The 2024 Whitney Biennial Is a Romp Through Turmoil and Abstraction

“Even Better Than The Real Thing” opens to the public on March 20. 

2024 Whitney Biennial: Even Better Than The Real Thing Opening
The 2024 Whitney Biennial has attracted surprisingly few protesters. Patrick McMullan via Getty Image

The 81st Whitney Biennial, “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” feels decidedly anti-artificial intelligence. The introductory wall text puts it bluntly: the people behind the biennial “acknowledge that Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) is complicating our understanding of what is real,” and that these developments coupled with alarming rhetoric around gender and authenticity “are part of a long history of deeming people of marginalized race, gender and ability as subhuman—less than real.”

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What is real is organizers Chrissie Iles, Meg Onli, Min Sun Jeon and Beatriz Cifuentes’ commitment to sharing the work of the human artists who are confronting difficult legacies in increasingly constructed worlds into “a space where difficult ideas can be engaged and considered.”

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Unsurprisingly, it’s complicated, but the Whitney Biennial traditionally has been. The seventy-one artists participating are free to express their agendas on the museum’s walls and observers are free to respond. Thus far, “Even Better Than The Real Thing” is one of the museum’s better biennials, with fewer protests and controversy than in some recent years. The 2017 biennial featured a contentious painting of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz, which led to protests calling for its removal, and in 2019, many artists boycotted the exhibition because the museum’s vice chairman, Warren Kanders, sold military supplies with Safariland (he stepped down that year).

An artwork painted on crackers featuring a black cross
Harmony Hammond, ‘Black Cross II,’ 2020–21. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 90 3/8 × 72 1/4 × 2 3/4 in. (229.6 × 183.5 × 7 cm). © Harmony Hammond. Courtesy the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York. Photograph by Eric Swanson

Not that the Whitney can avoid protests altogether, biennial year or not. In November, demonstrators doused the museum’s steps with fake blood during a Free Palestine protest. On March 15, during a preview of this year’s biennial, a lone bystander erected a sign across the street that read “Zionist institutions have no place among artists.”

Perhaps that’s why the 2022 Whitney Biennial was glossy, decided uncontroversial and, as a result, somewhat meek? And why in 2024, curators have seemingly opened the door wide to subversion?

Some of the best artworks at the Whitney Biennial aren’t even inside the museum. While the media spotlight has shown most brightly on the ‘Free Palestine’ message hidden in plain sight in a neon artwork by Demian DinéYazhi called we must stop imagining apocalypse/genocide + we must imagine liberation, two powerful pieces sit on the patios of the fifth and sixth floor and are so arresting in their scale, they are likely to take the cake as best in show.

A wall sculpture that looks like a colorful amorphous blog
Suzanne Jackson, ‘Rag-to-Wobble,’ 2020. Acrylic, cotton paint cloth and vintage dress hangers, 91 1/2 x 54 1/2 in. (232.4 x 138.4 cm), variable; with 14 inches variable bulge. Courtesy the artist and Ortuzar Projects, New York. Photograph by David Kaminsky

The first is by Kiyan Williams, a young, New York-based artist who has shown at Peres Projects and The Shed before arriving at the biennial and has a history of using artwork to subvert political power in America. Williams’ outdoor sculpture Ruins of Empire II or The Earth Swallows the Master’s House, presents the facade of the White House in Washington, rendered in mud, sinking to one side, like a doomed Titanic. The flag hangs upside down, capturing the anarchistic spirit that the Whitney invites at most biennials (a past biennial work, Liberty (Liberté) by Puppies Puppies from the 2017 exhibition, a play on the Statue of Liberty, comes to mind).

Another powerful piece is Torkwase Dyson’s tactile, viewer-activated Liquid Shadows, Solid Dreams (A Monastic Playground), which feels like an experience in industrial abstraction. Each large black shape looks like a road or a runway, and observers are invited to sit inside cubby holes. During the preview, they became a place where people could retreat for quiet, intimate moments—alone or not. The installation taps into the rise of abstract architecture by architects like Santiago Calatrava or perhaps also the aesthetic of industrial fashion.

A piece of abstract art with very clean lines
Takako Yamaguchi, ‘Issue,’ 2023. Oil on canvas, 42 × 50 in. (106.7 × 127 cm). Collection of the artist; courtesy Ortuzar Projects, New York. © Takako Yamaguchi. Photograph by Gene Ogami

Highlights of the 2024 Whitney Biennial include the abstract works of Suzanne Jackson, made of acrylic gel medium, and a room filled with Julien Issac’s video works, all of which are stunning. Another highlight was the paintings of Japanese artist Takako Yamaguchi, who is showing five pieces that look like graphic renditions of ocean culture (waves, anchors and waterfalls) that reflect the artist’s approach to “abstraction in reverse,” where she takes elements of a landscape and turns them into 2D flat, almost abstract shapes. They call to mind emojis, but far more emotive.

Other must-see works include the paintings of Harmony Hammond, German artist Julia Phillips, (whose pieces have a dance-like airy quality to them) and Jamaican artist Mavis Pusey, whose work from the 1970s calls to mind the blocky architecture of New York’s skyline.

But what really stole the show was an installation by Canadian artist Lotus L. Kang called In Cascades, which at first glance is little more than a room in which huge pieces of photographic film hang from metal rods. Each sheet of film “develops” in its own way, exposed to light in different measures over time, creating unexpected colors and patterns. It’s one of the few truly analog pieces in the show, and in an exhibition that uses A.I. as a jumping-off point, it’s a refreshingly retrograde touch—a palette cleanser given an over-abundance of internet art and NFTs.

Artwork crafted from large sheets of colorful fabric hanging from a ceiling
Lotus L. Kang, ‘In Cascades,’ 2023 (installation view, Chisenhale Gallery, London, 2023). Super Joist, steel, hardware, tanned and unfixed film (continually sensitive), sheet silicone, cast aluminum, and spherical magnets, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and Franz Kaka, Toronto. © Lotus L. Kang. Photograph by Andy Keate

The goal of visiting a biennial should be to discover artists you’ve never heard of, rather than seeing the same old blockbuster hits. In that respect, this year’s Whitney Biennial is a winner—it offered a seamless journey through several floors, showcasing the works of artists with beautifully distinctive voices.

Even Better Than The Real Thing” opens to the public on March 20. 

The 2024 Whitney Biennial Is a Romp Through Turmoil and Abstraction