James Little's work in geometric abstraction—executed in oils mixed with beeswax—hinges on its feeling of freedom. “Abstraction provided me with self-determination and free will. It was liberating. I don’t find freedom in any other form,” he’s explained.
In organizing the 2022 Whitney Biennial—the museum’s 80th, somehow, in 90 years—senior curators David Breslin and Adrienne Edwards followed a series of “hunches.” These related to the expressive capabilities of abstraction, as well as to notions like “a kind of lush conceptualism, auto-ethnographic methodology, language and narrative in visual art, and sinister pop,” Edwards writes in the show’s catalogue; adding up to a wide-ranging examination of the state of contemporary art in our strange and fractious times. Breslin and Edwards’s efforts, which began at the end of 2019, have resulted in a commanding exhibition showcasing 63 artists and collectives—most living, some dead—working across painting, sculpture, photography, video, and choreography and spanning four levels of the museum. Among the biggest names are Charles Ray (who also has a show up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art right now), N. H. Pritchard, Yto Barrada, Ellen Gallagher, and Adam Pendleton.
The Biennial’s subtitle, “Quiet as It’s Kept,” is similarly varied in its origins, alluding at once to the first line of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the title of a 1960 album by the jazz drummer Max Roach, and to an exhibition curated by the artist David Hammons in 2002. “[It] featured three abstract artists who are Black American—Ed Clark, Stanley Whitney, and Denyse Thomasos,” Edwards explained during a preview this week, “and that show was really trying to pinpoint a set of ideas that have been very important to us: How can you talk about identity in a way that is not limiting; that does not confine or constrain the possibilities of what those identities can be?” In light of those ideas, Breslin added that he and Edwards had conceived of the Biennial as a living thing: “One of the hunches that we had was that the show should have a metabolism—that it should grow and change as we all do,” he said. As such, some elements will look a bit different as the months go on (see: Alex Da Corte’s ROY G BIV, 2022, a video work projected onto a cube that will change color over the run of the exhibition), while others will come and go—two good reasons to visit more than once.
Here, a glimpse at just some of what you’ll find at the 2022 Whitney Biennial.
Adam Pendleton, who recently took over MoMA’s Marron Family Atrium with the text-, image-, and sound-based installation Who Is Queen?, has at the Biennial both a pair of abstract paintings called Untitled (Days), 2021-2022, and an affecting video portrait of the social-justice activist and scholar Ruby Sales. (In earlier works, Pendleton focused on the likes of Lorraine O’Grady, choreographer Kyle Abraham, and former Black Panther Party member David Hilliard.) “I was listening to WNYC in September 2016 and heard a voice. The character, the tempo, the tone made me pay attention. It was the activist Ruby Sales. She was posing a very simple question: ‘Where does it hurt?’ It’s a question that urgently gets to the heart of the matter about being American,” Pendleton notes in the Biennial’s catalogue.
His paintings bracket three compelling canvases by James Little, whose work in geometric abstraction—executed in oils mixed with beeswax—hinges on its feeling of freedom.
“Abstraction provided me with self-determination and free will. It was liberating. I don’t find freedom in any other form,” [Little has] explained.