The Whitney Biennial: What’s the Big Idea?

Suzy and I spent an hour or two at the Whitney Biennial yesterday.  The Whitney is kind of in transition; the Marcel Breuer building has been sold to the Met for a new contemporary art department, and the Whitney moving to the Meat Packing district/Chelsea.  I love the NYC churn of institutions and buildings, there are very few fixed landmarks and change is the norm.  I also love that the AIA Architects Guide to New York City calls the Breuer building “fancy pants brutalism.” 

OTOH, I didn’t really love the Biennial.  It had some good stuff and some stuff that left me completely cold/nonplussed (unfortunately the Werner Herzog installation, which I was really looking forward to, was among the latter).  There are plenty of reviews out there that you can read, xx loved it, yy hated it, and the contemporary art world shifts on the couch and directs its attention to Art Basel or whatever is next. 

I was struck at the almost willful incoherence of the show.  There is no organizing principal that I (a pretty active art guy) can discern, I am sure the curators have some brief that they feel they have fulfilled but it is on such a meta level that its meaning is completely obscure. The media were evenly distributed from clay to paper to ferrofluid to media of all kinds (actually, not, there is no online component that I have found, no apps, no interactive media in the galleries).  There are live performances scheduled throughout the whole run, ranging from dance to music to lectures.

Not only that, nobody expects there to be a message, there is no “what is this about” “what is the big idea” “whats in this for me” thinking that pervades the science museum and history museum exhibition world.  It’s all about a hermetic vision, a kind of puzzle box.  One of the games you can play with this puzzle box is “why is this piece next to that piece, or why does this room contain these pieces?”  Or you can just play the most simple contemporary art game of trying to discern what the artist is up to. 

A very few of the pieces *were* about specific things.  An artist who grew up in Braddock PA had a series of compelling photos about the collapse of that community because the steel industry has decamped.  But that piece just highlighted the absence of legible meaning in the rest of the exhibition.

I sound like I am being judgmental about the lack of “meaning” in the exhibition, but in fact I go to art museums more than science or history museums, and i don’t read art for “meaning.”  I love the way pictures, sculptures, media, and other installations look and am not all that concerned with teasing out a narrative beyond the scope of the work itself. 

At the same time, we are creating two major exhibitions at NYSCI that are not first and foremost about specific content goals.  Design Lab is about a process of engaging with STEM through design based hands on activities, and I am excited to be working on an exhibition/activity area that focuses on this process of engagement.

ReGeneration is even more complicated.  The call for proposals referred to “community sustainability,” which are two of the least precise words in the english language (along with “design,” but that’s another story).  As a sieve for selecting artists, community sustainability as a phrase seems to have attracted a genre of engaged artists to submit their work, and the jury of curators were surprisingly unanimous selecting from the submitted work.  I am now thinking hard about what we can do to make this meaning more legible.  We want visitors to feel both that they encountered some beautiful and surprising work, and also that there is some coherence and relevance of the exhibition to their lives. 

How do you interpret contemporary art in way that doesn’t trivialize the intentions of the artist (this piece is about pollution in the east river), while retaining accessibility for our visitors?  We are open to ideas, please comment or email me at