Artists on the Whitney Biennial

Joeff Davis, "Malachi Ritscher, Iraq War Protest, Chicago," 2003. Courtesy the artist. Included in the project "Malachi Ritscher" by Public Collectors

The Whitney Biennial, a bi-annual survey exhibition of up-and-coming artists from across the U.S., based at the Whitney Museum in New York, is one of the most visible and respected art exhibitions in the States. From its beginnings in 1932 as a painting and sculpture exhibition, to its incorporation of a wide range of media by the 1970's, to its periodic venue additions (including public spaces, Central Park, and, in 2008 the Park Avenue Armory to show large-scale performance and installation), the Biennial has had a goal of encapsulating the current moment in contemporary art. Many artists who have been invited to participate have gone on to fame, some to commercial success, and many have become part of a substantive ongoing dialogue around the meaning and implications of contemporary art.

Yet, the biennial has struggled to retain its identity. No one show can now encapsulate the contemporary moment, it seems. After all, the centers of the art world have become more international, and geographically distributed while artists have become more mobile, and self-directed in defining their models for production. The forms and contexts of conversations within contemporary art have become increasingly hybrid and diverse over the past few years as well.

Shana Lutker, "Protestation!," 2014. Installation view at Whitney Biennial 2014 (March 7 - May 25, 2014). Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. Collection of the artist | Courtesy Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. Photograph by Bill Orcutt

This year, the Whitney Museum made a bold move. It's the show's last edition at the museum's upper East Side location. They invited three guest curators, two of whom are also artists, and asked each to curate a section of the exhibition independently. There was a conscious choice made not to encapsulate one contemporary moment, but, instead to offer three perspectives that could coexist, perhaps resonate with each other, but remain distinct. There is always a great deal of debate in the press about whether or not an edition of the Whitney Biennial is hitting the mark, whether the work selected is successful both individually and as a grouping, and whether the curators' point of view is effectively articulating this moment. But this edition of the biennial, by it's very structure, avoids this expectation.

Stuart Comer was Curator of Film at Tate Modern, London, and recently joined MOMA's staff as Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art. Anthony Elms is an artist and also Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, previously worked at Performa 11, a performance-art biennial in New York, and is also the editor of WhiteWalls contemporary art journal. Michelle Grabner is an artist, co-director of The Suburban (artist project space) in Oak Park, IL, and Poor Farm (artist residency and project space) in Manawa, WI, Professor and Chair of the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a senior critic at Yale in the Department of Painting and Printmaking. All three are very well placed in their practices to consider the diversity and complexity of artists current modes of working. In their opening remarks, all three gave presentations that came off more like artist talks than art-historical statements, emphasizing their creative processes rather than declaring a thesis or positioning artists around it, and all three emphasized that they were most concerned that we considered the artists and their work directly, rather than through the lens of their remarks or curatorial frameworks. Michelle Grabner even made sure that the press gathered for the opening remarks were aware of the many artists gathered at the back of the room, listening in.

Installation view Whitney Biennial 2014 (March 7 - May 25, 2014). Whitney Museum of American Art, N.Y. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins. Left to right: Terry Adkins, "Aviarium," 2014; Gary Indiana, "Untitled (Stanley Park)," 2014; Carol Jackson, "Pandemonium," 2013; Valerie Snobeck and Catherine Sullivan, "Image of Limited Good," 2014.

Walking through the exhibition, there doesn't seem to be an overt thesis to any one floor. But, instead, there is a tangible aesthetic sensibility present in each grouping of work. Anthony Elms' floor is the sparsest, and includes more visually-reserved and archive-oriented works as well as writings displayed as visual objects, musical artifacts, some larger more formalist sculptures, and a performance art series. Stuart Comer's floor focuses on various kinds of media, production and identity hybrids, and a wide range of presentation formats including video installations, a mini experimental museum, and a photography installation. And Michelle Grabner's floor is an intentional collection of several different kinds of work, ranging from very large, intensely opulent installations made from sumptuous materials, to formalist painting, to a range of conceptual projects.

While each curator certainly has an intentional strategy, as a viewer walking through the exhibit, it feels as if each floor is more the outcome of a collecting process, an intuitive accumulation and grouping of work that simply speaks to the sensibility of each curator, rather than an overt construction of visual and conceptual relationships. In part this effect may come from the sheer scale of the show, which includes over 100 artists and even more works, but the process of taking in each floor is dense and intense, and each becomes it's own world that is both specific and entirely porous. This is quite satisfying, and seems to be as good a way to represent a contemporary moment as any. And it also leaves plenty of space for each artist's intentions to speak for themselves.

Installation view "The Great Train Robbery (Scene 3 version C)," 2013 by Dashiell Manley. Whitney Biennial 2014, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, March 7- May 25 2014. | Collection of the artist. Photograph by Bill Orcutt

No matter how a show like this is assessed at the time, it remains to be seen what it's impact will be as a whole, what it's impact will be on the practices of each artist that takes part, and what each artist's impact will be on a larger enduring artistic conversation. While predictions can be made, only history can tell how this will play out.

Rather than speculate, the intention of this piece is to learn from artists themselves how they assess the experience of participating in the biennial on their own terms.

The first artist's perspective I received was right after the curators' remarks at the press preview. Sitting behind all of the writers gathered there, and close to his own installed work, Zero-Sum, artist Matthew Deleget was taking in the moment. He is an old friend, and I had the privilege of witnessing him experience the moment of his work being seen publicly in this biennial for the first time as the writers made their way into the show. He was conspicuously delighted, very grounded in his own practice and perspective, and intent on articulating the process of developing his project.

Biennial artist Matthew Deleget (left) with artist David Diao, in front of his installation Zero-Sum, 2014, at the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, photo: Rossana Martinez

I asked Matthew, and a number of other artists to respond to the question "how is the biennial impacting your practice, both creatively and professionally?" Most are in the current edition of the biennial, and two are from previous editions. The collection of thoughts I received from artists based in Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and New York considers the value of participating in such a highly visible exhibition and demonstrates how ethical, generous and self-directed artists can be. There are more responses from Chicago, because my own network is more developed there, and, with a question as potentially personal as this, I approached artists I have a connection to.

I could posit many theories about the responses I received, but I would rather let the artists speak for themselves. The one conclusion I drew is that the artists in this biennial consider their practices on their own terms, are highly inventive, and that there is no one way to interpret participating in it.

This kind of non-hierarchical multiplicity, according to biennial curator Stuart Comer, is a defining quality of contemporary art. Rather than being some sort of binary coupling of stable and prescribed media (mixed-media, inter-disciplinary) he considers contemporary art and the thinking of contemporary artists to be 'poly-vocal', with multiple shifting centers and modalities. In the spirit of the 'poly-vocal', here are responses from artists on being part of the Whitney Biennial.

taisha paggett, "A Composite Field," 2012. Performance, MAK Center for Art and Architecture's Mackey Garage, Los Angeles, January 20, 2012

On the role of a biennial:

"The Biennial is an opportunity to have your work placed in a conspicuous conversation with a wide range of other art works. What I hope for is that my work holds its own within that conversation, that the things that are important to me and that motivate my work are conveyed to the viewers, and that the work adds something meaningful to the larger conversation."

Dawoud Bey, Chicago-based photographer

"I view the tendency to consider an artist's inclusion in Whitney Biennial as extra special, with a great deal of skepticism. While I have enormous respect for Anthony Elms, the curator who included me in the show, and the many wonderful people I worked with at the Whitney to realize Public Collectors' project, no one exhibit or one institution should ever be thought of as a barometer of who or what is most important in contemporary art."

Marc Fischer, Chicago-based member of the collectives Public Collectors and Temporary Services

'My great hope... is to meet other artists and individuals who share my interests and world view. I would like to expand my circle of friends, be exposed to new ideas, and challenged to make better, more rigorous work.'

Matthew Deleget, painter, sculptor and curator based in Brooklyn

"A work of art can participate in multiple moments as opposed to simply the fashionable here-and-now, so while exhibitions [like this] allow for the work to be met in a particular moment -- that moment is by definition closer to a detour than a destination."

Dave McKenzie, performance and video artist and photographer based in Los Angeles

Dawoud Bey, "Maxine Adams and Amelia Maxwell" (from "The Birmingham Project"), 2012. Two pigmented inkjet prints mounted on dibond, 40 × 64 in. (101.6 × 162.6 cm) overall. Collection of the artist. © Dawoud Bey

On status, visibility, and retaining an aesthetic center:

"In terms of my video/film-making career, nothing changed. However, "friends" came out of the woodwork to either dismiss me (why were YOU included?!) or to be my "plus 1" for WB events. The best part of the experience was being part of the ad campaign. A still from my video was used to promote the WB all over NYC. My image was on buses and subways and in print everywhere across the US."

Jennifer Reeder (WB 2000), filmmaker based in Chicago

"I imagine being part of this exhibition might instantly legitimize my work for certain people who've never heard my name. That's a great gift for any artist, a sense of safety and security that people trust that you know what you're doing, but that's also part of the hype machine and it can just as easily work in the opposite direction."

taisha paggett, experimental choreographer based in Los Angeles

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"I've been part of a lot of different projects -- CPI is the one I'm most proud of, and it's because of the people involved, not because of being part of an institutional program."

David Goodman, member of the New York-based experimental publishing collective Critical Practices inc.

"I anticipated that seeing my work on such a big stage and in the midst of so many other artists, many of whom I esteem very highly, would make competitiveness more of an engine in the studio. That has not been the case so far. I have felt more like a lamb than a lion since the show opened, preferring quiet and daydreaming to any kind of polemical stance-taking or metaphorical fisticuffs"

Elijah Burger, painter based in Chicago

Dave McKenzie, production still from "The Beautiful One Has Come," 2012. Video, color, sound; 5:48 min. Collection of the artist. © Dave McKenzie. Photograph by Dave McKenzie

"The biennial, like many large scale exhibitions, is an incredibly over-determined event in which various publics feel a need to weigh in on all the various aspects of the show and stamp them with their version of thumbs up or thumbs down... creatively, I am less interested in where and how works of art meet
demand(s) desire(s) need(s) want(s) and more in how and where works of art might be said to resist and remain something approaching their own thing--their own argument."

Dave McKenzie, performance and video artist and photographer based in Los Angeles

"Being in the Whitney Biennial is an honor. It's affirming, an acknowledgement that I am contributing something to the conversation that we call contemporary art, and encouragement to keep going. It feels like a passage, but it's not a beginning or an end."

Shana Lutker, sculptor based in Los Angeles

"The biennial is a status boost whether you move units [sell your work] or not, or whether you like status plays or not. We don't always know or comprehend that we have something to leverage... [the biennial] was my first clear experience with this kind of strategic perspective coming into focus, becoming real, then becoming a tool or an instrument depending on how you hold or present it. I'm really proud of our work during the show and learned a tremendous amount... [but] we all have to work hard to be real people and to be present no matter what we're doing, or where we're doing it. "

Jon Brumit, Neighborhood Public Radio (WB 2008), is an experimental sound artist based in Detroit

"It's always good to be in a show like the Biennial...this is the second time I've been in one. But whatever else it may mean or signify, one still has to return to the only thing that really matters...making more work."

Dawoud Bey, Chicago-based photographer

John Brumit, the broadcast desk at southern exposure during "THE WAY WE WORK," 2004

Elijah Burgher, "Bachelor machine, from behind and below (Guyotat version)," 2013. Colored pencil on paper, 17 × 14 in. (43.2 × 35.5 cm). Collection of the artist and Western Exhibitions, Chicago. © Elijah Burgher

On working with the curators:

" ..the first time (Michelle Grabner) actually saw the finished piece in the flesh was just a few hours before the Biennial opened. She invited me, chose a specific work yet to be made, and put her trust in me through to the very end. I've curated a lot of exhibitions over the years and I've never done anything close to this. Trust the cook. Don't worry about the meal."

Matthew Deleget, painter, sculptor and curator based in Brooklyn

"I'll just thank the curators for doing something brave and unexpected. I especially applaud the abundance of work from the Mid-West and of queer-related work."

Doug Ischar, video artist based in Chicago

"Anthony Elms had been an Academy Records supporter from early on - it was through his involvement with Whitewalls magazine that allowed the first large scale Academy Records project 'Filler' to be completed... The opportunity to present my friend [Matt Hanner's] work, to continue a long-standing conversation with Anthony, and to sneak around the corners of this conceptual/creative challenge is a key component of what Academy does."

Stephen Lacey, visual artist, experimental musician and lead artist for the Chicago collective Academy Records

Doug Ischar, still from "Alone With You," 2011. NTSC video, color, sound; 21 minutes. Collection of the artist. © Doug Ischar

Academy Records, still from "The Bower," 2011-13. 16mm film, color, silent; approx. 1:30 minutes, looped. Collection of the artist. Courtesy the artist. © Stephen Lacy

On creative process and preparing for the biennial:

"It's been an incredible to develop the Whitney Biennial project.. I've helped to generate a lot of energy [for the publications we created] --and this has definitely transferred into my studio practice."

David Goodman, member of the New York-based experimental publishing collective Critical Practices inc.

"...knowing that the project would be seen by an enormous number of people and put under great scrutiny did affect the challenges I set for myself...The subject of Malachi Ritscher and the scale of the opportunity pushed me to go deeper than I have in other Public Collectors projects, and to collaborate with more people in more places in order to tell his story."

Marc Fischer, Chicago-based member of the collectives Public Collectors and Temporary Services

"I'm doing my best to not allow [the biennial] to affect my creative practice. That feels like the healthiest way to approach being part of such a big exhibition. As wholly honored and grateful as I am to be involved in this, I am cautious of anything mired in hype and the biennial, being such a highly visible endeavor, is unfortunately no exception.... [I am] especially cautious of my own motivations for the decisions I make in the work I'm building. 'Am I doing x and y because I'm hoping to impress this person or that representative or am I doing it because it's truly evolving out of my research?' "

taisha paggett, experimental choreographer based in Los Angeles

"I took the invitation to be in the Biennial as an opportunity to make a new group of work, infused with thisenergy and excitement. I am happy with how it turned out."

Shana Lutker, sculptor based in Los Angeles

"Ultimately, this whole project has allowed me to show how messy conceptuality is, and how the artist gets to act as a poet who edits out the noise to bring forth a serious, important, poignant universal dialogue found among creators and among friends."

Stephen Lacey, visual artist, experimental musician and lead artist for the Chicago collective Academy Records

Mel Chin, "The Cabinet of Craving, " 2012. White oak, antique English bone ware (circa 1843), footed silver tray, steel, pigmented dye, shellac, 9 × 14 × 14 feet. Collection of the artist. Photograph by Susan Bowman

Tony Tasset, "Artists Monument," 2014. Etched acrylic mounted on steel and wood. Collection of the artist; courtesy Kavi Gupta, Chicago

On institutional support for a wide range of practices:

"My experience has been a little different than most participants because my art is off-site in Chelsea. I spent the opening telling people where my piece is. Early reviews ignored my eighty-foot sculpture. I was concerned I had made a big blunder not being in the building. But I just love the piece I made. More recently, I have gotten some press and I'm hopeful folks will continue to discover my sculpture."

Tony Tasset, sculptor and photographer based in Chicago

"I am a filmmaker and the WB was not then and still is not now able to accommodate for time-based work effectively. The film/video/performance/web-based/social-practice etc. is ignored (by critics and audiences)."

Jennifer Reeder (WB 2000), filmmaker based in Chicago

"Artists today have more and more an involved [public] presence without depending always on showing their work or/and being represented only in an exhibition, and that is quite interesting. It questions important things about what an artist can produce and under what form(s)."

Edouard Prulhiere, member of the New York-based experimental publishing collective Critical Practices inc.

Jennifer Reeder, "Nevermind"

On the impact of being in the biennial for the artists:

Many artists are ambivalent about the impact on their practices of participating in the Whitney Biennial. Some already see a deepening and broadening of the conversation around their work. Some found the scale of the show caused them to think bigger or expand their networks of collaborators. Some see an increase in invitations to present, or (for those with market-based work) in sales. Others were prompted to examine their ethical relationship to the art market or of creating in the context of intense public validation. Others see increased visibility and possibilities for the collective practices they are part of, or the individuals who are the subject of their projects. And, others still see no measurable changes at all, and simply continue making their work. You can learn more about their thoughts on the individual impact in their complete individual responses.

Read more about the Whitney Biennial:

California Artists in the 2014 Whitney Biennial
More than a quarter of artists in the 2014 Whitney Biennial are from California, offering west coast representation in an exhibition that is heavy with New York artists.

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Top Image: Joeff Davis, "Malachi Ritscher, Iraq War Protest, Chicago," 2003. | Courtesy the artist. Included in the project "Malachi Ritscher" by Public Collectors.

About the Author

Sara Schnadt is a curator, technology project designer and new media artist.
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