The Whitney Museum of American Art

Faces, Frames, and Americanism: A Review of the Whitney Biennial 2019

Whitney Biennial 2019 Poster Credit: www.whitney.org

Whitney Biennial 2019 Poster
Credit: www.whitney.org

Written by Talia Green, including an interview with co-curator Rujeko Hockley

If you’re at all acquainted with the contemporary American art scene, you’ve likely heard of the Whitney Biennial. Presented by the Whitney Museum of American Art every two years, and established by the museum’s founder in 1932, the Biennial is one of the most renowned exhibitions which celebrate modern American art. Each Biennial presents a catalogue of the most up-and-coming developments in the art scene, demonstrating a comprehensive collection of what trends within American art look like today.

Myself an art fanatic, living a short car ride from the George Washington Bridge and having never visited the Whitney, I was near-nauseatingly thrilled to attend this year’s exhibit.

Photo Credit: The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

Photo Credit: The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

“The Biennial every iteration is a snapshot of the current moment,” curator Rujeko Hockley explained to me in an interview, “whatever that means to the curators and the artists involved.” Over the last two years, Ms. Hockley and her co-curator, Jane Panetta, had frequented over three-hundred studios in over twenty-five different locations across the United States, searching for the most cutting-edge pieces in American art. And it was an arduous research process. “We spent fourteen weeks in total—not consecutively, thank God—on the road… and came up with the full seventy-five who are in the exhibition.”

Historically, the Biennial not only spotlights the most emergent installations in American art, but also investigates Americanism—an exploration rooted within the museum’s foundation. Behind the collection lay the ever-current analyses: Who is an American, and what is American art? How is our current socio-political and cultural environment represented in trends, from gallery to gallery, and how is that ingrained in an overarching American identity?

That investigation seemed apparent to me in the program’s broad range of artists: the various ages, genders, and cultural identities represented. Ms. Hockley reflected on how their expansive catalogue nudges the boundaries of what it means to be an American: “We have artists who were born in the United States, but live abroad… some members are American, but actually, their primary location is not in the United States, and their primary focus has not historically been in the United States.”

Photo Credit:  MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco     Meriem Bennani  Born 1988 in Rabat, Morocco Lives in Brooklyn, NY   The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

Photo Credit:
MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco

Meriem Bennani
Born 1988 in Rabat, Morocco
Lives in Brooklyn, NY
The Whitney Biennial | Whitney Museum of American Art

The outside installation on which our interview was conducted offered me a prime example. Ms. Hockley and I spoke under a shaded area of the fifth-floor terrace, facing a video sculpture-garden which expanded across the balcony. The artist, Meriem Bennani, is a Moroccan native who currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Her work, entitled MISSION TEENS: French School in Morocco explores the remnants of French colonialism in the Moroccan school system, interviewing teenagers in Morocco—most of whom hailing from wealthy families—who had attended French schools. Ms. Hockley explained how the piece evaluates social positioning in Moroccan culture, reflecting on “what kind of values, what kind of education is actually being proposed in those spaces.”

A reminder of the importance of re-evaluating Americanism, and all its implications, breathes intentionality throughout this exhibit’s catalogue. In this Biennial, the exploration of Americanism importantly extends to Puerto Riccan and indigenous artists. Ms. Hockley mentioned how, in her collecting, her internal dialogue included questions of American citizenship—yes, Puerto Ricans are Americans—without worthy representation in American art. Similarly, her inquisitions extended to indigenenous identities.

It’s this versatility within Americanism that spoke to me most profoundly. That this is America: a vibrant versatility, where one individual shares shades of her identity, and identities, with her neighbor—each individual undeniably distinctive. We reflect each other in our expansive array of cultures, citizens, genders, and narratives. Even the variety in the exhibit’s artistic mediums—the photography, the videos, the sculptures, the performances—represents the scale of individualism innate to the American narrative, currently and historically.

I would recommend a visit to this year’s Biennial—closing in September—to anyone able to get their hands on a ticket. As Ms. Hockley herself pointed out, it’s crucial to constantly re-evaluate Americanism, and the multifaceted meanings, identities, and implications embedded in that narrative. That’s exactly what this exhibit will allow you to do.