Two years ago, when I reviewed the 2017 Whitney Biennial catalog, I wrote about it in isolation, arguing that ever-changing authors and topics, beyond the all-encompassing rubric “art”, did not allow for treating Biennial catalogs as a series. This is not like “Tom Swift and his Electrostatic Nephew” or “The Cobblywobbles of Oz.”
Well screw that. I’m going to try the opposite approach this year. I have bought catalogs regularly since 2006, and read various ones before that. As my review of the Biennial itself hinted, I was disappointed with this year’s model, because, despite its good intentions and curatorial focus, the art did not rise to the challenge. I am sorry to say that the 2019 catalog is the same: mostly nice to look at but you get up from the table hungry.
Let’s start with the necessary elements: essays by the curators, Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley, who both do a good job recounting the process through which they assembled this show. They stressed their travels outside of New York City, cognizant of the repeated criticism that the Biennial is primarily focussed on NYC artists. Well, they did go a lot of places and heard about the sociopolitical issues that are important to artists today, but they ended up picking a lot of artists who live at least part time in the city. A certain amount of backseat quarterbacking is inevitable, and it’s understandable that the curators might feel a little defensive.
The primary reason for my disappointment with the content is structural. Arguably the best parts of any Biennial catalog are the guest essays, writings by people other than the curators or director, bringing light and perspective, humor and opinion, to the topics at hand. In this edition, there is no guest essay at all, and the lack of it is painful. I still reread Rebecca Solnit’s essay in the 2008 catalog, in part because I generally adore Solnit’s writing, not only for content but for her marvelous prose, but also for the richness she brought to the book. Of recent Biennial catalogs, the 2008 remains my favorite, both for content and design.
Catalogs often include extra works from the artists themselves, as a bit of the exhibition that is not on the walls but you can bring home with you. In 2019 we get “Process” a selection of works-in-progress, sketchbook pages, and random images from each artist. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but often those thousand words let us know what the images are about; too often as I flipped through “Process” I thought “Um…okay.” It is not a substitute for a guest essay; it sheds little light on how the artists work.
I took this photo of my slightly battered copy of the 2006 catalog because I couldn’t find on online that did justice to the size of it. This book is a brick, 2 inches thick, and the lettering on the cover and spine glow in the dark. It does what is required of it – several guest essays provide good reading – but the sheer heft is due to “Draw Me A Sheep” a project in which Biennial artists were asked to provide an image relevant to the last two years for inclusion as a fold-out. Some artists seem to have wandered from the topic, or their images are so self-referential as to be incomprehensible to the general public. The result is the thickest 396-page book you’re likely to find. A “noble experiment” as people say when they’re trying to find something nice to say, but ultimately a failure. “Process” in 2019 is too much like “Draw Me A Sheep,” but diminished as “Process” features existing work instead pieces allegedly made to order.
The 2019 book is nice enough to look at, with one major caveat I mention below, but it is strangely understated. Why be so restrained in an era in which hyperbole, scandal, and impending disaster is so prevalent? This is a “protest Biennial” as some have said, so let the book shout! 2006 is brash and does not try to hide it.
Of the catalogs I own, the worst is undoubtedly the 2010 catalog, which devotes a large chunk of its 264 pages to a history of past Biennials, with photos, newspaper clippings and more – but not much more. A proper history of the Whitney Biennial has yet to be written, and robbing today’s Biennial of catalog space to look backward is kind of antithetical to the point of the Biennial in the first place. Onanism might be fun for the one doing it, but it doesn’t do much for anyone else. In short, yuck.
P.S. It’s high time the Whitney looked seriously at creating a book on the history of the Biennial.
One final condemnation of the 2019 edition, and a particularly egregious one. Several years back I started wearing reading glasses for fine print. I can still read unaided unless the type gets pretty small. I can barely read the 2019 Biennial catalog without my glasses, but it has to be in strong light, because the text is printed in this weak, silver-grey ink that challenges even the healthiest eyes. It accentuates the weakness of the book overall: just a little more, in content and presentation, and things would stand out beautifully. Palimpsests are for history museums, not art catalogs.
This post goes up as the Biennial enters its final weeks, but the catalog will be around for ages to come. In that way, it is the most important part of the show. Don’t miss it; even a bad catalog has something to offer.