Impressions of the Whitney Biennial / by JW Harrington

This summer John and I spent two art-filled weeks in New York City and the Hudson Valley.  I shared photos of a few of the things we saw, with a little commentary, in posts on Facebook and Instagram.  (If you don’t follow me on Instagram – @jwharringtonjr – please consider doing that!)  In the months beforehand, I’d been ambivalent about viewing the 2019 Whitney Biennial, thinking it would be extremely crowded and very white, New York centered.  Then I read about the two curators, Jane Panetta and Rijeko Hockley, their vision for the show, and their many travels around the country to the studios of artists far from the crowd -- and bought tickets.

We spent four exhausting and rewarding hours in the museum.  The only crowding we experienced was on the elevator to the 6th floor (we used stairs thereafter).  Featuring painting, sculpture, photography, performance, and video from 75 artists or art collectives, the only quite-accurate generalization is the focus on the strife, misfortune, and inequality of the current moment. 

However I also perceived an emphasis on what I’ll call the materiality of visual art.  Here are some examples, go to for more, and for images, since I don’t think this platform allows me to insert images! (If you’d like to get my newsletter with images, let me know at


Eddie Arroyo (Miami FL) presented a series of four works of special interest to my geographer and urbanist friends.  5825 NE 2nd Ave., Miami, FL 33137 is painted expressionistically four times, illustrating its façade transformed from a locally owned, low-key eatery in Little Haiti  to an abandoned, graffiti-covered storefront, to a white-washed storefront over the years 2016-19.  This de-materialization of culture in a changing city with rapidly rising property values struck me.

Nicole Eisenman (Brooklyn NY) exhibited  a set of large-scale sculptures, titled Procession, using a verywide variety of materials and objects to speak to bodies, bodily functions, human interaction, and human disenfranchisement.

You may know that several artists selected for the exhibition refused to present their work after (a) the discovery that a company co-owned by a vice-chair of the Whitney’s board manufactures and distributes “less-lethal” (but often, nearly so) munitions, (b) that these specific products have been used against civilians in Gaza, the US, and other countries, (c) a written demand that the board member (Warren B. Kanders) leave the Whitney board, and (d) the refusal of the board to expel Kanders.  Among the most riveting of the Biennial’s displays was a video presentation by the collaborative Forensic Architecture(London, England;  with Praxis Films) titled Triple Chaser, which is one trade-name for a particularly awful tear-gas canister manufactured by a subsidiary of Kanders’ company.  Video was needed, because words are inadequate for the horror inflicted by governments (in many cases, against their own citizens) and the elaborateness of the research that Forensic Architecture engaged to show the exact incidences of these specific devices’ use.  Here is the art of uncovering materiality.   See my photo of the descriptive placard, and see these articles (among many others): and

Daniel Lind Ramos (Loiza PR) presented a set of large sculptures to which the viewer can ascribe various interpretations, until closer examination reveals the materials of which they’re made, and with that, reveals other meanings.  I photographed Maria-Maria, which seems to be an other-worldly female with an elaborate headdress, no face, sagging breasts, and a striking blue robe.  The accompanying placard lists the materials as “metal basin, wooden seat, lamp, tarp, coconuts, palm-tree trunk, steel sheet, rope, beads, fabric, tacks, wood, plastic tubing, steel bars, scissors, and wooden box.”  The materials relate to the destruction that Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico;  the title refers to the hurricane and to the Virgin Mary, who was so often rendered in Medieval Europe with brilliant blue robes because of the rarity and expense of rich blue pigments.

Wangechi Mutu (Brooklyn NY and Nairobi, Kenya) showed a set of larger-than-“life” sculptures of found wood, clay, fired clay pots, a cow horn, and paper pulp.  The forms definitely evoke women, in strong poses, warm tones, and provoking use of material and texture.  I photographed Sentinel II.

Heji Shin (New York NY) presented large, vividly detailed and colored photographs of human childbirth:the actual moment of crowning, when the baby’s head emerges in full.These photographs shocked and deeply disturbed me – only because I’ve never been close to childbirth since it produced me, and I’ve never seen any other images that portray the bloodiness that accompanies the start of our lives and the pain of our mothers.Childbirth is deeply material.