I had thought of reviewing the 2017 Whitney Biennial catalog in context with other recent examples, as though they had some linking material, but that turned out to be a frustrating and unrevealing task. The Biennial catalog is not like a scholarly journal; its findings are matters of opinion and can seem arbitrary, not to mention the function of a catalog to support the show. Bias is only natural. Besides, the ever-changing curatorships make each Biennial catalog the first issue of a one-off publication, rather than a true series. There are general similarities, but the changing nuances of each Biennial’s theme would only make comparisons harder.
I can, however, judge each contributor on their writing skills and the overall aspect of the catalog as a component of the show. Each Biennial catalog has a plethora of gamuts to run (in case you wondered what a group of gamuts was called), because the rules of good writing and the unwritten rules of art-speak are often at odds. I myself am biased, in that my favorite living writer, Rebecca Solnit, wrote an essay for the 2008 Biennial catalog, and I am still waiting for another writer to reach her standard. Ah well.
On the whole I am not fond of the interview format, but in this case it worked well, as curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks discussed the show with Scott Rothkopf, Deputy Director at the Whitney and head of the Biennial’s group of curatorial advisors. Their conversation was informative and informal, giving us a chance to peek into the workings of such a show. (Did you know that this is the first Biennial in which every artist received some sort of compensation for participating? I didn’t. It’s welcome news, and a precedent I hope is repeated.) The interview also made a welcome opening to the book, a way to ease into it. The Director’s introduction and acknowledgements are the real first parts of the book, but as they are required gestures, we know the game doesn’t start until they finish – the ceremonial first pitch of the catalog.
The essays by Lew and Locks do what curatorial essays are supposed to do: introduce the audience to the artists and placing them within the show’s contexts without going into detail. Both curators write reasonably well, with only occasional bits of jargon. My eyebrows did rise in reaction to Lew’s referring to Ralph Waldo Emerson as “Our New World Polonius.” He seems to mean that as a compliment, which might be the nicest thing anyone has said about Polonius in a while. Not sure Emerson would feel complimented, though.
Gean Moreno, a Biennial advisor and curator of Programs at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami, Florida, has the next essay, and comes dangerously close to derailing the book. He knows his stuff, and his enthusiasm is infectious, but it nearly carries him (and us) away on Brobdignagian sentences that are roller-coaster rides of clauses and often unsupported concepts. An example, from page 46: “We form constituencies that, while savvy in the calculus of social-status distribution, are delinquent in their duty to establish paths of disorganizing retreat from a dead center, and deaf to the simpler task of galvanizing disgust so as to endow it with operational capacity, even if only as a battering ram in lieu of being a line of reorientation.”
The catalog is important as the only surviving official record of the Biennial, save for press releases and related videos, which naturally only capture elements of the whole. But exhibitions like this are by nature complicated and time-consuming, and there is the risk of reaching publication date before all the necessary information is complete. Even contemporary history has its lacunae, I guess.
For example: Tala Madani’s animated video “Sex Ed by God” is not mentioned in the catalog, neither in the artist’s bio nor in the checklist at the back. It must have been a late addition to the show, but its absence is doubly frustrating as it was the only one of her works I found interesting. And I was not alone; when I visited, people walked by without giving Madani’s paintings a second glance, while the video had a small crowd around it. (Understandable, as her paintings were weak and drably executed, while the video was odd and amusing.)
The artist’s entries, written by a team of 16 writers, do their job efficiently. Each artist gets a page, which is to say a column, due to the page layout. The photographs, of work from the show where possible, or other notable work, are perfectly adequate. It’s now on the shelf with its antecedents, and a pretty row of books they make, too. If you go to the Biennial (which runs until June 11) I recommend the catalog. If you don’t see it, the book will have limited appeal, but it will remain important as the one work that carries the show in context.
You can buy the catalog from the museum here.