“Whitney Biennial 2022: Quiet as It’s Kept” at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Installation of paintings by James Little at The Whitney Museum of American Art
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Before I begin this review of “Quiet as It’s Kept,” the latest iteration of the Whitney Biennial, let me cite two potential conflicts of interest. One of the artists included in the exhibition is a friend, another an acquaintance. Prior to meeting James Little, I was a fan of his carefully engineered geometric abstractions, proud elaborations on modernist precedent. Since meeting James, I’ve had the pleasure of his company, both in his studio and out on the town. A few years back, Jane Dickson and I shared a lively dinner in the Fells Point section of Baltimore after completing our duties as jurists for the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. (Crabcakes and beer, if memory serves.) James and Jane are veterans of the New York scene: they’ve pursued their art with uncommon persistence, having dealt with the obstacles, and enjoyed the rewards, of an artist’s life. Their inclusion in “Quiet As It’s Kept” is vindication of creative lives productively accounted for. Any artist featured in a Biennial, as the scuttlebutt has it, reaps professional rewards. If so, James and Jane have earned them. They’ve been around the block.

So, too, have the curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards. Breslin, the DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection at the Whitney, earned his wings at Houston’s Menil Drawing Institute and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Prior to her appointment as the Whitney’s Director of Curatorial Affairs, Edwards headed up Performa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to live performance, and did stints at The Walker Art Center and the Mellon Foundation. Breslin and Edwards are operators; they’re in the know. Which raises the question: why on earth did they want to organize a Biennial? Doing so is among the most thankless of tasks. If the exhibition isn’t subjected to a raft of political controversies, it’s bound to receive a critical drubbing. Charles Craven, writing for the New York Herald Tribune in 1932, started the ball rolling with his assessment of the first Biennial (which was then the Annual): “No more telling evidence of the deplorable state of American art has ever been assembled.” A glance at Twitter on the morning after the 2022 press preview saw one observer likening the Whitney to the Trump administration. (That’s not a good thing, should you be wondering.) Ninety years on, the Biennial still can’t catch a break.

Installation of paintings by Jane Dickson at The Whitney Museum of American Art
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“Quiet as It’s Kept” is mainly spread out over the fifth and sixth floors of the museum. The walls of the sixth floor are almost uniformly black, the walls of the fifth floor white. The artworks on the sixth floor are installed in a fairly traditional manner. The fifth floor is open and airy, subdivided by trellis-like structures on which objects are displayed. The curators have included a preponderance of videos (there are not a few darkened rooms to navigate) and a notable amount of abstract painting. Figurative painting is scant—unless one counts digital media as a form of painting, which some people do. Murmuring voices and other noises filter through the exhibition spaces, the accumulation of soundtracks from various filmed pieces. Artworks utilizing text are numerous. Extension cords, fans, lights, metalwork, lcd screens, and what appears to be plumbing punctuate the installation. Contemporary events and figures are touched upon: George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and covid. The past, too: Thomas Edison, the Constitution, and the Korean War. There are shelves full of books. On the morning I attended “Quiet as It’s Kept,” there was a battered Chevrolet roped off on the sidewalk in front of the Whitney. Was it part of the exhibition? Maybe. Maybe not.

“Quiet as It’s Kept” contains an abundance of political content, but you knew that. Contemporary art isn’t anything if it doesn’t address an issue—that’s the reasoning. Art does spring from a multitude of sources and sensations, that’s for sure. But the ideologies, grievances, and pronunciamentos typifying this Biennial? They’re depressing. The problem isn’t necessarily this or that theory. Rather, it’s the certitude with which the artists wield them. When did our radicals become such intolerant prigs or, for that matter, willing stooges of corporate interests? There isn’t a social malady, real or imagined, that can’t be winnowed down to its crudest component or expressed in atrocious grammar. One essayist writes about “diasporic Japaneseness,” another of how “in the afterlife all the museum’s (vestigial) wings will be unnamed in ceremonies young artists will perform by letting the dead sing through them in a continuous and uninterrupted tone that sounds like houselights [sic] dimming.” These excerpts, picked at random, are typical. The corresponding artworks are preferable if only because their tendentiousness is cleanly articulated. Sometimes a bumper sticker is preferable to a dissertation.

There’s art in “Quiet as It’s Kept”—some of which is worth communing with, most of which is negligible. But, really, this isn’t an exhibition about individual artworks. Though it’s foolhardy to take the installation aesthetic to task—I mean, the Giotto paintings lining the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel are, after all, “site-specific”—there is a difference between art as an elaboration on architecture and art as background noise. Breslin and Edwards don’t give their selections much credence. The funereal darkness, antiseptic artificial light, chug-a-lugging ambient sound, by-the-book outrage, and diminution of hard-won visions into fly-by-night decor: this is the least accessible Biennial ever, a migraine-inducing assault on the senses and a funhouse of preening elegance. Breslin and Edwards have done a thorough job, but, in the end, they’ve done the wrong job. After traveling extensively, visiting studios, speaking with all and sundry, and making tough decisions, what they’ve arrived at, basically, is a valentine to themselves. One doesn’t have to read their respective catalogue entries—letters to each other posing as essays—to intuit the self-congratulatory tone of “Quiet as It’s Kept.” Best wishes to the artists. Your work will survive the hostility to which it is currently being subjected.

(c) 2022 Mario Naves

This review originally appeared in the May 2022 edition of The New Criterion.

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Comments

  • chrisduncansculpture  On May 24, 2022 at 10: 10 pm

    Well said, Mario. I found myself dismissing much of the art – but on re-reading your review, your take is more accurate. It’s almost impossible to see or appreciate individual works in this loud, intrusive, contrived and self-congratulatory installation. That’s a shame for the artists involved.

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