A Brief History of the Whitney Biennial


Love it. Loathe it. Ignore it. Embrace it: It won’t matter. The Whitney Biennial has long been an undeniable gale force in the unruly landscape of American art, and it’s not about to give up its rightful place anytime soon. Since 1932, it’s been the exhibition that has launched artists’ careers, stimulated collectors’ appetites, provoked rabid distaste, and fueled heated controversies — sometimes all at once. It has by turns delighted and narcotized and outraged critics and audiences alike. It is rarely rated the best show of the year — in fact, it’s long been the art world’s favored whipping post — but it is always a must-see. Why? For better or worse, there are few other museum shows that so consistently, persistently, attempt to take the temperature of the American contemporary moment.

And at this particular moment, when the art world feels so boundless (and often boundary-less), it may come as a surprise to learn that once upon a time in America, audiences, collectors, and curators cared very little about contemporary American art. In the early decades of the twentieth century, any taste for art was largely for the Europeans, from old masters through to the modernists. Paris was the center of the art world, and even here in New York, a young painter or sculptor wasn’t likely to find a gallery in which to show their work. Juried exhibitions — usually crowded, overhung affairs — were the aspiring’s great hope for discovery (and a sale). Socialite and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was one of the few passionate champions of American artists, and recognized the vacuum in which most of them were working. In the late Teens, with the help of her former assistant Juliana Force, she founded the Whitney Studio Club, a space in which artists could gather in the off-hours that later became the Whitney Studio Galleries, a venue dedicated to the exhibition and sale of contemporary art. Over twenty-five years, Whitney amassed a collection of around six hundred sculptures, paintings, drawings, and prints, all by living American artists, from works by the Ashcan School (a social-realist movement including Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, and George Luks) to pieces by Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Reginald Marsh, and others. It was only after the Metropolitan Museum of Art rejected her offer to donate her collection (and a sizable endowment for the building of a wing in which to display it) that she, in 1931, founded the Whitney Museum of American Art — a radical declaration about the value of this country’s growing cultural capital. In a foreword to a 1931 catalog for the collection, Force wrote: “This Museum will be devoted to the difficult but important task of gaining for the art of this country the prestige which heretofore the public has devoted too exclusively to the art of foreign countries and of the past.” In 1932, the Biennial was born.

Times have changed, of course, and so has the exhibition. What follows is a brief history of the Biennial — now in its first iteration in the museum’s newest home, off the High Line — a short version of a much longer story, the next chapter of which is just about to unfold.

1932 The first biennial exhibition of contemporary American art is held at the Whitney’s original home at 10 West 8th Street under the leadership of Force, the museum’s charismatic first director. Participation is by invitation only, and the artists are allowed to choose the work they’d like to exhibit. As Force remarks to the New York Times: “We send out our invitation and each artist wears what he pleases to our party.” “No juries, no prizes” is the guiding ethic. Most of the artworks on view are for sale, and the museum earmarks funds annually for the acquisition of new works for the permanent collection. (The museum takes no commission on any sales; the money goes directly to the artists, and early catalogs print their names and addresses so that buyers can contact them directly.) A number of critics agree that the Whitney’s good intentions have produced a less-than-stellar show.

1937 The Whitney changes to an annual exhibition of painting, in autumn, and sculpture and drawings in the spring.

1941 This year’s exhibition is titled “Artists Under Forty,” as the museum makes explicit its wish to support the younger generation. One hundred and sixty-five artists participate, including, notably, David Smith. No other museums in New York at the time are exhibiting living American artists.

1954 The Whitney moves from 10 West 8th Street to a building on West 54th Street, real estate on loan to it from the Museum of Modern Art, thereby taking its place among the ranks of midtown art world institutions.

1959 To give greater exposure to a greater number of artists, the Whitney begins to hold alternating annuals, featuring painting one year, sculpture and drawing the following. By this point, the roster of artists who have shown has grown to include some of the giants of the era: Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Yves Tanguy, Louise Nevelson, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Lee Krasner, to name a few.

1965 If once upon a time the Whitney Annual had introduced audiences to new talent, the rise of contemporary art galleries now deflates the museum’s reputation for discovery. As John Canaday writes in the New York Times of this installment’s “rather jumbled” exhibition of painting: “Few people realize that the New York dealers are the real tastemakers in American art. As middlemen between the artists and their patrons, whether the patron is a museum or a private collector, the dealer does the scouting and the filtering that used to be the function of the big competitive exhibitions juried by artists and museum curators…”

1966 The museum moves into a new $6 million building designed by the architect Marcel Breuer on the corner of Madison Avenue and 75th Street. The New York Times reports: “The museum itself may prove to have been the most important — if not the most beautiful — new work of American art of 1966.” With 29,000 square feet of exhibition space, the building allows for larger-scale exhibitions.

1973 The year of the first Biennial as it remains today. Then-director John I.H. Baur jokes that by having a biennial exhibition, “You only get clobbered every other year.” But even the new format can’t protect the show from taking a critical beating. “The show is terrible,” writes Lawrence Alloway in The Nation, blaming the inclusion of too many established artists, all of whom he believes are represented with “average pieces.” Artists on view include Anne Truitt, Cy Twombly, Frank Stella, Richard Serra, and Joan Mitchell.

1977 “This Whitney Biennial Is as Boring as Ever,” goes the headline for Hilton Kramer’s review in the New York Times. Conceptualism seems to be the culprit. Kramer calls out Barry Le Va, given “an entire gallery for his boring bits of wood”; Bruce Nauman’s “boring little stumps of solid steel plate”; and performance relics from Chris Burden, “the reigning genius of this dismal genre.”

1987 “1987 depresses me,” Arthur Danto writes in his review for The Nation of that year’s Biennial. While praising the exhibition for successfully “mirroring the times,” he mourns the state of art in America, which suffers from what he terms “curatorial art.” The rise of art collecting has seeded a rise in professionalism. Blossoming blue chippers Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Richard Prince, and Julian Schnabel are some of the seventy-two artists on view. A telling detail about the consolidation of art world power: One-third of the artists exhibited are represented by four gallerists: Holly Solomon, Robert Miller, Leo Castelli, and Ileana Sonnabend.

1993 The Notorious 1993: No Biennial has ever received as much vitriol — or so radically shifted the cultural conversation — both inside and outside the art world. With the Culture Wars still raging, curator Elisabeth Sussman leads the museum’s assembly of eighty-two artists, many of whom are wrestling with identity politics, racism, homophobia, and other plagues on the American landscape. As Sussman will recall in 2005, “it offended everyone.”

It must be noted that many of the critics who panned the exhibition were white men: Robert Hughes, Peter Plagens, Michael Kimmelman, Jed Perl, Kramer. “Four visits to this biennial have left me grouchy,” wrote Peter Schjeldahl in the pages of our very own Village Voice, complaining of the “indifference in so much of the work on view to whether I or anyone else likes it or not.” The public was equally vociferous in their displeasure. Ironically, the exhibition is widely lauded today as what Times critic Roberta Smith deemed it then: “a watershed” that helped launch the careers of Matthew Barney, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Charles Atlas, Sadie Benning, Cheryl Dunye, Karen Kilimnik, and Lorna Simpson.

2000 Amending the Whitney’s original ethic that the Biennial have “no juries, no prizes,” the Bucksbaum Award is announced; the prize gives $100,000 to support an artist in the exhibition “whose work demonstrates a singular combination of talent and imagination and who has already made or promises to make significant contributions to the visual arts in the United States.” Winners are named the museum’s “artist-in-residence, and as such participate in the museum’s many educational programs.” Paul Pfeiffer is the award’s first recipient.

2006 “In the current plethora of biennial and triennial exhibitions, art fairs, and large group shows across the United States and the rest of the world, how can the Whitney Biennial remain relevant?” ask curators of the 2006 offering Chrissie Iles and Philippe Vergne. “There is very little that has not already been seen, digested, and critiqued.” Their answer: “Day for Night,” the first Biennial to have a title.

2012 The Bucksbaum Award is given to Sarah Michelson, the first choreographer/performer to receive it. Other winners include Irit Batsry (2002), Raymond Pettibon (2004), Mark Bradford (2006), Omer Fast (2008), and Michael Asher (2010).

2015 The Whitney opens the doors to its new Renzo Piano–designed building in the meatpacking district, just off the High Line, overlooking the Hudson River. With 50,000 square feet of exhibition space over six floors, and an additional 13,000 over four outdoor terraces, the new architecture echoes the grand ambitions of the Whitney’s original mission: that American art be given a home worthy of its voices and visions. Schjeldhal, writing in the New Yorker, declares the building “ingenious” as “a landmark on the cultural and social maps of the city — and on its poetic map, as a site to germinate memories.”

Due to the museum’s move, the 2016 Biennial is postponed until 2017.

Read more from our coverage of the Whitney Biennial:

What Makes Art “American” in 2017?

The Bold Groups Tying Art History to Political History at the Whitney Biennial