Stained Glass, Rotting Bologna, And Rebellion At The Whitney’s First Downtown Biennial


The 78th Whitney Biennial opens this Friday, as the museum once again attempts to distill the State of Contemporary Art In America Right Now into a single exhibition. It’s a thankless task, to be sure, and if the past is any guide, it will be met by art world insiders with equal parts praise, feigned indifference, and sneering.

No matter! For the rest of us the Biennial offers a great opportunity to view a ton of art (and in terms of gallery square-footage, this is the biggest Biennial ever) by people less well-known than you’d usually find at a big museum show. And it’s the first Biennial at the Whitney’s newish downtown home, adding another level of interest and excitement to the proceedings. As Director Adam Weinberg said, the Whitney’s signature exhibition is “the greatest test” so far of the building’s design.

There are 63 artists in the Whitney Biennial this time around, and while individual results may vary, some of my personal favorites would include:

• Jon Kessler’s pair of as-usual crazy performative sculptures, “Exodus” (in which wooden figures spin around in flight from unstated terrors), and “Evolution” (in which post-apocalypse mannequins get acclimated to their water-logged world). Both pieces use iPhone cameras and flat screens to excellent effect.

• Larry Bell’s marching, laminated-glass boxes on the fifth floor terrace, which proceed from darkest red to nearly-sheer pink, and play with the sun in unpredictable ways.

• Aliza Nisenbaum’s brightly-colored set of paintings that portray the immigrant experience in low-key domestic settings. Nisenbaum uses live models in the creation of her work, a process she considers “an ethical one in which the two parties come to trust and know each other well.”

• Ajay Kurian’s “Childremass,” which hangs along the entire height of the museum’s open, interior staircase and features a nightmarish gang of kids who clearly mean you harm (or are here to save you?).

• Samara Golden’s “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes”, which uses mirrors, eccentric details, and the museum’s windows looking out onto West Street and the Hudson River to create an infinite (and grim) high-rise building that I found impossible to completely figure out.

• Pope L’s “Claim (Whitney Version),” a giant cube covered inside and out with meticulously-spaced slices of rotting bologna, each one of which is embedded with a bleary, photocopied portrait.

Oh and Jordon Wolfson’s virtual reality piece “Real violence” is fucking horrifying. You have been warned.

The Whitney Biennial will be on display from March 17 through June 11.