Looking at the Whitney Biennial

Looking at the Whitney Biennial

JCC U lecturer explicates the cultural significance of the challenging new show

Kota Ezawa (1969-), National Anthem (Denver Broncos), 2018. Watercolor on paper, 9 x 19 in. (22.9 x 48.3 cm).
(Image courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco)
Kota Ezawa (1969-), National Anthem (Denver Broncos), 2018. Watercolor on paper, 9 x 19 in. (22.9 x 48.3 cm). (Image courtesy the artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco)

It’s amazing how much context adds.

If you are going, say, to an art exhibit of challenging work, of course you want to react to it from your own heart and mind. But it also never hurts to have some outside idea of what you’re looking at.

Janine DeFeo is a Whitney Museum teaching fellow, an accomplished speaker and art interpreter, and she’s working on her doctorate in art history at CUNY, focusing on performance and body art from the 1960s and 70s. So she’s a perfect guide to the Whitney Biennial, now on display through late September at the Whitney Museum in downtown Manhattan.

She’ll talk about the show at the season’s last session of the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. (See below.)

This will be her third talk at the JCC, Ms. DeFeo said; she’s already spoken about its Grant Woods and Andy Warhol shows. “I try to give a balance of what the curators intend and my own personal take on it,” she said. “That maps to what I do at the museum. One of the primary things I do is lead tours, so the lectures are a spin-off of that.

“I will highlight specific works — some of them are the ones that get the most press, and some are the ones that I like best, or that tell something interesting about the show or speak to some of the other works in it.”

This biennial, like all such exhibits, “is an attempt to take a snapshot of contemporary American art by American artists. The vast majority of the art in the show is made in the last two years, although a few were from 2015 or 16.”

This year, “there are about 75 artists and collectives in the show,” Ms. DeFeo said. That’s a rather high number, she clarified. “And it’s a really young show. About 75 percent of them are under the age of 40. So there’s a real concentration of emerging artists. Also, this is the first biennial in which the majority of them are people of color, and the gender balance is just about equal.” In fact, she added, there might be slightly more women than men represented.

Although sometimes curators ask artists for specific pieces of art for the show, most of the time the commission is to the artist, not a particular work. Sometimes the artist creates something new for the biennial, and sometimes he or she uses something already made.

“I think I will speak specifically and the place of the body and disembodiment in the show,” Ms. DeFeo said. “There is a lot about what. And also whether it is political.

Janine DeFeo

“That’s been a bit of an open question. Several reviews have said it is not political enough, particularly given the last two very fraught years. And others say that particularly in terms of the identity representation, there is too much box-checking.

“So I want to talk about what counts as political expression in contemporary art.

“Also I will address some of the controversies roiling the museum in terms of its fund-raising. Several of the pieces in the show address that, so I will as well.”

Although, as its name makes clear, the Whitney stages the biennial every two years — that doesn’t give anyone much time in between, and generally society doesn’t change that radically in two-year intervals — it tries to make each show unique. “This show has a very different character from the last one,” Ms. DeFeo said. “The last one was heavier on painting, for one thing. And also the controversies that erupt are different.

“With the last one, the conversation that was hard to ignore was the controversy over the painting about Emmett Till.” (That was when a white artist, Dana Schutz, made a painting based on the open-coffin photos of Emmett Till, the teenager who was murdered by white men in 1955 for the crime of being black. She meant the painting as a reverential and provocative memorial, she said, but others saw it as a thoughtless and cruel appropriation. The controversy was passionate and loud.)

Much has happened since then. “The world changes, and the biennial changes around it,” Ms. DeFeo said.

This year, she continued, “the curators made a pretty deliberate decision that because the show is about emerging artists, they would not bring back artists whose work they already have shown. There are only about five repeat artists. It is an attempt to wipe the slate clean and provide access to people who haven’t had it before.”

She plans to talk about the work by Kota Ezawa; the image, she said, “is a still from a stop motion animation the artist has made of footage of the NFL national anthem protests.”

She’ll also talk about a series by Alexandra Bell called “No Humans Involved (After Sylvia Wynter).”

“It’s about the news reporting after the Central Park jogger case,” she said. “It’s really more about the reportage than the event itself. The artist worked with archived newspaper pages, and highlights certain pages.”

Overall, she said, “I will lay the groundwork, in case the viewer is going to see the biennial. It’s a framework. The biennial always becomes a flashpoint.

“And if you’ve seen it already, it will deepen what you saw, and provide a context. Someone else’s perspective always sheds a different light on a work.”

Who: Whitney Museum teaching fellow Janine DeFeo

What: Will talk about “The Whitney Biennial — The Pulse of the Contemporary Art Movement” at the JCC U

When: On Thursday, June 13, starting at 10:30 a.m.

Where: At the Kaplan JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue, in Tenafly


Who: Composer, conductor, author, and NPR and PBS commentator Rob Kapilow

What: Will “unravel the wonders of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”

When: After Ms. DeFeo’s talk and lunch at the JCC U

How much for everything (except lunch): $35 for members, $42 for nonmembers

For more information and to register: Call (201) 408-1454 or go to www.jccotp.org/adult-jcc-university

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