The Whitney Biennial is a show that aims to assess the state of the American art world by asking: Where are we now? It’s a sizable task, one that the museum accomplishes better in some years than others. Reflecting on the insecurities, tensions, and mood of the nation this time around is especially daunting, given the polarization following the election of Donald Trump. The scope of the challenge is evident: the 2019 biennial—spread over three full floors of the Whitney—fails to deliver a satisfying answer to the question it poses. And now, a widening controversy over a Whitney board-member whose company has been tied to the sale of military supplies is casting another shadow.
Let’s start with what succeeds: a video of the violinist Laura Ortman playing in mountainous New Mexico surroundings, and Daniel Lind-Ramos’s Maria-Maria, which takes the iconic shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe while incorporating references to Hurricane Maria, Mary’s head made of a coconut found near the artist’s home in Puerto Rico. There’s something transcendent to both works, with their focus on the natural world and their connection to the spiritual realm. Then there’s Heji Shin, who draws attention to beginnings with a series of Baby photographs, some of the biennial’s most arresting works: raw, jarring shots of infants’ heads right after crowning. While the act of childbirth isn’t romanticized—the babies are bloody, with purple faces and matted hair—there’s something deeply spiritual to witnessing these initial precious moments, a baby’s first breaths memorialized on camera