Out with a Bang

For its last uptown biennial the Whitney goes beyond its walls.

Jacolby Satterwhite

In 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York will move from Madison Avenue to a new, Renzo Piano–designed home at the southern end of the High Line. That makes its next biennial exhibition, opening March 7 (through May 25), the last on view in its original Marcel Breuer building—and what a way to go.

Traditionally, Whitney Biennials take the temperature of American art and sometimes point to future directions. If past shows caused bewilderment or incited outrage, the biggest surprise of this one may be the prominence it gives to people whose work usually doesn’t appear in a visual-art context. Of the 103 artists selected, at least three (Gary Indiana, Susan Howe, and David Foster Wallace) are known for writing; one (Ben Kinmont) is a bookseller specializing in gastronomy; and two (Semiotext(e) and Triple Canopy) are publishers.

“Biennials don’t just display objects; they produce knowledge,” says Stuart Comer, one of the show’s three curators, who, along with Anthony Elms and the artist Michelle Grabner, was borrowed from outside institutions, another first for the Biennial. One way to think of the untitled show, suggests Comer, the chief curator of media and performance art at the Museum of Modern Art, is as a demonstration of the functions of language, be it visual, verbal, digital, or sonic. (Several works involve sound, music, or dance.) “It’s a testament to the way image and text combine,” Comer says. “And the way technologies are complicating those relationships.”

The exhibition is also a testament to the strength of abstract painting, particularly by women like Amy Sillman, Charline von Heyl, Jacqueline Humphries, and 89-year-old Etel Adnan, who also writes poetry. In addition, on display will be works by Sarah Charlesworth and Gretchen Bender—both deceased. A number of featured artists will work in more than one discipline or create installations with the materials of others. For example, Philip Vanderhyden is remaking a monumental video sculpture by Bender that was lost, and Zoe Leonard, whose primary medium is photography, is turning the Whitney’s trademark fourth-floor window into a camera obscura that will bring the cityscape into the show. “The art world has been incorporating dance and film for decades,” Elms notes. “Why not keep reaching?”

Photos: Out with a Bang

Video still from Jacolby Satterwhite’s Reifying Desire-6, 2013. Photograph courtesy of Monya Rowe Gallery and Mallorca Landings Gallery.

Ken Okiishi’s Gesture/Data, 2013. Photograph courtesy of artist and Reena Spaulings Fine Art New York.

Charline von Heyl’s Folk Tales, 2013. Courtesy of Jason Mandella.