Too Many Artists, Too Little Time: The Problems And Promise Of The Whitney

It's time again for the show that people love to hate: the Whitney Biennial, an overview of American art. Critics often trash it, but as Karen Michel says, this year's showcase has a few surprises.

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The art show everyone loves to hate opens today in New York City. Every two years, the Whitney Museum of American Art hosts a show that's billed as an overview of art in America. The Whitney Biennial inevitably gets trashed by art critics, museum visitors and artists alike. As Karen Michel reports, this is the last biennial before the museum moves to a new building.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: There's a lot of pressure that comes with the Whitney biennial, both for the curators and the artists, even the well-known ones like photographer Zoe Leonard, whose work is in New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern in London.

ZOE LEONARD: Biennials, there's this heat around them that makes me a little, I don't know, a little nervous. It's an honor and it's also makes you want to go running for the hills at the same time.

MICHEL: Mind you, this will be Leonard's third biennial. Her first was in 1993. This time, she's also feeling a bit sad.

LEONARD: It's the last biennial in this building. I'm a native New Yorker. I grew up going to that museum and I really love it. I love the building. I love how particular it is.

MICHEL: So Leonard is using one of those particularities in her work. On the building's fourth floor, there's an irregularly shaped window canted out over Madison Avenue. Leonard created an antechamber around the window and inserted a lens, creating a camera obscura. Whatever is happening across the street is projected upside down onto the viewers, the walls, the ceiling of the room. The Whitney has occupied this iconic building for nearly half a century.

LEONARD: It's a building where Trisha Brown has walked on the walls and the Robert Irwin piece, the "Scrim Veil," is in the same space I'm going to use. And you can hear how excited I get. It's also sort of acknowledging all the people that have worked with these walls and these spaces.

MICHEL: More than 100 other artists are joining Leonard in the biennial, including sound artists, painters, writers, potters, knitters and performers. The mix was chosen by three curators. Each got a floor.

STUART COMER: I hope that it's sort of a happy chaos.

MICHEL: Stuart Comer is now The Museum of Modern Art's chief curator of media and performance art. So the traditional categories like painting and sculpture don't particularly interest him.

COMER: I would rather just really celebrate all of this hybridity, and I revel in it somehow. That's why I like Ken's work so much, because it has fun with it as much as it is, I think, deeply serious work.

MICHEL: Ken is Ken Okiishi, a young artist who paints on TV screens...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Five, four...

MICHEL: ...video loops of Honda ads, voluptuous blondes in grade Z movies, and George W. Bush roll under calligraphic lines painted on the glass.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You can hear that second (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible)

MICHEL: The videotapes came from Okiishi's parents basement in Ames, Iowa.

KEN OKIISHI: I knew that they always recorded these things and then never watched them, but they never threw them away either. So I knew there was this kind of treasure trove of data.

MICHEL: Suzanne McClelland grew up in the Midwest, too. Now based in Brooklyn, this is her second biennial. She's showing a diptych that fills a wall, paintings that are more like drawings, curving lines of white, black and red. The paintings are based on bodybuilders and the notion of their perfect measurements.

SUZANNE MCCLELLAND: Did you know that the Whitney Museum did a live bodybuilding show, it turns out? I didn't know this until I started working on this. I have to show you this. You won't believe it.

MICHEL: She summons YouTube on her computer.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Inside the museum, Arnold, Frank Zane and Ed Corney were rotated on a turntable in front of the New York City art crowd.

MICHEL: McClelland was selected for the biennial by curator Michelle Grabner, who's from the Chicago area. She provides a map with her catalogue essay, showing the preponderance of artists from the coasts with just a sprinkle from the Midwest. Recently, Grabner gave a talk in Atlanta about her curatorial experience.

MICHELLE GRABNER: Somebody in the audience raised their hand and said, so how do we get artists from Atlanta in the biennial? And quite honestly, I said to them, well, first of all, you have to understand that curating in the biennial is not fair. It can't be fair.

MICHEL: Too many artists, too little time, too big a country. Grabner herself is an artist and knows what it's like to at least be considered for the main event.

GRABNER: I have been visited by Whitney biennial curators in the past to no avail. I've never ended up in a biennial before and I do hope to at some point. I still hold on to that hope.

MICHEL: Maybe Grabner will be selected for the first biennial in the new building. At least she knows the risks. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel in New York.

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Finally this hour, a departure. A leading voice here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED is leaving us.

BLOCK: When you've heard a fun turn of phrase, an elegant transition between stories or a smart conversation here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, well, it's likely our senior editor, Cory Turner, had a strong hand in it. Cory is off to another assignment here at NPR. He'll be editing and reporting with our education desk, so expect to hear Cory on the air soon and that's a great thing.

CORNISH: We wish you all the best of luck, Cory, and a fond farewell.

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BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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