Whitney Biennial 2017: How the Museum’s Riskiest, Most Political Survey in Decades Came Together

From January to the last days before the opening this week, W magazine followed the making of the Whitney’s politically-charged, at times polemical, 2017 exhibition, which had to contend with the campaign and then election of Donald J. Trump.


These days, where there’s a city there’s a biennial—and even where there’s not. When the 2017 Whitney Biennial opens in New York on Friday, the 78th in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s history, it will happen to coincide with the very first Antarctic Biennial, near the South Pole. This follows on the heels of the first Desert X, in California’s barren Coachella Valley. That biennial’s artistic director, Neville Wakefield, is also the curator of Elevation 1049, perched right now high in the Alps, in Gstaad. If you’re a VIP-card-carrying member of the international art circuit, you will have vernissaged your way through what feels like half of Earth’s available ecosystems in the past month.

But with over 200 such biennials in the world today, even the word is starting to feel jet-lagged. “Biennial” has become a colloquialism for any survey (whether it’s held every two years or every five) that aims to take the temperature of a specific slice of the art world.

Still, the Whitney Biennial, along with the Venice Biennale and Documenta, are the headliners, the tentpoles that set the pace for the rest of the field. In the idiom of fashion weeks, another cultural branding exercise doing big business everywhere these days, they are the New York, Paris, and Milan of the art world.

Last summer, Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, the young (some say the youngest ever) curators of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, were in Europe to see Manifesta, in Zurich, and the Berlin Biennale, both required viewing for any well-traveled biennialista. In Berlin, they lunched with DIS, the collective behind the Biennale.

“They’re also first-time biennial curators,” Lew said. “We talked shop.”

Then they flew to Los Angeles for the Made in L.A. biennial, at the Hammer Museum, but it wasn’t until Locks—who spent eight years in L.A. (including three at the Museum of Contemporary Art) before moving to New York—was behind the wheel of their rental car that Lew turned to her and said, “Wait a minute. This is the third biennial we’re going to in a week!”

A museum curator can spend several years carefully sharpening a group exhibition into focus. A biennial curator cannot. “We covered 40 cities internationally over seven months,” Lew said of his and Locks’s research. “By the end we had an idea of what we were looking for, but in the beginning we cast a super-wide net because we didn’t know what the show is.”

When the Whitney’s chief curator Scott Rothkopf decided in the fall of 2015 that Lew, a 36-year-old associate curator at the museum, should lead the 2017 biennial, it was to be the first in the Whitney’s $422 million new building, designed by Renzo Piano and praised by nearly everyone. The museum is docked downtown like a mother ship of art near the Hudson River, on Gansevoort Street.

“I didn’t choose Chris because of his youth, per se, but he was someone who was engaged with emerging artists,” Rothkopf explained recently. “With the biennial in our new home, we had to have a sense of risk and adventure.”

After Rothkopf asked Lew if he wanted a co-curator to shoulder the burden, Lew immediately thought of Locks, 34, his former colleague at MoMA PS1, who had been responsible for impressive exhibitions there of the L.A. artists Samara Golden and Math Bass. Lew, a New Yorker, and Locks, an honorary Angeleno, would close on the ranks from the coasts in.

“We need to get started,” Rothkopf told Lew. “Let’s extend an invitation to her.” (In the vocabulary of biennials, everyone—curators, artists, patrons willing to part with a percentage of their net worth—gets to be invited to take part.)

For curators, especially, the Whitney Biennial is, more often than not, both breakthrough and milestone. In other words, you don’t say no. But when Rothkopf and Lew took Locks to drinks and popped the question, she froze.

“Oh,” she said. “I need to think about it.”

Rothkopf, not anticipating he would have persuading to do, had made dinner plans. He rushed off. Lew turned to Locks, incredulous.

“Are you serious?” he said. “Are you going to do this or not?”

“I’m going to need a glass of wine,” Locks replied. Then she said yes.

The biennial in progress.

Even Before Election, Trump Had Set the Mood

One afternoon in late January, the artist Asad Raza, 43, was waiting for Lew and Locks in the Whitney’s glass-paneled, seventh-floor library, which overlooks the Hudson River. Piano’s operating design principle for the museum was transparency, to let America in and to see everything happening out there. When Locks arrived, she glanced out the window and observed, “Choppy today.”

It was a week after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration, and the headlines earlier in the day were predictably alarming, if not demoralizing, for this set.

Historically, the Whitney Biennial has concerned itself with the current moment in American art—and by proxy, with America. This will be the first one in 20 years to coincide with a U.S. presidential election. (The 1997 biennial took place in the foreground of the culture wars of the period and Bill Clinton’s re-election.)

When they started to visit artists in the fall of 2015, Locks recalled, “none of us had this elevated feeling.” But as they crossed the country from Seattle to Miami, to Puerto Rico and beyond over the next seven months, they found the anger and anxiety was there, simmering in artists’ studios—even if Trump was still just an awful joke. “It was never about him or the race in particular,” Locks went on. “It was the rhetoric, the ideas, the mood. That’s now obviously elevated, but even early on artists were talking to us about their concerns with racial injustice and violence and the like.”

“We just couldn’t articulate it then,” Lew said.

“But we knew. We saw the rough shape.”

Early on, during a trip to Puerto Rico, Lew tried out a thought. “He said, ‘You know, we’re seeing a lot of people try to find new ways of working together,'” Locks recalled. “It was an affirming way to think about not just collectivity but mutual support among artists. I’m more pessimistic. I was like, ‘Yeah, okay.'”

Five months later, they were in Milwaukee, where the artist John Riepenhoff, 35, had driven them to a building he wanted to turn into affordable space for local artists to live and work. He was showing off an outdoor pizza oven when Lew’s words fell from some shelf in Locks’s memory. “I was like, ‘Chris, do you remember that thing you said? I think it’s connected,'” she recalled. “And if you look at how the show panned out, it was one of the threads that come through.” (Riepenhoff’s biennial project is an installation predicated on the contributions of other artists.)

By the time the curators handed in the final drafts of their catalogue essays in August of 2016, Locks was ready to declare that, indeed, “the works in this exhibition at times make manifest the social strife that surrounds us.” Lew exercised cautious optimism: “In these times of escalating strife and partisanship, artists have taken it upon themselves to bridge divides.” Still, they were had no way of knowing whether their biennial, when it would open seven months later, would be a touchstone, or a marker planted somewhere in the rearview.

“There was a moment in August when Chris and I looked at each other and went, ‘Is this going to read wrong once we have Hillary and everything goes back to normal?'” Locks recalled. “‘Are we going to be off?'”

“As we neared the election, we imagined that Clinton might get elected, but we also had to be open to the possibility of Trump,” Rothkopf said. He laughed. “The show had to work in either case.”

Installation view of Larry Bell at the biennial.

Seizing the Political Moment

This biennial is explicitly, emphatically political. There is A Very Long Line, a video by the American collective Postcommodity from the point of view of a passenger speeding along the U.S.-Mexico border. The painter Aliza Nisenbaum got to know and then portrayed the immigrant women who work as leaders in the New York Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. Dana Schutz depicted the open casket of Emmett Till, building the lynched black teenager’s face up with paint and then gashing it on the canvas, and Henry Taylor painted the death of Philando Castile at the hands of police officer.

Lew and Locks’s curatorial conundrum, in fact, came through in the show, drawing the ire of a few critics but the thoughtful appreciation of others. “The show presents a nation, and the sensibilities of its artists, in a period of transition, with violence cresting, identities in flux, and some brave souls hatching plans…Call it the biennial on the brink,” Andrew Russeth wrote in Artnews. Jerry Saltz, in New York, commented that the biennial “got caught in an almost extinction-level political crosswind…the 2017 Whitney Biennial was organized in one era and exists in another.”

In his catalogue essay, Lew quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson generously, but if I were to append an alternate subtitle to this biennial, I might lift a phrase of E.M. Forster’s: “Only connect.” Because even when dealing with urgent sociopolitical ills or bleak personal subjects, many of these artists are simultaneously reaching out. As Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, declared while inaugurating the biennial on Monday: “Irony, be gone.”

For Asad Raza’s project in the biennial, he filled a sun-struck sixth-floor gallery with young trees in planters and enlisted the help of strangers to care for them and to welcome visitors with personal tales and artifacts. A well-connected producer of other artists’ work, Raza emerged as a talent in his own right with The Home Show, a 2015 installation in his one-bedroom New York apartment to which other artists contributed. Some furnished him with finished works; others took his daily life as their material, constructing for Raza a morning routine, or rearranging the contents of his freezer into a still life. At the Whitney, he sourced his hosts via an open call, and his plants with the help of Tim, a gardener at the nearby High Line.

“The thing I’m doing is largely for one visitor or group to walk through at a time,” Raza explained to Locks in January. By then, Lew had joined them in the library. “And that’s cool for the weekdays or whatever. But I want to have something for groups of people to watch when it’s really busy, a focal point to soak up the attention. I was thinking it would be cool to give the space over to people who do choreography, music, stuff like that. To point at people who I think are interesting.”

Locks nodded. This is why they had invited Raza—to imbue the museum with that sense of welcome.

Installation view of Asad Raza at the biennial.

“For those people who expect that this show will be political at the expense of moments of great beauty, they’re going to be surprised.”

How’s it going? ****I asked.

It was mid-February. They hadn’t even begun to install the biennial yet, and Lew and Locks were already anticipating changes on the fly. “There’s always that moment when the work doesn’t behave the way you think it will,” Locks said. We were having a glass of wine at Untitled, the two-star restaurant attached to the museum.

We sat with Lew at the bar, which offers a full view of the narrow dining room where the artist-designer Susan Cianciolo will reprise Run Restaurant over the course of three days and three nights in April, as part of the biennial. Cianciolo’s piece, like Raza’s, is self-contained enough that the curators weren’t losing sleep over it. (When I checked in some time later to see how Raza was coming along, Lew replied, “The plants are blooming!” and then added, “We’ve kind of left him alone to do his own thing.”)

Lew and Locks’s main concern was the way the works were going to present themselves, to the curator and to each other, in the fifth- and sixth-floor galleries where the bulk of the exhibition is installed.

“I always think I’ve seen the artwork, that I know it, and then I bring it in and it’s this other thing: Okay, now you’re doing something else,” Locks explained.

Over the past year, the curators had seen countless works while making, by their count, over 200 studio visits. (It should be noted that stamina is an upside to young curators.) In Taos, New Mexico, they had hash browns and diner coffee with the sculptor Larry Bell, and nearly perished on the snowy roads when they left. (“Chris doesn’t drive, he’s a New Yorker,” Locks said. “I can legally drive,” he retorted.) And in Puerto Rico, with the community-oriented artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo, they experienced near-death again, this time by way of pernil and mofongo. (“I glanced in the back seat and Chris was passed out.”)

In Amsterdam, they took advantage of a layover to visit Jo Baer, the 87-year-old American painter. Her large works now greet visitors stepping off the elevator on the sixth floor of the biennial—a semi-recent foray into figuration that might stun those who only know her by her Minimalist paintings, which received a solo exhibition at the Whitney in 1975. “She’s so traversed,” murmured Adam Weinberg as he cruised through a half-installed biennial in early March.

That afternoon, the sixth floor was bustling. Drills whirred and industrial tape snapped over flat edges. Crates were pried open. Huge canvases were stretched across the floor. Paintings by Celeste Dupuy-Spencer, 38, who produces politically-charged portraits, leaned against a wall, waiting to be hung near where Baer’s works were installed. It was a painting-only gallery in a show that, contrary to current biennial fashion, featured an awful lot of painting. It seemed to surprise and delight the museum’s patrons, Rothkopf said.

He added, “For those people who expect that this show will be political at the expense of moments of great beauty, they’re going to be surprised.”

It’s safe to assume that this curatorial team is all too aware of the infamous 1993 Whitney Biennial, curated by Elisabeth Sussman. That exhibition, featuring George Holliday’s video of the Rodney King beating and Daniel J. Martinez’s buttons that read “I CAN’T EVER IMAGINE WANTING TO BE WHITE,” is the most politically charged and critically despised in recent memory. Critics deemed the art “preachy,” “grim,” “whiny,” “the worst ever.” It has been pointed out, of course, that those judgments were rendered by white men. With time, the art world has looked back more fondly on the ’93 biennial, and the Times‘s Roberta Smith was prescient in declaring at the time that it would be “a watershed”—even if there was “not a lot of eyes-on pleasure to be had.”

It would not be fair to compare the 2017 biennial directly with ’93, even if O.J. Simpson has revisited the popular imagination lately. The political circumstances are too different. But there are familiarities with ’93, including a wave of identity-driven art. When Lew, who like Locks is Asian-American, led me to a smaller gallery on the floor, it had already been hung with a number of photographs by the same artist, Deana Lawson, 38, who carefully stages powerful scenes of black domestic life.

“It was clear that we wanted Deana all in one room, to have this moment where it’s just a presentation of one artist’s work,” Lew said.

“We disagreed over an inch in this room,” Locks said, appearing at my side. “We hung these all at 60 inches, and then Chris was like, ‘Bring it down to 59.'”

They had gone back and forth on this, as well as about some sculptures by KAYA, the duo of Kerstin Brätsch and Debo Eilers, hanging nearby. These were installed square in a sightline that covered much of the length of the museum, which is two city blocks long. “We were literally running from one end to the other, shouting at the art handlers, ‘Can you move it a little this way!'” Lew said. “Then we’d run all the way up to look at it, and then run all the way back. Scott was running up and down doing the same thing.”

I noticed that Locks had peeled off again to deal with some other pressing matter. There was a seamless choreography to their waltz: when Locks partners with a new problem, Lew steps in to keep the dance going, and vice versa. Even in our group emails, they took turns answering, and yet I never once felt that I’d been passed off. The very tautness of their biennial—63 artists and collectives, one of the smallest in recent memory—speaks to a strong shared vision, the work of a tandem who are of one twinned mind rather than two teammates taking turns. It’s doubles tennis, not pro wrestling.

Locks returned. “Those Celeste pieces are up now, do you want to see?” she asked. “We hung them while you guys were talking.”

Installation view of Henry Taylor and Deana Lawson. Photo by Therese Öhrvall.

Four days later, the Deana Lawsons had moved. Lew and Locks had walked by an enormous Henry Taylor painting as it was being stretched, and both had stopped.

“It became clear that both Henry and Deana, in different ways, are picturing blackness in an everyday, ongoing way,” Locks said. “So we decided to bring them together. When I saw them side by side, it almost brought me to tears.”

We were having drinks at the Jane Hotel, a few blocks away from the Whitney, and only a week away before the first previews. When it officially opens this Friday, Lew will finally be able to get the jeans he was wearing then hemmed. When it officially closes in June, Locks can finally go on her honeymoon. “But I can’t even think about it,” she said. “The idea that I have to plan another thing? Can’t deal.”

On Monday, I walked into the finished gallery hung with the paintings of Henry Taylor and the photographs of Deana Lawson. They had been mixed together. To my eye, they were not more than the sum of their parts—in fact, I thought the Lawsons had more power in a room of their own.

But it reminded me that the compressed time frame of biennial-making precludes it from being a final verdict. Rather, it’s an opening statement.

“A biennial is not an essayistic exhibition where you’ve made a tight argument in space,” Locks said. “It’s more like you point to some things, and you hope those things connect.”

Lew finished her thought: “You’re building the boat and sailing it at the same time.”