My Whitney Biennial

Every two years when the artists list for the Whitney Biennial gets released, emotional and intellectual debates stir about who was left out and what communities went unserved. It was no different this time around as the museum released Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders’ selections for the 2012 version, likely to be the last in the Whitney’s current Marcel Breuer-designed building as it readies for the move to the meatpacking district. My twitter feed and various art blogs streamed early opinions – some expressed relief to see deserving artists finally make the cut, others bemoaned the under-representation of women and minority artists, there was an observation that the list seemed “Artforum-y,” etc.

All the attention is both a gift and a curse for its curators. The biennial, like the Oscar Awards, will always be judged harshly because its grand mission and history to survey the art of the contemporary (American?) moment makes it among the most prestigious group exhibitions to be included in, and also sets up an impossibly ambitious thesis to satisfy. I don’t envy the kinds of conceptual, logistical and political decisions the curators had and will have to face. The most important decisions are out of the way for them: deciding who’s on the final list. A few weeks ago artist and critic Sharon Butler, who writes the blog Two Coats of Paint, anticipating negative reaction to the leaked list, issued a challenge on her twitter (@TwoCoats): “everyone shld curate their 51-artist #whibi2012“.

So I decided to compile my own imaginary Whitney Biennial artists list, based on my conception of America as always carried along by the undercurrent of race. My decade was the 90s and my biennial would bring forth identity politics. It would look back into the 90s at how the politics of race and ethnicity were argued for, and in what kind of language. It would then recalibrate those debates in today’s terms, upon today’s means of communication and political struggle, to get a picture of racial dynamics now.

I was convinced nobody else thought this way until a few days ago when art critic Claire Barliant mentioned she had also been thinking seriously about art dealing with identity politics. How its moment had passed in the 90s, with much of the work dismissed as “victim” art, never to see critical attention return. What are the real reasons behind this, we wondered. Now was the time to do a show about this work, Claire asserted. A survey of its key works from the past and newer work that takes up the same issues today. We agreed that identity politics in art is well overdue its retrospective and contemporary attention. I was happy to hear someone else be so in tune with what I was feeling and this conversation prompted a revisiting of my list. Claire talked about identity politics as it related to sexual orientation and gender, which I hadn’t considered for my list, but which should be included in any show broadly stated as being about identity politics. I didn’t include those artists here because of time constraints.

Some of the artists in my list (see below) may be upset that their work is seen through this frame, and those that aren’t on it may be disgruntled by the omission (though I doubt that). It was a difficult list to compile, though easier because nothing was at stake. This show won’t go on, and I highly doubt I’ll ever be asked to curate one of these. Having gone through this exercise, I can only imagine the agony of the Whitney Biennial curators as they made excruciating decisions to exclude a lot of deserving artists, many of whom are their friends. But when their biennial opens the light of criticism, envy and adoration will shine brightly on them and the artists they’ve selected. For now, I hope you read these names carefully and maybe do a google search of them. Their work deserves the attention and I’m intoxicated with excitement thinking about their work assembled together some day.

Here’s my list:

Jaishri Abichandani, Manuel Acevedo, Derrick Adams,Terry Adkins, Elia Alba, Laylah Ali, Blanka Amezkua, Tomie Arai, Nicole Awai, Nadia Ayari, Radcliffe Bailey, Tamy Ben-Tor, Sanford Biggers, Karlos Carcamo, Nick Cave, Patty Chang, Mel Chin, Ken Chu, Seth Cohen, Robert Colescott, Papo Colo, William Cordova, Jimmie Durham, Brendan Fernandes, Benin Ford, Coco Fusco, Chitra Ganesh, Rupert Garcia, Rico Gatson, Mariam Ghani, Renee Green, Alejandro Guzman, David Hammons, Skowmon Hastanan, Leslie Hewitt, Donna Huanca, Arlan Huang, Yoko Inoue, Emily Jacir, Arthur Jafa, Steffani Jemison, Rashid Johnson, Jennie C. Jones, Brad Kalhamer, Jayson Keeling, Swati Khurana, Byron Kim, Terence Koh, Simone Leigh, Shaun Leonardo, Lam + Lin, Bing Lee, Nikki S. Lee, Kalup Linzy, Jeanette Louie, Miguel Luciano, James Luna, Tala Madani, Kerry James Marshall, Charles McGill, Yong Soon Min, Ivan Monforte, Irvin Morazan, Yamini Nayar, Manuel Ocampo, Joe Overstreet, Cliff Owens, Fahamu Pecou, Paul Pfeiffer, Adrian Piper, William Pope.L, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Sara Rahbar, Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, Faith Ringgold, Athena Robles, Rafael Sanchez (the one who had a solo show at Exit Art in 2010), Jacolby Satterwhite, Dread Scott, Seher Shah, Xaviera Simmons, Jeff Sonhouse, Mary Ting, Slavs & Tatars, Sol’Sax, Hong-An Truong, Juana Valdes, Mary Valverde, Kara Walker, Kay WalkingStick, Hank Willis Thomas, Saya Woolfalk, Lynne Yamamoto


15 Comments on “My Whitney Biennial”

  1. janet says:

    why does it have to be called whitney? is not the making of this list is equally artforum-y exclusive ?

    • Herb Tam says:

      Yes, you’re right, this list is exclusive. Unfortunately, lists inherently are. But this piece is about offering a different kind of biennial at the Whitney…

  2. erin sickler says:

    Hi Herb,
    While I totally agree with you about the blinding whiteness and otherwise myopic selection of this biennial, I disagree that the addressing this problem means merely selecting a different group of artists. Racism, sexism, or any other ism, isn’t simply about representation—having lots of different shaped and colored faces at the table—but about social justice—why are some people, aesthetic choices, opinions given value in society above others?

    When, in 1914, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the Whitney Studio Club, now the Whitney Museum, to champion American artists and specifically a group of painters known as “The Eight”, contemporary artists in New York had very few venues to exhibit their work. The biennial annual, which later became a biennial, was created to highlight the work of American artists who were largely unrecognized as compared to their European counterparts. It was about filling a gap. Today, there are multitudes of venues that showcase contemporary art in NY—over 600 gallery exhibitions at any one time.

    In a recent Intelligence Squared debate at Rockefeller University called THE ART MARKET IS LESS ETHICAL THAN THE STOCK MARKET, artist Chuck Close ventured that there are no undiscovered geniuses out there, maybe some competent ones, but no great ones. I would argue, instead, that it is impossible to recognize great art today because we simply refuse to see beyond our own nose, question the complicity of our own biases, roles and institutions, not to mention that we are too busy collectively beating the dead horse of this tired old European derived model of art. New art forms don’t emerge from a single mind, they emerge out of collective consciousness and often out of social movements. How do we create the conditions for that?

    The biennial privileges this selection function of the curator—the single curator as tastemaker—but masquerades itself as an objective judgment: i.e. the Whitney Biennial showcases the best of American art in the past 2 years. As for myself, I don’t privilege selection as one of the main focuses of my work as a curator. Certainly, I do select—consciously or unconsciously–the artists I want to engage with, but then it is a process of close listening and looking, working with them to explore ideas and critique them and at the same time opening my ideas to them to be critiqued, modified and transformed. There’s absolutely nothing objective about this process at all. It’s totally subjective and about relationships—of ideas, situations, objects, and people. Oftentimes, I don’t choose to work with an artist because I am in love with their work, but rather because it gets under my skin. It has nothing to do with whether I think an artist is best or not. In general, I think we should question the idea of greatest hits or top ten lists a little more carefully, rather than making our own.

    Obviously, I am putting this out there to get a discussion going. Thank you for having the courage to start it. Much love and respect, Erin

    • Herb Tam says:

      Hi Erin, great to read your thoughts. Yes, the system is somewhat broken (to what degree, I won’t get into here). Those who get to decide these lists – curators – wall themselves in with their power and pretend they (we!) are the only ones that can officiate art in a meaningful way. Curators are middlemen and middlewomen to the whole thing, forcing themselves into positions of authority. And like unions we naturally defend our profession even when it’s in many of our natures to be self critical. This power dynamic, determined somewhat by market forces, is a very American thing and of course isn’t isolated to the arts; This is the case across all fields of business and even scholarship. What makes one an expert? And so I don’t feel bad about making a list or curating a show, because yes, this is how it is in our dystopia.

      And like in other fields, the movement of art – its sociability (how and where it gets presented) – depends in part on the networks that artists have. Art takes some explaining these days and showing it takes a lot of trust between curators (whose position is under review!) and artists. You know that as much as anyone. Therefore, artists that are more sociable do have an easier time getting their work out there.

      Which leads me to another paradoxical point: people make art sometimes because they want to be alone, not because they want to be with a group of like-minded people. They want to express something privately to themselves and see what that is. And they want to express difference from the crowd. Yes, there is a collective psyche at work here…oh man, I have to get back to work…to be continued.

      Thanks for caring enough about this to push the discussion forward.

  3. Hello Herb, could you please provide me an e-mail address to get in contact with you? Thank you.

  4. Janet says:

    I did think that the folks on your list are mostly wonderful artists, however, to imply that they are somehow not affilitiated with the very institutions you are “protesting.” whitney fellows, art prize nominees, gallery represented artist, ivy league graduates– it doesn’t seem to be such a leap other than the fact that they are “identity” based artists, which could also be challenged. who decides that? what other identities are left out? where are the people on the true scale of under represented?

    • Herb Tam says:

      Thanks for the comment Janet. The post wasn’t exactly an act of protest..Sure I was alarmed by the lack of minority artists on the whitney biennial list, but I usually am for any show. Instead, I wanted to propose a different list, made up of artists whose work I greatly admire (and there are people’s work I greatly admire who didn’t wind up on my list), under an idea – identity politics – that I propose is still very important and needs to be looked at again seriously. The words identity politics has become nearly taboo in the art world. I believe people feel threatened by it. We need to think about why that is. In America, art is pretty much a free zone where ethics and morals can be tested or ignored. Even still there has to be a greater conscience at work in the art world as just one of many available directions that art can take.

  5. MuseumNerd says:

    Great back and forth, you two.

  6. Steven Lam says:

    Hi all,

    I always find it useful to slightly shift the discourse of identity politics to the politics of difference. It’s important to not see one’s identity as property, as fixed, but to examine the mechanisms of exclusion either naturalized as ‘taste’ or perhaps are an extension of deeper seated institutional forces. Identity politics can be too light at times, though I certainly see the 90s as a politicizing moment. One of the best neo-90s projects of 2011 was Untitled by Jim Hodges, Encke King, and Carlos Marques da Cruz. That would be on my list.

    Stevie Lam

  7. Dan S Wang says:

    This list is a good conversation starter, but it hardly fills big gaps on the levels of renown and exposure. MacArthur Fellows and at least a dozen names that are canon worthy would make for a show nearly as conservative as what the Whitney came up with this time. And way too New York-centric. I’m sure putting it together for real would have you digging much deeper, and going in non-traditional directions as far as authorship (groups and collaboratives), but as it is my first response has to be one of questioning the primacy of an identitarian frame. Not the frame itself, but the decision to accord it primacy. I agree that identity concerns are not outmoded morally. But I feel that at this point the power of the taboo is of our own making (ie we US cultural activists who came of age in the 80s and 90s) due to not having effectively updated the identity politics discourse to account for the complexities of a globalization that has ushered in real US decline, a rise of other regions of the world, and serious crises of economics and ecology. How the representation (in all senses of that word) of difference can be articulated against those outstanding trends is the way to bring identity politics back to the front of the discussion, rather than have it always be the discourse of compensatory politics that it is now.

  8. janet says:

    thank you herb. i do think it’s still not quite working, to replace one list of artists who are fairly well represented in the western art world with another list, it’s like replacing 1% with another 1%. also, is this about identity politics or representing people who reflect certain enthicities? if it is about identity or difference, there are so many ways in which “white” artists also address this, would you agree?

  9. Claire Schneider says:


    I applaud your list and interest in creating it. The Whitney is so white-centric and also New York/big city centric. I’m a curator that lives in Buffalo, previously lived in Scottsdale, Arizona and is from Nashville, Tennessee. I disagree with Chuck Close that there are no great undiscovered artists out there. There are great artists living in the middle of America, in cities where few art people ever venture. They teach in universities in these cities, landed there because of family circumstances, or just to get away from all of the noise and money required to live in big cities. This project, “here.” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, curated by six different curators from the respective cities, curators embedded in those cities, would function as my alternative list. Identity in a globalized world also recognizes how people travel around find new homes, and reflect upon those very circumstances, overtly or unconsciously. Where is the “local” in American art today?–201109/vobid–8394/

    Claire Schneider

  10. Herb Tam says:

    Thanks for all these insightful comments. I agree with basically everything that’s been said and would like to add that I see exhibitions like the biennial as propositions to a public about what artists are doing now, and why what they’re doing is important to consider as it relates to our contemporary conditions. I don’t have a big problem with Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders’ list because these artists reflect a lot of very real contemporary concerns, but I do believe that there can be a voice for another approach, and others beyond that.

    There are very few minorities in positions of power in the art world, though it’s getting better. Those who are lucky enough to have some leverage must at least consider the issue of representation of their ethnicity in their field. And this consideration has to be taken up not just by minority curators, gallery and museum directors, etc., but by everyone who has a stake in arts and culture. This is the harsh truth of multiculturalism: that it is a continual struggle of representation and unless you force the matter, sometimes rather awkwardly, no movement will be made.

  11. DM Baptiste says:

    Thank you Herb, and everyone for your insightful opinions and comments. It’s an important biennial for artists and the art world, and we all go whether we find it exciting or not…..that being said it’s hard to believe that we are still having these conversations, and it seems we are still trying to drag the Whitney Biennial (and the art world in general) kicking and screaming into the 21st century and the real world. The beautiful thing about art is it’s ability to speak to people on their own terms. Thus, seeking out a variety of artists, mediums, experiences and cultures makes viewing works exciting, interesting and accessible. All of my thoughts have basically been said above, so I would like to finish by saying that I applaud what curators like you, Thelma Golden, Christine Y. Kim, Claire Breukel, and others like you have been doing, and I value discussions like this.

  12. […] politics.” You can read more about his concept and check out the full list of artists on his blog and Kathleen Massara’s reaction on the Huffington Post […]

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