The Show Down: Handicapping the Great Whitney Biennial Vs. New Museum Triennial Face Off of 2012

The Show Down: Handicapping the Great Whitney Biennial Vs. New Museum Triennial Face Off of 2012
Curators of the Whitney Biennial Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders and Curator of the New Museum Triennial Eungie Joo
(Illustration by ARTINFO)

Everybody, even we lily-livered art lovers, enjoys a hearty throwdown. Last year was delectably contentious, giving us Prince vs. Cariou, Rainer vs. Abramovic, Cowboys vs. Aliens, and Beyonce's Womb vs. The Tabloid Press. This year, New York City is treated to a duel between comprehensive museum group shows.  The second New Museum Triennial, titled “The Ungovernables,” (February 15-April 22) and the 76th Whitney Biennial (March 1-May 27) open a mere two weeks apart from one another. Some may say this is a coincidence — but we know a knock-down, drag-out, Rocky-style battle for contemporary art survey domination when we see it. 

The Whitney Biennial, or WhiBi (for short, and because we can), has been the reigning champion of museum survey shows for 80 years. It has the clout, the money, and the Werner Herzog going for it. However, the parochialism of the Whitney’s lineup has already been criticized on multiple platforms. So far, WhiBi has been called out for being too white, too American, too male, too “Artforum-y,” and for privileging trendier media like video and installation over painting. Recently, Herb Tam of the Museum of Chinese Art criticized the show for largely eschewing identity politics and underrepresenting nonwhite artists. The NuMuTri, on the other hand, is concept-driven, has a sexy title, and shows a group of young, spry, more or less Jesus-aged artists. Appropriating a pejorative term for South African student protestors for its title, "The Ungovernables" spotlights a group of mostly unknown international artists, born between the mid-'70s and the mid-'80s, who grew up in societies marked by political turmoil.


ARTINFO has compiled the stats on both competitors as they prepare to go head to head in a contest of brain and brawn.

Number of Artists:

WB: 51
NMT: 34 artists (with groups and collectives counted as one entity); over 50 indivudials in total

Number of Women Artists:

WB: 20, or 38 percent
NMT: 13, or 44 percent (excluding artists participating in collectives)

Percentage of American-Born Artists:

WB: 39, or 76 percent
NMT:  3, or 9 percent  

Oldest Artist:

WB: Forest Bess (1911 — 1977); the oldest living artist is Frederick Wiseman, born in 1930
NMT: House of Natural Fiber’s Venzha Christ, born in 1973

Youngest Artist:

WB: Kate Levant and Cameron Crawford, both born in 1983
NMT: Kemang Wa Lehulere, born in 1984

The Venue:

WB: While the Whitney is slated to move to the Meatpacking District in 2015, this year’s biennale is still housed in Marcel Breuer’s dated-feeling, virtually windowless building at Madison and 75th Street.

NMT: The museum-going masses — still sugar-high off the critically disparaged but massively popular Carsten Höller show — have been convinced that the New Museum isn’t a museum at all, but a very artsy, conveniently-located amusement park-cum-interactive pleasure dome. This misconception might draw crowds, but they are going to be in for a disappointment when Abigail DeVille's installation about homelessness and urban poverty doesn’t include 3D glasses or carnival games. Architecturally, the New Museum’s sleek, SANAA-designed, metal mesh building is the Millennium Falcon to the Whitney’s Brutalist Death Star.

The Artspeak:

WB: “Sculpture, painting, installations, and photography — as well as dance, theater, music, and film — will fill the galleries of the Whitney Museum of American Art in the latest edition of the Whitney Biennial. With a roster of artists at all points in their careers the Biennial provides a look at the current state of contemporary art in America.” [Press Release]

NMT: “'The Ungovernables' is meant to suggest both anarchic and organized resistance and a dark humor about the limitations and potentials of this generation… through both materials and form; works included in 'The Ungovernables' explore impermanence and an engagement with the present and future. Many of the works are provisional, site-specific and performative reflecting an attitude of possibility and resourcefulness.” [Press Release]

The Lineup:

WB: Aside from the patent focus on film, video, and white dudes, this year’s Biennial lineup is one glorious hot mess of artistic styles, proclivities, and media. Where else can you see the work of the Texan psychedelic noise rock/art collective Red Krayloa rub elbows with the venerable 82-year-old documentarian Frederick Wiseman? Or Andrea Fraser, a pioneer of institutional critique who rose to prominence mocking the grandiloquent, inflated rhetoric of art history, alongside the Neo-Romantic filmmaker Herzog, the most Wagerian, bombastic genius of our time? Or radical feminist K8 Hardy paired with Vincent Gallo, an artist most famous for receiving unsimulated oral sex in the universally despised “Brown Bunny”?

NMT: If the New Museum’s first triennial traded on the seductive notion of youth, this year’s iteration offers a decidedly more focused and serious meditation on protest and civil disobedience. Most of these artists are relatively unknown in the United States. All are born between the mid-'70s and the mid-'80s and make work that responds to formative geopolitical events such as the IMF crisis, religious fundamentalism, military dictatorships, increased globalization, and the rise of global capitalism. As in the Whitney Biennial, video and performance are prevalent. Politically loaded sculpture is well-represented by Argentinian artist Adrián Villar Rojas’s deliberately dilapidated monumental sculptures, Vietnamese-born artist Danh Võ’s reproduction of the Statue of Liberty’s copper skin, and Iman Issa’s proposed alternatives to her native Egypt’s monuments.

The Curators:

WB: This year’s Biennial is double-teamed by seasoned in-house curator Elizabeth Sussmann and former Greene Naftali gallery director Jay Sanders. Sussmann has curated surveys of 20th-century titans Eva Hesse, Gordon Matta Clark, Nan GoldenKeith Harring, and the late Mike Kelley. The abundance of film in this year’s Biennale probably has something to do with Sanders, who has curated major monographic exhibitions of the artist/filmmakers Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits. He has also edited a DVD on the work of theater artist Richard Foreman and published a book of Jack Smith’s drawing.

NMT: “The Ungovernables” is the solo effort of the New Museum's Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs, Eungie Joo. Having served as the commissioner for the Korean Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, Joo has been behind the scenes at the New Museum since 2007, spearheading programming for the “Museum As Hub” initiative and coordinating projects with My Barbarian, Lisa Sigal, and Anton Vidokle. Joo approaches curating not from the point of view of orthodox art history, but from a broader field of cultural, visual, and ethnic studies. Her catalogue essay cites the Occupy movements, WikiLeaks, Félix Guattari, and Slavoj Žižek. Her international, socially conscious, and post-colonialist choices are likely to catapult her into the stratosphere of curatorial superstardom (if such a place exists).

The Money:

WB: Despite the inclusion of Georgia Sagri, an artist associated with the Occupy movement, the cooperate sponsorship behind the Biennial is as 1 percent as it gets. Major support is provided by the auction house Sotheby’s, who has been involved in an ugly labor dispute with its locked-out art handlers from Teamsters Local 814. Mega-bank and art-world power player Deutsche Bank is also providing partial support.

NMT: The Triennial is sponsored by the affordable fashion retailer Joe Fresh (that’s Canadian for H&M).

The Star:

WB: Prior to his shocking and untimely death, Mike Kelley was arguably the most famous artist represented in the Biennial. Now, due to the most tragic and unfortunate of circumstances, there is no question. His grungy, lapsed-Catholic installations and videos have been Biennial fixtures for years (he has been included eight times; in 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995, 2002, and, now, 2012). The three films related to Kelley’s public art project “Mobile Homestead” — an unfinished replica of Kelley’s childhood home in working-class Detroit — will undoubtedly take on new weight and significance.

NMT: While “Younger than Jesus” can be partially credited with launching the careers of Ryan Trecartin, Cyprien Gaillard, and Keren Cytter, this year’s Triennial really isn’t in the business of making art stars. In fact, one might argue that “The Ungovernables” itself is a patent rejection of celebrity, emphasizing anonymity and collaboration. Six collectives and/or temporary projects are featured, including the Israeli performative research group Public Movement, the new media collective/micro-distillery House of Natural Fiber, and the trans-African photojournalism project Invisible Boarders.

If one career is about to be made by this art show showdown, it is that of transfeminine performance artist and filmmaker Wu Tsang (no affiliation with the homonymous Clan), who is the only artist to show work in both shows. “WILDENESS,” Tsang’s documentary film about transgender Latinas in a Los Angeles bar, screens at the Whitney, while his Performa-tested work of “living sculpture,” “Full Body Quotation” — a concert inspired by samples from transgender cinema — will be shown at the New Museum. Of course, this means increased visibility for Tsang. It also is in line with a growing visibility of transgenderism and gender queerness in art and culture, from Antony Hegarty’s museum survey in Los Angeles to Andrej Pejic walking both male and female catwalks at New York Fashion Week.

Click here to see the complete list of artists involved in the Whitney and New Museum shows.