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What this year's Whitney Biennial says about contemporary American art


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: It is a big moment, with some of the biggest names of today and the future in contemporary art on display.

As Jeffrey Brown explores, these works at the Whitney Biennial can also inspire controversy.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's called Procession by artist Nicole Eisenman, large sculptural figures installed on a roof terrace at the Whitney Museum in New York, made of plaster, metal, fiberglass, a bit of everything.

It's the largest and brashest piece in the 2019 version of the Whitney Biennial, widely considered the country's premier survey of contemporary American art, works by 75 artists in a wide variety of media and formats.

On the wall and photographs by John Edmonds and Curran Hatleberg, on the floor and in the air in a performance piece by Brendan Fernandes.

Curators Rujeko Hockley and Jane Panetta want us to see that American art today comes in many forms and from all over.

Rujeko Hockley: That's something we really wanted to foreground in the exhibition is that actually there's a great diversity of work being made all across this country in terms of medium, in terms of ideas, in terms of approach, in terms of issues that are of relevance.

We really found just a true multiplicity of things, rather than any one thing.

Jane Panetta: You know, while dealing with big sociopolitical questions that are on the table in a major way right now in this country, the work didn't feel kind of angry or polemical, but that it felt hopeful and often productive.

Jeffrey Brown: One thing they found? Even in this high-tech age, artists still like to make things by hand; 31-year-old Pat Phillips, from a small town in Louisiana, painted a giant mural addressing issues of race and incarceration that comes with its own wood fence and bench.

There are finely crafted sculptures by Diane Simpson and Daniel Lind-Ramos, whose assemblage of tools, branches, natural and salvaged materials becomes a kind of shrine to the suffering from the 2017 hurricane in his native Puerto Rico.

Ragen Moss: There's a sculptural turn in them.

Jeffrey Brown: And there's also this strange translucent torso-shaped hanging forms handmade by Ragen Moss, who wants us to walk around and peer inside them sculptures.

Ragen Moss: Sculpture, to me, categorical imperatives is that it can teach us about space like nothing else.

Jeffrey Brown: Moss is also a lawyer, no doubt unusual for a Biennial artist, but she likes the way her two disciplines make her think differently.

Ragen Moss: When you're a lawyer, you're given a set of facts. They are not in your control. And a good lawyer's job is to analyze an issue spot, address them and solve them. Art could almost be an opposite funnel, where there are no facts. I make the facts, and then I solve problems that don't exist. I set my own questions.

Jeffrey Brown: The Whitney Biennial is known for addressing current political issues, but, this year, the museum itself has become the focal point, in a controversy similar to that facing other cultural institutions.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums have been targeted in the last year for accepting so-called toxic philanthropy from the Sackler family linked to the opioid crisis. At issue here, the vice chairman of the Whitney Board of Trustees, Warren Kanders, a leading funder and head of a company called Safariland, which makes military and law enforcement equipment.

After reports that its tear gas canisters were used on asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border and elsewhere, activists, who've held regular protests at the museum, demanded Kanders leave the board. No action has been taken to date.

Speaking to the press at the Biennial opening, Whitney director Adam Weinberg said this:

Adam Weinberg: This is a challenging time for many of this country's cultural and educational institutions. These complicated questions are also being debated publicly, with a range of viewpoints being expressed on all sides. We are taking these questions seriously.

Jeffrey Brown: One direct response at the Biennial came from the group Forensic Architecture, which produced a 10-minute video called "Triple Chaser" named for a type of tear gas grenade that tracks and vividly illustrates its use at hot spots around the world.

A group of museum employees signed a letter calling for Kanders to resign, among them, Biennial co-curator Hockley.

Rujeko Hockley: This is certainly a different sort of controversy, and one that we didn't anticipate at any time. You know, I think that we are all making our own personal choices about how to approach and how to handle these different situations.

Jeffrey Brown: More than two-thirds of the participating artists also signed on to a call for Kanders' resignation, including Nicholas Galanin, an Alaskan of Tlingit and Unangan descent.

Nicholas Galanin: This is a reference to that noise in conversation towards cultural communities, which is our histories, our stories, our voices.

Jeffrey Brown: But his work in the exhibition, including a large tapestry called "White Noise American Prayer Rug," raised different questions for art museums and the larger society about what he terms agency for indigenous people, including artists.

Nicholas Galanin: If we look at numbers and statistics, who is represented in these spaces often? It's been a slow overturn. So, in the world of art history, in the world of art history that's taught, the idea of craft vs. fine art, those are all real conversations and those are frameworks that get placed onto us.

Jeffrey Brown: Do you see that changing, especially in institutions like this?

Nicholas Galanin: Slowly. It's not fast enough.

Jeffrey Brown: This Biennial is unusually diverse. More than half its artists are women. Additionally, more than half are artists of color.

It also skews young. Three-quarters are under 40, including Eddie Arroyo of Miami, whose suite of paintings of a small restaurant in his Little Haiti neighborhood is an artistic approach to documenting and fighting gentrification.

And you're capturing the images of certain buildings.

Eddie Arroyo: Yes, certain buildings I feel are important or notable. Also, I anticipated instances where there was going to be decisions being made on what structures or businesses are allowed to exist, or perceived as a failure.

Jeffrey Brown: Why a business lasts or doesn't last, that could be an issue for developers, that could be for lawyers, that could be for journalists.

Eddie Arroyo: That could be for people in the neighborhood as well.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, but why is it for a painter? Why is it for an artist?

Eddie Arroyo: Because I live there.

Jeffrey Brown: As simple as that.

In a deeply divided America, the artists chosen by curators Panetta and Hockley exhibit a quieter tone than in the past. You have to listen for it, as in Kota Ezawa's animation of football players kneeling during the national anthem, and look for it, as in Jeffrey Gibson's huge banners.

Jane Panetta: A lot of those big sociopolitical issues that we're grappling with in this country right now are there in the work. I just think, in a lot of cases, there's a combination of kind of poetry and interest on the part of the artist in infusing that content with aesthetic decisions, decisions around paint color material.

Rujeko Hockley: For us, I think we hope when people come to see the exhibition, that they find it engaging, that they find it an interesting and illuminating experience to move through the galleries, but also that perhaps it helps them to reframe some of their thinking around some of the kind of most difficult issues of our time.

Jeffrey Brown: The Biennial exhibition is up through September 22.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Whitney Museum in New York.

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