Postscript to the Whitney Biennial: An Asian-American Perspective

Martin Wong’s “Closed” (1984–85), acrylic on canvas, with a glimpse of Robert Kinmont’s “The wings are in the paper drawer” (1972–73), wood, paper, and Snow Goose wings, at bottom left (photograph by Hrag Vartanian)

Now that the Whitney Biennial is finally over, did anyone notice that Patty Chang, Nikki S. Lee, and Laurel Nakadate weren’t included, just to mention three mid-career, Asian-American women artists who were conspicuously absent? Forget about younger Asian-American women artists like Jiha Moon and Chie Fueki — they don’t seem to stand a chance. And of course Mel Chin wasn’t in the Biennial, because what’s he ever done for you lately? What’s up with that?

I know, I know — Paul Chan has been in it, quit your griping. And yes, longtime New York artist David Diao is in this one. You know you are not behaving like an Asian American whose mother came over in 1949, on the last boat to leave Shanghai. You should be more grateful.

When the ubiquitous term “people of color” is used, does the speaker or writer also mean Asian Americans — itself a complicated category? Or do yellow and red get tossed out, like dirty bathwater?

Or should Asian Americans simply check the box labeled “Other” and quietly and politely go — like all well-behaved Asian Americans — into the room marked INVISIBLE.

Has Laurel Nakadate, who had a large-scale exhibition, Only The Lonely, at MoMA PS1 (January 23–August 11, 2011), ever been included in a Whitney Biennial? What about Patty Chang, whose Flotsam Jetsam, a collaborative film with David Kelley, is currently being shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (March 15–August 15, 2014)? What about Nikki S. Lee, whose film A.K.A. Nikki S. Lee premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (October 5–7, 2006)?

Ken Lum, “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014), powder-coated aluminum and enameled plexiglass (photograph by Jillian Steinhauer) (click to enlarge)

Yes, it’s true that Ken Lum was in the Biennial, along with, Martin Wong, who is dead. Lum’s piece, “Midway Shopping Plaza” (2014) is full of fictitious placards referring to the Vietnam War, while the strip mall signboard evokes the Vietnamese communities living in America. Martin Wong’s painting “Closed” (1984–85), which depicts a shuttered Chinatown storefront, is in the Biennial because Julie Ault, not one of the curators, chose him. Ault curated a room that had as its center point work by David Wojnarowicz and Wong, both artists who died of AIDS, and included pieces by Martin Beck, James Benning, Jesse Howard, and Danh Vo.

This leads me to the next question. Is it true that if you are a person of color (black, brown, yellow or red), the only way to get into the Biennial is to make work that deals with racial identity in a way that is acceptable? Who determines that agenda? If you go by the Whitney’s curatorial choices, the answer is obvious. You have to do what white curators want or you are going to remain invisible. So while everyone was applauding the number of mid-career abstract women artists who were in this year’s Biennial, no one gave a hoot that they were all white.

Let’s face it, if you are part of the art world, you live in a segregated society full of little ghettoes, with one of them being “people of color who make abstract art” and another being “Asian-American women who deal with identity.” It is not that the artists consigned to these ghettoes want to be shut up in them, but because the art world has decided that this is the way it is. These groups, it would seem, were underrepresented because no one in them made work of high enough quality. You can’t really argue with that, can you?

The 2014 Whitney Biennial was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art (945 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) March 7–May 25, 2014.

Update, 6/29 12:32pm: The text has been revised to note David Diao’s participation in the most recent Whitney Biennial.

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