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Whitney Biennial artists take a hard look at America, and find ways to connect

March 21, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
The Whitney Biennial is a snapshot of American creativity and sometimes a reflection of our culture. What moods and themes did curators find when putting together the exhibition of contemporary art? Jeffrey Brown reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Every two years since 1932, the Whitney Museum in New York has put on an exhibition meant to showcase cutting-edge American art, as chosen by that year’s curators.

The Whitney Biennial is sometimes loved, sometimes hated, but it always gets huge crowds and attention from the critics.

Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the latest edition just opened in New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Whitney Biennial, a must-see exhibition for anyone interested in contemporary art, a snapshot of American creativity and sometimes American culture.

Featuring 63 artists, this is a relatively intimate show as these go. It’s the first biennial at the Whitney Museum’s new Lower Manhattan building, which was designed by architect Renzo Piano and opened in 2015, and the first in 20 years organized during a presidential campaign.

So, what did curators Christopher Lew and Mia Locks find when talking with artists and putting together the exhibition? No surprise, perhaps, a sense of unease and anxiety.

MIA LOCKS, Whitney Museum of American Art: It’s been a tumultuous few years. For better or for worse, I think a presidential election can sometimes be a moment when we, as a country and as a kind of society, do ask ourselves pretty hard questions about how we understand ourselves individually and collectively.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what did you see artists saying?

CHRISTOPHER Y. LEW, Whitney Museum of American Art: They’re thinking about the world in which they live in, and that can be defined in different ways.

But they may be thinking about a specific neighborhood, or they’re thinking about the city, and that what they’re making is intended to kind of speak back to society. For them, it’s not just a kind of precious bubble just to kind of look at, in and of itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: In a photography series shot over a year-and-a-half, Oto Gillen captures some of the mood and changes brought about by income disparities in his native New York City.

OTO GILLEN, Artist: This kind of sense of anxiety that everyone is having about the future, and the idea that the future has arrived faster than we thought it would, and in a way that we didn’t expect to, to show a certain state of America that may not be visible to everyone, but not in a necessarily definitive way.

Like, I want it to be open and for people to just be able to look at the world around them and ask questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Other works take a more direct approach.

Debtfair, by a group of artists tied to the Occupy movement, connects the debt incurred by college students to the poverty many artists face, while the vibrant sculptures and stained glass windows by Raul de Nieves, a young artist making his first appearance in the biennial, approach anxiety through allegory.

What is that story that you’re trying to tell?

RAUL DE NIEVES, Artist: The idea of fear. Like, how do we confront fear, you know? And when you realize what fear is, it’s like you should acknowledge it and greet it by the hand and walk away, so that you overcome this idea of fear. And, in a sense, like, being a part of such a grandiose show is a form of fear.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fear for you, you mean as an artist?

RAUL DE NIEVES: Yes. And I’m not afraid to say that, because it was — you’re like, what is this going to say, and how do I want to, like, portray myself and my work?

JEFFREY BROWN: Other signs of the times? A video installation by a collective called Postcommodity shows several miles of the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

Some of the work here, like Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s drawing Trump Rally, is overtly political.

Frances Stark’s Censorship Now is a different kind of provocation, arguing that censorship, and not free expression, would empower artists by raising their profile.

But, overall, this biennial, as opposed to some in the past, takes a less aggressive stance.

Whitney director Adam Weinberg:

ADAM WEINBERG, Director, Whitney Museum of American Art: I do see political work, but I do not think it’s hectoring. I don’t think it’s finger-wagging.

But there’s this sense of connection, a sense of people wanting to join together, a sense of — I think a sense of community and a feeling that, even though these are political times, this is not an us-and-them situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: That includes artists looking hard at their own communities. Deana Lawson’s photo series evokes a family album, presenting an intimate look into lives in her hometown.

DEANA LAWSON, Artist: The reason why I chose photography is because of that immediacy, that sort of documentary feel. But it’s oftentimes very staged, so it’s that dialogue that I’m interested in. I do want to pay a certain honor to them, at least in a sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: People who are not the subject of art so much.

DEANA LAWSON: Right, and traditional art, correct. So, I’m from a working-class family in Rochester, so a lot of the subjects I’m gravitated to are from working-class environments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Henry Taylor’s large- scale figurative paintings address the mundane, a summer barbecue, and conflict, black men’s encounters with police.

There’s a lot of painting here, in fact, much of it by first-time participants and women.

Aliza Nisenbaum spends hours with her subjects to depict scenes of everyday life, but also the immigrant experience.

Dana Schutz uses a collage effect of color and energy.

And then there’s 87 year Jo Baer.

You’re sort of the elder stateswoman here, right?

JO BAER, Artist: Apparently. Yes. Well, who knew?

JEFFREY BROWN: Baer is a renowned veteran in the art world, still very much at it with a new series of paintings, and returning to the biennial after several decades.

There’s a number of younger, especially women painters in this show.

JO BAER: Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: How does that make you feel?

JO BAER: Marvelous. I mean, look how well these paintings go with all these younger paintings. Look at this installation. It is so mind-boggling. It is such a joy to see that what I’m doing is what they’re doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Taken altogether, curators Lew and Locks present artists eager to engage in ways not always associated with contemporary art.

CHRISTOPHER Y. LEW: Even in artists that are riffing on pop culture or using more appropriated imagery, they’re doing it in a way that comes out of a certain sense of emotion and kind of sincere interest, and not just for a kind of ironic pastiche.

MIA LOCKS: Actually, we were surprised, in some ways, that, as the show came together, there are a number of works that do point to or suggest maybe more healing possibilities of art, or this kind of sense of kind of reparative practices, which are — maybe that’s symptomatic. Maybe that’s what we need of art right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: The biennial exhibition is up through June 11.

From the Whitney Museum in New York, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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