Book Review: Whitney Biennial 2014

May 21, 2014 · Print This Article

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Whitney Biennial Catalogue 2014 (cover detail), paperback, 416 pages. Yale Press.

As thick as the phone book of the town I grew up in, the catalogue for the 2014 Whitney Biennial is a whopper, coming in at 419 pages. But seeing as how this year’s Biennial was an impressive three floors, the attendant corridors, stairwells, random outside spaces, and more than 100 artists, maybe it’s not so big after all. Like the Biennial itself, the body of the catalogue is dived into three sections, one for each of the three curators: Stuart Comer, Anthony Elms, and Michelle Grabner. Each of these sections contains a contextualizing essay by the respective curator. In an interesting formal note is that the three sections are printed on different paper, which has the effect of making each section literally feel distinct.

Evaluating a catalogue is difficult; the success depends on what the reader is looking for. As preparatory material for viewing the exhibition, the catalogue is perhaps most successful. I doubt I would have enjoyed the exhibition as much if I had not read all of the essays beforehand. These essays proved invaluable to my visit to the Whitney. I previewed the artwork and made notations about the works with which I wanted to spend a little time. This method is itself flawed, because we all know that seeing a work in person is a very different experience from looking at pictures, no matter how lovely. It also mostly rules out the element of surprise. But honestly, the Whitney Biennial is such a massive undertaking for me as a viewer; this seemed to be my only method of making sense of this large and incongruent collection of artworks.

As a thorough record of the exhibition, the catalogue also succeeds, which in this case is important because the Biennial is nearing its close. When I read a catalogue that is little more than reproductions of the art, with the wall text on the following page, I am disappointed. A person is lucky to view a show once, let alone twice, but a book is different. There’s no end to a textual exhibition. We can visit anytime we want. This is where the catalogue succeeds. The 2014 Biennial contains a substantial amount of performance, audio, and video work. These are notoriously hard to capture on the page. Stuart Comer’s section is rife with essaylettes on selected works. There are writings on the performance works, which is great because although I visited twice, I didn’t manage to coincide with a single performance. Although all of the curators included text-based work, it is most noticeable in Anthony Elms’ section. I missed much of this text during my visit. It was crowded. It was hard to see. Text takes a lot of time. At home with a book, I have all the time in the world.

As an accurate reflection of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, I am less sure of the success of the catalogue. In the introduction the authors state, “If there is any central point of cohesion, it may be the slipperiness of authorship that threads through each of our programs… In many ways, it has simply become inefficient to slow down and figure out who is responsible for a specific idea or action, opening up interesting areas of collaboration.” While the authors are describing the discrete works in the show, perhaps this whole idea might be applied to the Biennial itself; it is very slippery. But the catalogue is intentionally less so, with its Roman numeraled sections, and three different paper stocks, the catalogue makes clearer distinctions than the curators do. The final section is by Michelle Grabner is marked by the inclusion of numerous conversations between artists, including Dawoud Bey, Christopher Williams, Rochelle Feinstein, Gaylen Gerber, to name a few. While all this focus on process seems as if it should make this section feel more slippery, it does the opposite—it concretizes the final section of the book. Real people, real artists, talking to other real people. The overall effect is humanizing, and intimate, a feeling that was impossible experience at the show.

Ultimately, I recommend this catalogue for those who want a serious look at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. This is not a coffee table book, nor is it a casual exhibition catalogue that one can leave on their bedside, to casually flip though before dropping off to sleep. No, this is the kind of catalogue you need to read while sitting up, with a cup of coffee. You might want to take some notes. If you have reading glasses, you better get ‘em.

Whitney Biennial Catalogue 2014

paperback, 416 pages

Yale, $55

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