Biennials, far from the crowded art market?
As the Whitney Biennial opens in New York, Jori Finkel examines how such exhibitions try to keep their distance from commercial fairs
By Jori Finkel. Comment, Issue 255, March 2014
Published online: 03 March 2014
Dating back at least to the time of Jackson Pollock in the 1940s, the Whitney Biennial—then an annual exhibition—has had notable powers as a market maker. When it releases its list of artists for each edition, the burden of cultural curiosity shifts for many of us. The question “Why should I know this artist?” becomes “Why don’t I know this artist?” And if anyone on the list lacks a New York gallery, chances are they will land one before the show closes.
For a preview of the Whitney Biennial, click here
As art and art-exhibition historian Bruce Altshuler points out, biennials today serve similar marketing functions as the juried Salon exhibitions of 19th-century France, where catalogues published the addresses of artists so people could buy works directly from them.
But something peculiar is happening on the way to the marketplace. When Pollock was first featured in 1946, the Whitney survey was a showcase for American painting or sculpture, depending on the year. These days, despite or because of its own commercial power, the biennial is flaunting less marketable or flat-out anti-market art: performance, poetry, sound art and other non-objects that are defiantly hard to buy and sell.
In 2012, the curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders earned some rave reviews for a scrappy biennial that turned the Whitney’s fourth floor into a stage for happenings and concerts and an occasional runway show. Even the galleries proper were overflowing with performance.
For this year’s edition, which opens on 7 March, the three curators, each of whom has their own floor at the Whitney’s Breuer building, are exploring this time-based and process-oriented territory but in more subtle ways.
Stuart Comer was a book buyer, and then a film curator at the Tate before becoming a curator of new media and performance art at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Anthony Elms, who identifies himself as an artist-writer-curator (on the staff at the ICA in Philadelphia), runs a blog cataloguing the various books, songs and more that he consumes. And Michelle Grabner is an active artist-educator-critic who founded, with her husband, two of the Midwest’s most exciting and experimental project spaces: the Suburban and the Poor Farm.
Given this group, it’s not surprising that many of this year’s 103 artists are multi-faceted, whether artist-curators (such as Julie Ault of Group Material and Matthew Deleget of Minus Space), film-maker-sculptors (Dashiell Manley and Uri Aran) or poet-essayist-painters (Susan Howe and Etel Adnan). Several have repeatedly redefined themselves over long careers—nearly 40% of the artists are over 50.
While Grabner notes that the new show does not make as big or bold a statement about performance as the 2012 edition, she says “there is still a commitment to performance, and artists who don’t have a commercial presence but who are influential to younger artists. Maybe they are mentors or maybe they’ve emerged several times over the course of their career.” She also notes a strong presence by artist collectives, which of course skewer market expectations of a single, valuable artist.
While details of most biennial works of art were still under wraps as we went to press, some buzzwords were already in play: “hybridity”, “fluidity”, “criticality”, “collectivity” and “interdisciplinary”.
One reason biennials have been moving in this direction is that curators are following the lead of artists who go beyond traditional genres. Altshuler makes this kind of argument, discounting the impact of the art market on biennials. (Instead he notices art fairs like Frieze becoming more curatorial, “with performances, talks and other content”.)
But many artists from the time of the historic avant-gardes have had an expansive notion of their own creative practice beyond the traditional art object, and few biennials followed their lead until recent years. Isn’t it possible that the growth of the international art market, a system designed to put a red dot next to everything in an art-fair tent, is helping to shape biennials into something more open-ended and less object-obsessed?
Walk the line
Anna Freud would call it reaction formation: you silence a threatening or anxiety-producing part of your own identity with strident and emphatic actions to the contrary. It’s as if the biennial itself, beset by anxiety in the heyday of the contemporary art fair, were protesting: I am a biennial, not Basel—put your wallets away.
Or, as Grabner puts it: “Nobody wants to define themselves by what they don’t do. Art fairs are very successful in circulating objects. So what else can museums do?”
The Whitney Biennial, of course, is not the only recurring exhibition in the paradoxical position of feeding the market while attempting to operate outside it. Documenta has long walked this line, Massimiliano Gioni’s 2013 Venice Biennale celebrated the work of Outsider artists, the New Museum triennial has gone this route with “Younger than Jesus” and “The Ungovernables”, and the Hammer Museum biennial in Los Angeles is testing this territory as well.
As a new biennial introduced in 2012, the Hammer’s “Made in L.A.” makes a good case study. On the one hand it was designed to promote “emerging and under-recognised” artists working in the region. And it has had some commercial impact. When the museum released names two years ago of its 60 biennial artists, 20 did not have galleries. Now, only ten do not. More dramatically, Botswana-born painter Meleko Mokgosi began the biennial process without a gallery; by the end he had landed a show at Honor Fraser and won the $100,000 Mohn Prize attached to the biennial.
But cash prize notwithstanding, “Made in L.A.” signalled its not-for-profit orientation loud and clear. Several artists, most memorably Simone Forti, were not represented in the show by art objects but performances. One weekend was devoted to the cleverly named Venice Beach Biennial, which featured cheap works by local artists who set up shop on blankets or tables on the boardwalk. And a summer-long programme from the collective Slanguage turned another biennial location, LAX Art, into a community art centre, complete with workshops for kids and experimental music nights.
According to co-curator Connie Butler, the 2014 edition is smaller with only 35 artists. “We tried to be as broad as possible and not move away from the object,” she says. Still, the survey will feature performance, dance, poetry and artists’ texts, as well as “artists who are curating shows within the show” and “political work by artist-activists”.
Do these works serve as acts of resistance against the market? “That’s partly true,” she says. “I’m not sure we as curators think of it that way, but I think often artists do. And one thing we definitely see is artists coming to us with proposals for projects their galleries might not want to do.”
The implications are interesting. It’s not necessarily that artists value their own time-based or process-oriented work more than object-focused output, but that they recognise museum biennials as a powerful platform for the former. And they might not need to make these categorical distinctions at all, were it not for market pressure.
Jori Finkel is the Los Angeles correspondent for The Art Newspaper
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