The news that the Whitney Museum of American Art was moving
from its Marcel Breuer designed bunker on New York’s Upper East
Side to a brand new Renzo Piano designed building downtown
near the High Line made the front page of The New York Times
above the fold. Only slightly second to this announcement came
the news that in the wake of that move, the Whitney Biennial, the
museum’s most anticipated and high-profile exhibition since its
inception, would be postponed one year, until 2017.
The Biennial—sponsored by Tiffany & Co. through 2021—not
only takes the cultural pulse of America every two years, but with
its emphasis on emerging artists it has an uncanny way of
predicting the future.
“The Biennial is such a signature project for the Whitney and it’s
an ambitious project,” says Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s deputy
director for international initiatives and senior curator. “We were
moving and had a lot on our plate and it seemed the right thing
for the curators and the artists we might be working with in the
future to really get a sense of what the building is and to
Roy Lichtenstein, “Little Big Painting,”
1965. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 68 x 80 in.
(172 x 203.2 cm). Whitney Museum of
American Art, New York; purchased with
funds from the Friends of the Whitney
Museum of American Art 66.2 © Estate of
“It’s interesting just
how much the Biennial
influenced the design
of this building.”
Edward Ruscha, “Large Trademark with
Eight Spotlights,” 1962. Oil, house paint, ink
and graphite pencil on canvas, 6615/18 x 1331/8
in. (170 x 338.1 cm). Whitney Museum of
American Art, New York; purchased with funds
from the Mrs. Percy Uris Purchase Fund 85.41
© Ed Ruscha.
Doug Aitken, “New Opposition II,” (2011).
Chromogenic print, Sheet: 551/2 x 4715/16 in.
(141 x 121.8 cm) Whitney Museum of American
Art, New York: purchased with funds from the
Director’s Discretionary Fund in honor of Steven
Ames 2002.323 © 2001 Doug Aitken.
“You just never
know how people
are going to reinvent
Piano’s critically acclaimed design, which includes generous,
loft-like galleries and expansive floor-to-ceiling windows, nearly
doubled the museum’s exhibition space. Much has been made of
the fact that there are now two floors entirely dedicated to the
Whitney’s vast permanent collection, which in the relatively
diminutive Breuer building often languished in storage. But as De
Salvo points out, when she and her colleagues were considering
what the new building should be, the Biennial was always at the
back of their minds.
“It’s interesting just how much the Biennial influenced the design
of this building,” she observes. “A lot of the thinking that Adam
[Weinberg, the Whitney’s Director] and I did with Renzo was
influenced by how artists have used the [old] building historically.
Probably there is no greater time that artists take over the
building than at the Biennial.”
Indeed, in the past decades artists have occupied just about any
space they could get their hands on—and the museum happily
allowed them to do so. In 2004, Paul McCarthy lashed a 64-foot
tall inflatable sculpture to the rooftop, essentially transforming
the building into a giant pedestal.
“1989 Biennial” catalogue cover,
designed by Christopher Wool, for
1989 Biennial (April 18-July 9, 1989).
Installation view “Andy Warhol”
(May 1-June 20, 1971) Whitney Museum
of American Art, New York.
Photograph by Geoffrey Clements.
“Artists don’t feel
bound by some linear
notion of art history.”
Michele Abeles, “Baby
Carriage on Bike or Riot
Shield as Carriage,”
2015. 204 x 348 in. (518.2 x
883.9 cm). Collection of the
artist; Courtesy 47 Canal,
New York © Michele Abeles.
The Sculpture Court, meanwhile, has been used alternatively as
an animal habitat (Fritz Haeg, 2008 Biennial) and a human one
(Coco Fusco, 1993 Biennial). Charles Ray once parked a 12 x
47-foot toy fire truck outside the museum on Madison Avenue.
“People did things in the stairwells, in the elevators,” De Salvo
recalls. “One year, I believe Kenny Scharf did something in the
bathrooms. In a sense the artists see the building as an
The current building is even more accommodating by design,
with several sanctioned outdoor spaces as well as a black box
theater for performance art. For the opening exhibition “America
Is Hard to See,” Mary Heilmann colonized a large terrace with her
brightly colored chairs; and as part of a five-year collaboration
with TF Cornerstone and the High Line, Michele Abeles installed a
billboard-sized work on the façade of nearby 95 Horatio Street.
The elevators are home to the new building’s only commissioned
work—an installation by the late artist Richard Artschwager—
but that doesn’t mean De Salvo and her team thought of every
possibility. Far from it.
“You know artists will push against anything,” De Salvo insists.
“You just never know how people are going to reinvent the space.”
Or, on the other hand, how the space is going to reinvent the
De Salvo is curious to see how artists respond not just to the site
itself but also to the neighborhood. “There’s the whole history of
the West Side with artists like David Wojnarowicz and Gordon
Matta-Clark, the gay scene, it was a pretty rough-and-tumble area.
And there are remnants of it. There’s a kind of layered archaeology
and some artists really take that on. I think the Biennial always
surprises. We never know where it’s going to go.”
Much, of course, will depend on the curator (or curators). “Many
of the past Biennials have included historical figures and there
were times that it was just about the youngest cutting-edge
artists, so we never really know,” De Salvo explains. “Our curators
travel and really go and look and it is about gauging both the art
that is being made but also what’s in the air. It’s been a long time
since there has been a zeitgeist where you could say it’s all about
this, because you can say it’s all about this today, and next week
it’s all about something else. The world moves fast. People
consume. And they consume very quickly. It’s very hard to put
your finger on the pulse of any one thing. In the end, the curators
have to put forward what they think. It’s impossible to be
At the end of the day, it all comes down to the artists themselves.
“Artists don’t feel bound by some linear notion of art history. They
are open in that way. They are looking at things and it’s all about
their vision,” says De Salvo, adding that the Museum, too, has
become more open when it comes to its definition of “American
Artist,” with a valid U.S. passport no longer the criteria for
admittance into the Biennial or, for that matter, the permanent
“The greatest interest is talking about art in the United States,” De
Salvo says. “In a world where there is a greater nomadic existence,
there’s something powerful and productive about being able to
have a sense of depth. I think that the Whitney’s focus and one of
its great strengths is the capacity to look at contemporary art
within the framework of the United States, but we allow for
fluidity because that’s the artists themselves. This place is always
figuring itself out. It’s a kind of blessing and a curse because you
have to go with that. If you try to fix it, you fail, because then you
become parochial, then you become provincial. The artists keep
you from doing that.”