Review: 2014 Whitney Biennial

The Biennial tries something new, but winds up being the same old thing

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Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

Right off the bat, the 2014 Whitney Biennial raises a question: Is it an exercise in out-of-the box thinking? Or does it represent a tacit admission that the Whitney is no longer institutionally capable of mounting its signature show? The answer is probably both. Read on for our full review of this year's museum-wide exhibition with our own slideshow gallery of highlights, then scroll down for a sneak peak of the gallery itself.

  • Photograph: om Powel Imaging

    Keith Mayerson, My Family, 2013

  • Photograph: jeanchristophe Lett

    Jimmie Durham, Choose Any Three, 1989

  • Robert Ashley and Alex Waterman, Performance of El Parque, Vidas Perfectas, December 2011

  • Photograph: Jason Mandella

    Charline von Heyl, Folk Tales, 2013

  • Photograph: © Elijah Burgher

    Elijah Burgherm, Be like Orpheus, 2013

  • Photograph: Collection of the artist

    David Diao, Home Again, 2013

  • Photograph: © Dawoud Bey

    Dawoud Bey, Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell (from The Birmingham Project), 2012

  • Photograph: Ken Okiishi

    Ken Okiishi, gesture/data, 2013

  • Photograph: Tom VanEynde

    Molly Zuckerman-Hartung , Notley, 2013

  • Photograph: Devin Farrand

    Shio Kusaka (dinosaur 2) 7 1/2" x 6 1/2" x 6 1/2" porcelain 2013

  • Photograph: Steven Probert

    Dan Walsh, Threshold, 2013

  • Photograph: Robert Wedemeyer

    Sterling Ruby, Basin Theology/Butterfly Wreck, 2013

  • Photograph: Jeff McLane

    Dashiell Manley, Scene 3 Version B 2, 2013

  • Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

  • Photograph: courtesy Cheim & Read

    Louise Fishman

  • Photograph: courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery a

    Jacolby Satterwhite, “Transit,” Video Still from Reifying Desire 6, 2014

  • Photograph: courtesy of the artists and Luis

    Zackary Drucker, Relationship (Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, 2008)

  • Photograph: Tom VanEynde

    A 28172

  • Photograph: Collection of the artist

    Etel Adnan, Untitled, 2013

  • Photograph: Collection of Ray Morales from the estate of Norm MacNeil. ©Ray Morales. Courtesy Ray Morales

    Tony Greene, His Puerile Gestures, 1989

Photograph: om Powel Imaging

Keith Mayerson, My Family, 2013


Instead of the usual buildingwide bacchanalia of zeitgeisty goodness we’ve come to know and love (or love to hate), the proceedings are broken into three more or less discrete exhibitions. Each is mostly confined to its own floor, and organized by a different outside curator. Handling the duties are Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA; Anthony Elms, associate curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; and Michelle Grabner, who is an artist and professor in the painting and drawing department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. Asking why they got the job as opposed to other people is a bit like wondering why certain Ping-Pong balls pop up during Lotto drawings.

In some cases, one curator’s selection winds up on the floor of another (or in a Whitney common area, such as its lobby or moat), but each floor remains distinctly the expression of a single point of view.

Somehow it works, or at least it does so enough of the time to make this Biennial seem better than most. I know: faint praise! Still, this edition should be remembered for its inclusion of paintings in pretty decent numbers, as well as its emphasis on semiforgotten careers and artists from outside New York.

This separate-floor arrangement, of course, makes it easier to heap praise or to assign blame, depending on your tastes. For me, the Westminster trophy for Best in Show indubitably goes to fourth floor, helmed by Grabner. Apparently the first practicing artist involved in shaping a Biennial, she brings an artistic eye to installing art, a talent that curators were routinely expected to apply before the practice became professionalized. In her own work, she’s something of a formalist—a dirty word in certain quarters—but the attention she pays to the relationships between forms turns out to be a virtue.

Many of her selections are worth a shout-out, but those off the top of my head includes Gretchen Bender’s black crumpled cenotaph, listing backlighted movie titles form the ’80s; Joel Otterson’s psychedelic harem tent; Amy Sillman’s prismatic abstractions; and Joshua Mosley’s charming Claymation video of an early-20th-century tennis match. The last is hung within a stretch of rooms putting an emphasis on quietude, both visually and conceptually. It starts with one of Anthony Elms’s picks: Zoe Leonard’s spooky and sublime camera obscura installation. Set within a spacious portion of the floor, the piece consists of a large lens board covering one of the Whitney’s “eyebrow” windows overlooking Madison Avenue. On the opposite wall, the lens throws an upside-down projection of the buildings across the street, with the dimmed, blurry image being pretty much the same scale as its subject. From there you proceed into the gallery containing the aforementioned video, along with Stephen Berens’s layered photos of Rome, and a long shelf filled with Shio Kusaka’s exquisite pottery. This part of the exhibit is best summed up by the title of Ben Kinmont’s text-driven tableau in the next room: Shh. Down the corridor you’ll also find Jennifer Bornstein’s video of naked women performing modern dance routines, and Peter Schuyff’s case full of corkscrewing pencils.

“Nobody calls the Biennial the Oscars of the art world anymore, but in some ways, the comparison is more apt than ever.”


I wish I could say the rest of Biennial was as strong as the fourth floor, but it isn’t. I liked Ken Okiishi’s painted flatscreens on floor three, along with Bjarne Melgaard’s crazy, hypersexualized whorehouse of horrors off to the left of Okiishi’s wall. Melgaard is precisely the sort of art star who’s benefited from the market’s premium on sensationalism, but give the man his due: He’s good at what he does.

Ultimately, the 2014 Biennial is somewhat square, even provincial, and that may be okay for now. Because truthfully, the formula is impervious to change. You could scour the planet and probably find enough artists to mount a truly mind-blowing survey every other year. But that supposes the Biennial is just a show when it’s really not. It’s a brand, and like any brand, genuine risk makes its shareholders nervous. The Whitney’s forthcoming MePa home will only raise the stakes in this sense, making a ground-up rethink less likely.

Nobody calls the Biennial the Oscars of the art world anymore, but in some ways, the comparison is more apt than ever. Like the Oscars, the Biennial is an exercise in self-love, demanding attention it doesn’t quite deserve, but you pay it heed anyway. On that score, 2014 is the Ellen DeGeneres edition: safe, genial, with just enough jokes that land to distract you from the ones that fall flat.

Explore the Biennial layout for yourself

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

  • Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

    Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial

Photograph: Lauren Spinelli

Installation view of the 2014 Whitney Biennial



See the exhibition

2014 Whitney Biennial

This year’s edition of the exhibition once known as the show everybody loves to hate represents a departure for a couple of reasons. For one, it will be the last Biennial mounted in the Whitney’s current home; in 2015, the museum moves into its brand-new Renzo Piano–designed building in the Meatpacking District. But it also signals a departure from form, because it’s basically organized as three separate shows on as many floors by three outside curators. If nothing else, the Whitney is thinking outside the box as the Biennial says goodbye to Madison Avenue.

  1. Whitney Museum of American Art 945 Madison Ave, at 75th St, 10021
  2. Fri Mar 7 - Sun May 25
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1 comments

The problem with advertising and art world right now is the 20 - mid 30 somethings who really think they are something and are trying way to hard to prove they are special- and they're not, not in the least. It's the "everyone gets a gold star" problem. 

Nothing is organic which leaves us all yearning for something easy, exciting, creative and unmassmerchandisable. That's what happens when you have sub par sound bite narcissists creating for  people whose attention spans more than an obligatory 2 minutes.  

Too many shows are under the assumption they are deep when they are perversely shallow. Maybe if the galleries and museums would own their lack of creativity and ingenuity and work off of that we would be more romanticized and willing to submit.

"Presenting the worlds least original, least authentic yet absurdly interesting due to it's stigmatic nature (fill in the blank.)"
I'd go to that - An A for honesty, you know.