Quiet as it’s Kept; Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial

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“Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”

This is the opening line of Toni Morrison’s, ‘The Bluest Eye’, and source of inspiration for the title of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial. Well, one of the inspirations. And also, it’s been three years, not two. (Insert sigh) It’s complicated.

The show has supposedly no fixed beginning, a choice of either the 5th or 6th floor, and is an evolving circle. Evolving because many of the works will change, be taken down, and rehung, over the course of the exhibit. However, there is an antechamber on the 6th floor which to me seems like the desired starting spot. I suppose the option to start elsewhere is a choice to join the conversation on your own terms, a way to be defiant on the structural course. I did not personally make this choice and felt that the loud protest footage certainly sets the tone for what seems to me, the historical perspective the Whitney curators are hoping visitors to enter with.

Artist Dave McKenzie (This was one of my favorite works at the show)

Cited for the desire to make, “a show that felt like the times in which it’s occurring”, bringing in questions of American identity, structural issues of culture, and diverse mediums, the show does bring contemporary issues to the forefront. I felt the intensity of political divide in current American culture even in the structural layout of the two galleries; one is open, bright, spacious but without direction. The other is darker, labyrinthian, could lead some to feel claustrophobic while others might enjoy the ease of the path. I am curious if attendees’ preference for the physical experience of one gallery over the other has any correlation with voting trends.

The show features the work of 63 artists, yet the curators describe a desire to “be alongside the artists, to not rely on them” in speaking about modern times. Considering that planning for the biennial began long before the door opened, it is impossible to deny that certain artists will be selected for the content of their work and the identity they present through it tying in with popular narratives. Personally, I enjoyed the breadth of the types of work in the exhibit. It is clear from the design choices to the range of work that the biennial has been fully exhaustive in research and planning. It just for me, did not provide a new experience or insight into American identity, history, or current times through the art.

by artist Ralph Lemon
Sculptural work by Aria Dean
by artist Rick Lowe

A show that absolutely did provide this experience was the Dawoud Bey photography exhibit at the Whitney, whose innovative display and accompanying sound score with photos of rest stops along the underground railroad has stuck with me to this day.

I have the inkling that this past show was more successful to me because it allowed me to be part of the art, to experience it for myself without the emotional highlighting of marginality, of ‘otherness’. Although a ‘biennial’ seems like a celebratory title or anniversary, this is not a celebration.

There’s the kind of show that has good intentions in the spirit of community in that it asks participants to look to the outer reaches of the circle and draw those on the fringes closer, to be empathetic towards suffering or questioning. Others choose to celebrate the unities that already have you standing together. I don’t know if it’s because of the intense opposition detailed by the media in every neighborhood in issues of race relations, education, human rights, immigration, capitalism, veganism, guns, etc etc etc that it seems we don’t have much in terms of a united identity and spirit. The show at the Whitney seems to capture the former. Maybe we can all unite under the guise of the do-gooder identity because we went to see an art show with some art created by black and brown and gay people. Personally, I enjoyed a lot of the artwork. I just didn’t like the sense that I was being told how to feel about it.

A show titled with the intention of keeping something secret, in this context and perhaps that of the show itself, so secret that even the creators are refusing to acknowledge something, the disquiet of an obvious truth. The goal of this show seems not to be about questions, but about saying something very specific.

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