THE GLASSINE LOBBY OF THE WHITNEY was thick with Comme des Garçons “Floriental” on Tuesday morning, overwhelming, even through a surgical mask. Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, asked for a show of excitement, as if ginning up the crowd at a Dua Lipa concert and not a room of journalists at 10 AM after the coffee service had run dry.
The 2022 Whitney Biennial is really the 2021 Whitney Biennial, waylaid a year for obvious reasons. The exhibition is a curious ritual, a stress test of American art production, but also a kind of debutante ball for young artists, and an act of trust on their part that the museum doesn’t screw it up for them. Weinberg alluded breezily to controversies of the recent past, such as the last go-round, when the museum declined to remove from its board a member flirting with war crimes. Behind him, the wall of windows facing West Street were blacked out by Nayland Blake’s recreation of the entrance to Mineshaft, the Meatpacking leather bar that in the late ’70s and early ’80s was so extreme even Mick Jagger was turned away but is now an abandoned outpost of Sugar Factory.
Upstairs, biennial curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards had painted the walls and ceiling black and blanketed the floor in matching carpet; it felt less leather bar than Jekyll and Hyde Club, as though an animatronic skeleton was liable to jump-scare at any moment. Daniel Joseph Martinez came close with a suite of posthuman self-portraits, his face barely recognizable behind impressively grotesque prosthetics. So did Andrew Roberts, with his digital videos of zombie gig workers and severed silicone arm tattooed with Amazon’s sickly smiling logo. The undead are a neat metaphor for the rest of us, phone-addled and TikTok-tranced, back on the circuit, shuffling from one prestige art world event to the next. You used to be able to go to a museum for a reprieve from that sort of thing.
Mostly it seemed intent not to offend. Down a level, the walls that typically carve the floor into labyrinthine galleries were removed, a metaphor about obliterating boundaries, maybe, but which in practice made it feel like an IKEA showroom, filled with lengthy video art. If the art is hard to look at it’s not because it’s ugly or especially provocative, but because sitting on a metal folding chair for an hour simply isn’t a pleasant experience.
This biennial seems to want to conjure the seismic disturbance of the 1993 edition, but only in roster. Three Charles Ray sculptures plonked on an outdoor terrace summoned memories of his massive red fire truck parked on Madison Avenue, not unwelcome exactly, even though Ray has featured in plenty Biennials since, and is more than sufficiently represented uptown at the Met. Martinez’s I CAN’T IMAGINE EVER WANTING TO BE WHITE admission tags set the tenor in 1993, but his contribution this year was an agreeably colorblind indictment of mankind in general. (It’s true you can’t go home again, because they’ve turned it into a Sugar Factory.)
Art should piss people off, which is not the same as being annoying. Around the museum, gnomic little questions kept popping up, pasted to walls in the same all-caps black Letraset stickers the museum uses for its wayfinding system, yelling things like WHAT DID THE EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION DO? at you when you’re taking the stairs and WHAT DID MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DO? from the bathroom mirrors. These were part of Rayyane Tabet’s series “Becoming American,” extracted from the US naturalization test. It’s the kind of cutesy thing that’s meant to be philosophical but isn’t, especially if you’re trying to illustrate the bureaucratic indifference of the United States immigration apparatus, of which there are far more horrific examples.
A biennial is tough business. It’s heavy and slow moving. Trying to take the pulse of something as slippery as the mood of this entire country’s artists, plus some of Canada’s and Mexico’s, is unenviable work. Admirably, Breslin and Edwards avoided leaning on pandemic art, with which everyone is exhausted, instead choosing work that references the last three years obliquely (Dave McKenzie documenting his crack-up under isolation), or focuses on more perennial American plagues, like ceramics. Woody De Othello had created a barge of gruesome examples in the faux-naive style: dopey-looking figures that shield their eyes, as if they are exhausted with or ashamed of themselves, a quality more art should share.
Weinberg called the Biennial a homecoming, but the night felt more like a tailgate party. Later in the evening the shoal of industry types and hangers-on stretched around Gansevoort Street and up to the falling-apart Standard Hotel, so thirsty, apparently, for an old-fashioned art rave that they were willing to wait an hour in the cold, only to be pummeled by the crush toward the open bar and find it was out of tequila. Outside the Whitney, the museum’s unionized staff were pamphleteering, educating the captive audience on their administration’s dragging in contract negotiations (one sign: “Honk 4 Safe Working Conditions”).
The size of the crowd was so large it seemed wrong, not that this appeared to bother most of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who are noted art aficionados (Flea is a big Thomas Houseago nut), and were having a serious-looking discussion near Eric Wesley’s giant drinking bird toy, a profoundly tragic figure which was meant to illustrate the miracle of thermodynamics, but which remained static as gawkers refused to give it a push and allow it to fulfill its destiny. Somewhere in there was a commentary on the indifference of the masses, but it was probably better to keep moving.
Nearby, Aria Dean posed with her crumpled ionic column rendered in a queasy, toxic sludge green, which looked like an Anne Truitt worked over with a tractor. In a corner, Rose Salane had taxonomized thousands of bus tokens, casino funny money, and other nonlegal tender into an affecting portrait of the New Yorkers who once possessed them. A woman in a floor-length faux mink swept by and whispered, “I have a lot of change, I could do that too,” and I had to believe her.