Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck” (2013) (photo by Hrag Vartanian for Hyperallergic)

Four months later, the Biennial finally opened (boasting one of the most crowded press previews I’ve ever attended). Since each curator had been given a separate floor to realize his or her vision, we decided that the best approach to reviewing the exhibition as a whole was to talk about each floor individually. Editor-in-chief Hrag Vartanian expertly took on that task, offerings insights about as well as gorgeous photos and criticisms of the three shows within a show.

I wrote a more thematic review, after coming away from the Biennial feeling like it was too insular and disengaged from the non-art world. Following that, we had three more excellent pieces exploring different themes in the show: Paul David Young, writing for Hyperallergic Weekend, explored the presence of text; Sarah Archer addressed the preponderance of clay; and Charles Eppley dove deep into sound.

Interviews

Installation view of the 'Semiotext(e)' room at the Biennial (photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic)

Installation view of the ‘Semiotext(e)’ room at the Biennial (photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic)

Reviews are great, but it’s always nice to hear from the participants in a show too, to get a another perspective. Writing for Hyperallergic Weekend, Lisa Darms conducted two thoughtful interviews with two very different 2014 Biennial participants: artist Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, whose painting “Notley” was on view, and Hedi El Kholti, co-editor of the journal Semiotext(e), which contributed a kind of reading room on the third floor.

News & Events

Some of the organizers of the Clitney Perennial dancing during their protest at the Whitney Biennial (photo by Jillian Steinhauer for Hyperallergic)

Then came the big news: on May 14, managing editor Mostafa Heddaya broke the story that the artist collection HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, also known as the Yams Collective, was withdrawing from the 2014 Biennial. Their reason was the show’s inclusion of artist Joe Scanlan and his “Donelle Woolford” project, as well as what Yams saw as the Whitney’s and the Biennial curators’ nonresponse to their concerns. The narrative of the 2014 Biennial had come full circle.

These questions of diversity and representation were raised time and again throughout the run of the Biennial, often by feminists. During the show’s opening weekend, one of the members of the Yams Collective organized an alternative, all-female, one-night-only exhibition called the Whitney Houston Biennial. After Yams announced their withdrawal this month, some of the collective’s members participated in a feminist protest called the Clitney Perennial at the museum. Now, as if to tie all these threads together, the group will be screening the video they pulled from the Biennial tonight and tomorrow night in Brooklyn. Look out for our review of it next week … when our Biennial coverage might finally be complete.

The Complete List of Articles

For those who prefer lists, here are all the articles in chronological order:

The 2014 Whitney Biennial took place at the Whitney Museum (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) from March 7 through May 25. The third floor remains on view through June 1.

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