How Whitney curators selected artists for the museum’s biennial

Artist Agustina Woodgate's installation of clocks is among artworks on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2019 Biennial. 
Artist Agustina Woodgate’s installation of clocks is among artworks on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2019 Biennial.  Photo Credit: Bruce Gilbert

For a museum that has never been stuck in its ways or geographic location — the current Renzo Piano-designed building is its fourth home — the upcoming Whitney Biennial embodies the mission of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s founder.

When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the museum in 1930, two years before its first biennial, her goal was to put new American artists in the spotlight at a time when pre-19th-century Old Masters still largely dominated what was considered “serious art.”

Of the 75 artists exhibited this year, co-curator Jane Panetta estimates around 75 percent are under the age of 40 and only five have appeared in a previous Whitney Biennial. “We wanted this to be a snapshot of contemporary art-making over the past two years,” she says. “It feels like the world we live in now.”

She and co-curator Rujeko Hockley visited some 300 studios, spending 14 weeks on the road traveling to places well beyond the polished walls of their Chelsea neighbors. “We wanted to meet new artists and see new works by ones we already knew,” Panetta says. “However, we were really struck by how many emerging artists are facing fewer opportunities to present their work publicly.”

Arranged over the fifth and sixth floors, as well as a few spaces outside the museum and the dedicated galleries, the biennial covers a broad range of themes; however, a few touchpoints have emerged, Hockley explains. “We found artists mining history to re-imagine the present and future, dealing with the vulnerability of the body, and concerns for community.” In several instances, works are presented as dialogues between artists.

In many ways, this year’s biennial is not just a passive reflection of what is happening in contemporary art, but also a statement about the importance of supporting and cultivating emerging artists, especially during challenging times. Among the new voices are artists like Las Nietas de Nonó — collaborative sister duo Lydela and Michel — whose autobiographical works center on their rural hometown in Carolina, Puerto Rico.

“We want this biennial to be a conversation that doesn’t end with the show,” explains head curator Scott Rothkopf. “These women have put so much intelligence and so much heart into it.”

Whitney Biennial 2019 opens Friday at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St., whitney.org.