The Whitney Biennial 2019: Youth Burning Bright

Sandra Bertrand


A giant playground is on view in lower Manhattan—the restive, rambunctious inhabitants having returned home—but they’ve left their toys behind for our inspection.  The place in question is none other than the Whitney Museum of American Art and the event is the 2019 Biennial. Visitors in the more advanced decades of their lives may do well by bringing along a millennial-aged friend or two, even a precocious pre-teen to fully appreciate the experience.

Seventy-five percent of the artists on display are under the age of 40 and 20 percent under 33.  A couple of octogenarians can be found for those mature viewers still clear-eyed and resilient enough to complete the rounds. More importantly, gender-equality is on the upswing, with 50 percent women. Curators Jane Panetta and Rujeko Hockley have done due diligence to find the upstarts to startle and fuss with our sensibilities.  Could this be closer to what Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had in mind when she founded the Biennial in 1932?

Painting in its various manifestations makes an appearance, but in a show where splashy installations and large works take center stage, it helps to keep a keen eye on the surrounding walls.

Upon exiting the sixth-floor elevator, an adolescent playfulness holds sway in Calvin Marcus’ series of paintings.  Rendered in watercolor on vinyl, they confront us with a childish whimsy.  In one an upside-down floating snowman; in another a circle of asses in a darkening wood; yet another an aging athlete observed by the ghost of his former self; and lastly, a blob-like red alien.  In the artist’s words, “The work has no tricks—it is as people see it and that’s fine.”

Sometimes style coupled with the artist’s intention are perfectly paired.  Such is the case with Jeanette Mundt’s paintings of the 2016 Women’s Olympics gymnastics team in action.  The artist has cut her colorful subjects into thin strips, creating an arresting kinetic collage for the viewer.  Another quieter approach to collage is in the work of Melano Chow.  By utilizing graphite, ink, and photo transfer to create layered multi-level exteriors, then placing a solitary figure in one of the facing windows of each artwork, a sense of surreal unrest is the result.  Magritte fans would be pleased.

The beautifully rendered formality of Kyle Thurman’s figurative studies in charcoal and pastel is a special find in this Whitney Biennial.  His focus is on the intimate and arresting interactions of young men through a manipulation of line and shape.



Nicholas Galanin’s White Noise Prayer Rug gives us the image of a static TV screen as the central object.  If the white noise emanating from static is meant to obliterate the unwanted voices of others, the artist may be offering it to quiet the noise in an increasingly insistent world.

Sculpture of often mythic proportion abounds.  Puerto-Rican artist Daniel Lind-Ramos pulls the viewer in with his larger than life organic constructions.  If theatrical designer Julie Taymor of Lion King fame should encounter these offerings, she would surely have found a compadre.  Maria-Maria is twofold: a nod to the Virgin Mary for one, with the figure’s wrapping of blue tarp—used by FEMA in the aftermath of Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria—acting as a mantle to his mysterious Madonna.  Even more spectacular are the Centenelas, a row of sentinels comprised of palm tree trunks, burlap, mirrors, rope, cauldron, and gigantic spoons among other miscellany, standing like silent witnesses to their onlookers. These figures were inspired by his research into the attempted invasion of the island by the English in 1797, the invaders unprepared for the strong resistance by the local Black militia.

Wangechi Mutu’s Sentinel 1 is from a similar universe.  This Nairobi artist, with pulp and wood and a few other trinkets, has given us a female avatar.  Encircled by a tree limb she stands silently, almost seductively, beckoning us forth into her world. 

A star-turn from Chicago-born Simone Leigh invites more than a casual pass-by.   Inspired by the art of ancient Egypt as well as West African adobe structures, her female sculptures hold their weight here.  Her rendering of a Black woman, her contour splayed with spikes, will speak to some history-buffs as strongly as a Renaissance portrait of San Sebastian, pale flesh pierced by a flurry of arrows. The difference is that in Leigh’s work, there’s no cry for martyrdom.  Confrontation with the subject is combined with a sense of the eternal, not unlike the Egyptian-influenced Greek Kouri, the standing male commemorative figures.

Originality wins out with the suspended humanoid torsos by Ragen Moss. Arranged in two rows, allowing the visitor to walk in between, these polyethelene forms are both transparent and opaque, drawing the eye into their half-hidden puzzling contents.  One is double-hearted, one of bullfighters within—an altogether magical display.


Adults and young visitors alike will be hypnotically pulled into Nicole Eisenman’s Procession, a larger-than-life parade of ragtag creatures occupying the sixth-floor outer terrace. Even if a rebellion among these cartoon outcasts is unlikely to occur, it’s a befuddling sight.  The afternoon I visited, a scattered rain and wind outburst was no deterrence to those who wanted more than a panoramic window view. A Black Frankenstein-like beast of burden leads the pack, hauling a feather-flocked humanoid, followed by an oversized infant with raised cymbals, and yet another hairy creature emitting steam from his backside.  There’s more in the lineup but you get the picture.

Photography, film, and video are only three of the elements in a playground of artistic tools, but they are hardly shortchanged.  As tools of reflection, communication and protest, they have stormed the pantheon of art and taken a prime place at the table.

Miami’s Little Haiti gets a compassionate nod in Eddie Arroyo’s series of photographs of one neighborhood institution: Café Creole.  From 2016 to 2019 he has traced the disappearance of a colorful cultural icon until all that is left is a washed-out grey structure with the stray scrawl, “fag” the only indication a passer-by bothered to mark the spot.  Curran Hatleberg’s formal yet idiosyncratic approach to his world is reminiscent of the best of Robert Frank’s depictions of mid-20th century American life.  The poignancy of abandonment in an auto junkyard or an anonymous woman focused on watching a praying mantis at rest strikes a humanistic note.

History is a major player in this biennial in myriad ways.  Tomashi Jackson’s fabric and photo-transfer installations are a prime example, one representing the historic 1858 Seneca village that was razed to make way for New York City’s Central Park.  In an interview on the museum’s website, Jackson cites the phenomenon of the TPT (Third Party Transfer), an action whereby the city’s sudden foreclosure of property is supposedly justified in order to restore a neighborhood’s authenticity.  She bemoans the loss in a culture to pass property from generation to generation, something of deep meaning to its inhabitants.  



If you didn’t check your sociocultural memories at the door, you will be relieved to find Alexandra Bell’s series of 20 prints outlining the brutal rape in the Central Park jogger case from 1989 and its aftermath. Bell has edited her newspaper coverage to stress the blatant hostility of the press toward the accused Black and Latino young men, the Central Park Five (later found innocent).  Viewers will note that one full-page ad pronouncing “Bring Back the Death Penalty” was paid for by none other than Donald J. Trump.

But anger as a response to the country’s cultural zeitgeist is often muted.  At first glance, LA artist Carissa Rodriguez’s elegant and ethereal video, featuring a slow pan of egg-like sculptures from Sherrie Levine’s 1993-94 Newborn series, smooths the nervous energies at play in the exhibit room.  A calculated zoom outward reveals the exterior abodes of the super-rich, structures that seem to stand as indifferent witnesses on the landscape.  Serenity but at a price.

A note to potential visitors:  The architectural masterworks from Illinois artist Diane Simpson is not to be overlooked.  This Illinois-born octogenarian’s art-deco inspired peplum constructions are truly beautiful.  No one has made better use of enamel on fiber board than this artist.  (Her displays are to be found in a first-floor side room and could be missed by those not accustomed to using the museum guide map.) 

It would be remiss not to mention the maelstrom of protest at the Whitney that has put a shadow over the institution itself.  Since November 2018, a campaign has been underway to oust Warren B. Kanders, the vice chairman of the board, whose company Safariland has produced the teargas canisters used against asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.  Not surprisingly, 50 percent of the exhibiting artists have signed protest letters.

Whether or not a new generation of artists is embracing the possibilities of art to instigate change for the better, one thing is certain.  Their eyes are wide open to the importance of making us look, thereby artist and witness becoming fuller as human beings in the process.


Through September 22, 2019 at the Whitney. For more information, visit:


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine

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Courtesy of the Whitney Museum
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