The Whitney Biennial, despite critical praise / dismissal and inevitable controversy, consistently mirrors the current climate of the art world. The 2014 Biennial featured three "outside" curators, a decision that erupted chatter about consistency, each overseeing exhibitions on one floor of the Whitney Arts Building free of a curatorial dictation from the other floors. It is important to note this is the last biennial to take place in the building and the first biennial organized in a visually separated manner. Thus our first indication that art, and how we perceive it, is changing on every level.
While perception of art is changing, the art featured, contradicts the biennial's reputation for favoring the future by highlighting the hidden masters - many of whom are featured postmortem. Peter Schjeidahl review of the biennial in the New Yorker does a wonderful job highlighting many of the deceased artists and the promised vision that passed with them.
With three curators on separate floors under the ever expanding umbrella of highlighting "American" art, it is impossible not to be comparative when viewing each of the floors. While Stuart Comer (Chief Curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA) and Anthony Elms (Associate Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia) offerings are executed with a trained eye and offer a balance of expected and innovative art, it is Michelle Grabner (artist and Professor in the Painting and Drawing Department at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago) fourth floor explosion of color, history, women and narrative that felt most memorable.
Grabner's curatorial statement forewarned of her intent: "Although it may be far-reaching to think that a Whitney Biennial could be organized as a curriculum for other artists, aiming at pedagogy seemed a worthy ambition. Not because I am an artist and a teacher, nor because I sought to create a democratic survey, but because I didn’t want the frame that the viewer will look through to be a purely subjective take on contemporary American art."
Teetering toward an overcrowded cacophony, Grabner's selection of female artists and valiant attempt to be inclusive of a variety of perspectives is refreshing. It is perhaps her overreaching that led to the HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? vs Joe Scanlan/Donelle Woolford debacle rooted in race perception and feminism. Soraya Nadia McDonald of the Washington Post does an explains the importance of the conflict here.
In the end one thing remains the same in art, "(s)he with the most controversy, ultimately wins."