The 2014 Whitney Biennial list is out, revealing the artists whose work will be included in America's most closely pored-over show, which both acts as a state-of-the-union declaration about the direction of contemporary art and mints no few overnight stars. The last biennial, which curators Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Sanders used as an opportunity to showcase the ways in which artists were embracing a hybridized approach to their mediums in order to invent new directions forward, was an enormous critical success—raising the stakes for this year's curators, the themselves-hybridized trio of former Tate Modern film curator Stuart Comer (now at MoMA), Art Institute of Chicago professor and artist Michelle Grabner, and ICA Philadelphia curator andWhiteWalls editor Anthony Elms.
So what can we tell from the list about what's in store when the exhibition opens in March? Well, for one thing, if hybridity was at the core of the last Biennial, you can say that these three curators have doubled down on that approach—in fact, there will be more hyphens in this show than a lengthy Morse code dispatch. Here are a few observations.
1. That the coming Biennial will have a strong literary bent is immediately clear from the fact that the late novelist David Foster Wallace is the biggest celebrity name included, following in the footsteps of Werner Herzog's surprise 2012 appearance. But that's just the tip of the iceberg—a remarkable number of the artists are known for being writers, from critics like Alex Jovanovich, Pedro Vélez, and Gary Indiana (the last two being former frequent Artnet contributors) to seminal Concrete Comedy writer David Robbins. Also, several show self-identify as poets or artist-poets, from Etel Adnan to Language poet Susan Howe (mother of 2010 biennialist R.H. Quaytman) to Travis Jeppesen. Then, for good measure the curators have included Semiotext(e), the fabled publishing house known for its work with the writer Chris Kraus; Triple Canopy, the buzzy online art journal; Critical Practices Inc., Saul Ostrow's organization to nurture dynamic cultural criticism;Jonn Herschend, an artist and co-founder of quirky art-edition publication The Thing Quarterly; and Angie Keefer, a writer and co-founder of the online publisherThe Serving Library. Get ready to do some reading.
2. Curator Michelle Grabner wields tremendous influence in the Chicago art scene from her perch at the Art Institute, and you her presence is clearly felt here—in that a large chunk of the list resembles an art-school faculty lounge. Her fellow Art Institute teacher Joseph Grigley, a cerebral text artist and Oxford PhD who was in 2000 Whitney Biennial, is here, as is Academy Records, the organization created by another colleague, Stephen Lacy; former Art Institute students on the list include Diego Leclery and Tony Lewis. Then there's the appearance of the lateAllan Sekula, a famed CalArts professor and photographer who chronicled the deleterious political ramifications of globalization and overseas trade… and even an entire department plucked from Harvard University, the Sensory Ethnography Lab, which both produces ethnographic documentaries and teaches researchers how to make them.
3. Does this sound a little on the cerebral side? Don't worry, there will also be a ton of abstract painting. In fact, nearly a full quarter of the 103 artists listed are primarily known for painting abstractions, from younger artists like Jacqueline Humphries and Philip Vanderhyden to major yet under-appreciated figures from previous eras, like Neo Geo painter Peter Schuyff and Chicago Imagist Philip Hanson. Then there are even a few artists who make painting-like things out of nontraditional materials like Valerie Snobeck (sculptural objects), Sheila Hicks(textiles), and Donelle Woolford (wood; also Woolford is actually a fake alter ego invented by artist Joe Scanlan).
4. A certain Icelandic art dealer recently remarked that he noticed a pronounced trend in curation lately, which was the long-overdue effort to showcase older female artists (he termed this constituency, in shorthand, the OFAs). This rebalancing is certainly in evidence here, with major figures like Channa Horowitz and Louise Fishman getting their due, as well as the late Pictures Generation artists Sarah Charlesworth and Gretchen Bender. Older lesser-known male artists, like the fantastic Jimmie Durham, are given their due too, but that's more par for the course.
5. Are you and artist and hope to attract the attention of the next Whitney Biennial's curators? Perhaps you should take inspiration from 2014 biennialist Chris Larson, who earlier this year built a replica of building designed by Marcel Breuer—the famed Brutalist architect behind the Whitney's site, which the museum is bittersweetly departing in 2015—and then burned it to the ground.
6. This is a good time to point out that there is an exciting scarcity of big traditional-art names in the show—the most famous painters, photographers, and sculptors are probably Sherrie Levine, Laura Owens, Sterling Ruby, Charline von Heyl, David Hammons, and the up-and-comers Bjarne Melgaard and Darren Bader.
7. That we're living in the age of social media seems to be reflected in the show, though in ways that look back to artists whose work was characterized by interpersonal interactions in the days before Facebook. These include Ben Kinmont, who constructs artworks our of social interactions, and Paul Druecke, a conceptual photographer whose 1997 project "A Social Event Archive" is viewed as having prefigured social sites like Instagram by inviting people to give him personal snapshots that he then displayed. Also, the organization Public Collectors, which promotes the exhibition of objects, ephemera, and assorted obsession-stirring materials not collected by museums or institutions, is basically an in-person version of Pinterest.
8. If you've noticed, an unusually large amount of artist-driven initiatives have been included in the list, and this sense of collaborative practice crosses over into the many artist duos present—in fact, the Biennial seems to embrace the buddy system. There's the performance matching of Ei Arakawa and Carissa Rodriguez, animators Steve Reinke and Jessie Mott, and a team-up of Valerie Snobeck andCatherine Sullivan. Excitingly, the artist Gaylen Gerber—who is known for painting monochrome backdrops on which to display the work of other artists—will do a minishow featuring Hammons, Levine, and Trevor Shimizu.
9. Another show within the show will be a display of paintings by Tony Greene, an artist associated with Feature Inc. who died of AIDS in 1990, which is being curated by the artists Richard Hawkins and Catherine Opie—it follows in the artist-curated footsteps of Robert Gober's sensational show of Forrest Bess last time around. The selection of Greene's affecting canvases is part of a terrific tendency in the show to give wider exposure to artists from the LGBT community, including the radical transgender choreographer Yve Laris Cohen, the transgender filmmakers Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst (Drucker was born male, Ernst female), and the artists Doug Ischar and Paul P., whose work charts gay subcultures.
10. Finally, following the concentrated performance offerings in the last Biennial, a hefty chunk of the show will be given over to time-based art. Sound artists, for instance, will range from veteran pioneers of the medium like the accordionistPauline Oliveros and minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine to Sergei Tcherepnin and the Los Angeles art band My Barbarian. Where there's music, there will be dancing, in the form of the young dance artists Miguel Gutierrez and Taisha Paggett. Then, in terms of film, there are two of the other biggest names—Michel Auder and Mumblecore inventor Andrew Bujalski—plus experimental filmmakers like Morgan Fisher and Victoria Fu.
10a. It sounds like an unbelievable Biennial.