Why are there No Texas Artists in this Year’s Whitney Biennial?

by Brandon Zech March 26, 2024
A large black transparent artwork cuts across the space of an art gallery. In the distance is wall text that reads "2024 Whitney Biennial"

Charisse Pearlina Weston, “un- (anterior ellipse[s] as mangled container; or where edges meet to wedge and [un]moor,” installation view in the 2024 Whitney Biennial. Photo: Ben Davis/Artnet News

Biennials are inherently flawed. No matter how sweeping or ambitious they are, there is, always, bound to be an omission of artists, ideas, or a combination thereof. The cause stems from myriad sources: personal biases, a deference toward what’s “hot” right now in the market, and institutional politics that limit how loud artists’ voices are allowed to be. However, even with their faults and their evasive, non-theme themes (which feel, nowadays, to be obfuscated even further with a smokescreen of artspeak), biennials serve as important tastemakers for both art insiders and outsiders. So, with this in mind, I’ll ask: What does it mean to have no Texas representation in this year’s Whitney Biennial?

The show, as it’s organized by the most important museum of American art in the world, is widely seen as a bellwether of contemporary art. An ARTnews article written in advance of this year’s biennial by the publication’s Senior Editor, Alex Greenberger, compares the show to the Venice Biennale and Documenta, but says that the exhibition “has a stated focus, in that each edition is intended to provide a wide-ranging picture of the American art scene during its specific moment.”

This year the Biennial is in its 81st edition. In a Whitney Museum press release, Chrissie Iles and Meg Onli, the show’s curators, said of their approach to organizing it, “Artists are continuing to grapple with history and identity; we have made an exhibition that unfolds as a set of relations, exploring the challenges of coming together in a fractured moment.” Another press release notes that the show “focuses on notions of ‘the real,’” and also mentions themes of AI, transphobia, attacks on gender-affirming care, and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, concluding that “society is at a critical inflection point.” 

The breadth of the Biennial feels purposeful: while of course some of the show’s 69 artists (and two collectives) requisitely hail from New York City and Brooklyn (18) and another 11 are from Los Angeles, the Biennial also features artists living and working in Portland, OR, Norfolk, VA, Galisteo, NM, Savannah, GA, Columbus, OH, and beyond. Only one artist, Charisse Pearlina Weston, was born in Texas. None of the included artists are based in Texas.

Although I haven’t seen this year’s exhibition, which opened last week, I have read the lukewarm reception to it in America’s (and the art world’s) premiere publications. (Being one of the highest profile shows in the country means that it is, usually, also the most written about). The reviews are unsurprising; organizing a show like this is both a fool’s errand and a thankless task. And while I’m not naive enough to think that including one or many Texas-based artists would have changed the tide of the exhibition or rendered it suddenly stunning, I am shocked that a show with the above thematic focuses and goals could omit every artist working in a state in which these issues are dead center. 

In the same way the Biennial is a gauge for our current American moment, Texas is the future of our country. The state’s population growth between 2010 and 2020 was 95% people of color; the 2024 Whitney Biennial includes few to no straight White men, instead platforming women, queer folks, and artists of color. Texas and its long-lasting conservative political moment is a hotbed for any and all social issues (many of which are addressed in biennials like the Whitney’s). At the same time, Texas’ politicians and citizens see that the state is itself approaching, to use the Whitney’s words, “a critical inflection point.” There’s fear on all sides of Texas’ spectrum right now. But there’s also hope, motivation, and action, which has been picked up and reflected by many of our state’s artists. 

From a myopic view that omits America’s third coast, Texas is easy to pass over, in part because our state doesn’t fit any of America’s prescribed regions. While we are part of the South, our culture has a distinct hospitality and history that separates it. At the same time, some peoples’ perception of Texas is “the West” — cowboys, cacti, and cattle — but this is only accurate for the far west portion of the state. Texas’ biomes alone put it in its own category: we have a range of piney woods, prairies, marshlands, planes, plateaus, mountains, and deserts. In a way, because Texas — as a state, a landscape, a place, a people — doesn’t really represent anything specific, it ends up representing everything. 

First, the numbers: Texas has a $2.4 trillion economy that is, according to the state’s governor’s office, “the eighth-largest economy among the nations of the world, larger than Russia, Canada, Italy and more.” In the U.S., it is only second to California. The state’s incredibly diverse population in 2020 clocked in at 29,145,505 (again, second to California); Texas is also home to three of the U.S.’ ten largest cities. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, according to census data, “had the highest numeric increase in population between 2021 and 2022 of any U.S. metro area.” 

Second, the art: Texas is home to one of the most fascinating cross sections of artists living and working in America today. But although the art being created here can (and does) stand up against art from anywhere else, it can only do so if given the chance. Considering the political climate of Texas as a microcosm of the U.S., and our propensity to believe that artists have the ability to imagine a better future, it would seem that the artists living here would be especially attuned to comment on today’s issues. Texas’ artists are an underground guerrilla movement working in plain sight, who are, together but separately, finding ways to (not so) subtly turn the state into their own vision of America.

It is a travesty for a show that describes itself as a “‘dissonant chorus,’ unharmonious in its collectivity,” as the 2024 Biennial does, to omit representation from Texas, which as both an ideology and a place is as dissonant as they come. The 2022 Biennial, which was co-curated by short-term Texan David Breslin (and, according to the New York Times paid “particular attention to Native artists and the U.S.-Mexico border”), did little better. It included only one Texas-based artist (Rick Lowe) and two Texas-born artists (Lisa Alvarado and Terence Nance), none of whom are from the U.S.-Mexico border region. The show’s press release read: “dynamics of borders and what constitutes ‘American’ are explored by artists from Mexico, specifically Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, and First Nations artists in Canada, as well as by artists born outside of North America.” Do you know who else have to constantly navigate the U.S.-imposed sociopolitical ideas around (and fluidity between) borders and what constitutes “American”? South Texas’ artists.

Although the Whitney Biennial can never fully represent where America is today, and there are many areas of the country that get short shrift, the continued omission of Texas-based talent that could bring a wholly unique perspective to the issues the museum repeatedly says are close to the show’s heart is a glaring, egregious error. I’m not suggesting the names of Texas artists who could’ve been included in this or the 2022 edition simply because there are too many to count. 

The 2024 Biennial’s curators made approximately 200 studio visits with artists across the country. If 69 artists are included in the show, that leaves about 131 visits with people who were not. Given the curators’ home base of New York (and the city’s sheer density of artists), it wouldn’t be surprising if many of those visits were spread out between there and Los Angeles. While I don’t know if the curators visited anyone in Texas, there’s an inherent issue in the fact that many of our state’s artists are not traditionally on the radar of people living elsewhere, despite the constant churning of exhibitions and initiatives aiming to show off Texas talent to anyone willing to listen. The omission is perhaps even more serious if the curators’ visits did include a jaunt around the state that ultimately yielded nothing. 

The art and artists of Texas deserve to be looked at critically; this will only happen when the people who choose to live and work here are taken seriously by the larger art world. All of us in the trenches here day in and day out — writers, gallerists, curators, nonprofits, arts workers — are doing our part. It is, unfortunately, now up to the larger institutions, to those holding the reins in art metroplexes, to decide if they will put their actions where their words are, or if they want to instead strap on blinders and ignore the future.

10 comments

You may also like

10 comments

Michael Corris March 26, 2024 - 12:40

Brandon is justified in taking exception to the absence of Texas artists in the current Whitney Biennial. As a native New Yorker, I can tell you that the Whitney Biennial is always problematic and always manages to ruffle feathers far and wide. But this is not the issue. Neither, unfortunately, is the rehearsal of what makes Texas “great”, “appropriate”, or in any other way—demographically, geographically, economically—a perfect pool of art talent for such a prestigious exhibition. The issue is few if any, curators and gallerists from outside Texas ever make it a point to spend time in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, etc., to visit studios and familiarize themselves with the local scene. A couple of years ago I decided to re-enter the world of art criticism and write once more for Artforum. My aim was to cover exhibitions by Texas artists, to give them more visibility. I’ve been doing this hoping it would help. But it is not enough. More institutions need to step up and invite curators to their city. More artist residencies need to be established. More high profile collectors need to step up and do their part.

Reply
Jcriscoe March 26, 2024 - 13:16

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Bravo!

Reply
Carmen Navar March 26, 2024 - 18:57

Great comments on the Whitney. Yes Texas with it unique border culture was excluded very interesting.

Reply
Julie Speed March 26, 2024 - 21:01

Big amen. Well said Brandon.

Reply
Bob Russell March 27, 2024 - 12:14

I’d say you hit the nail on the head Brandon. Thank you.

Reply
peter s briggs March 27, 2024 - 16:36

Brandon offers two questions: Why are there no Texas artists in the 2024 Whitney Biennial? and What does it mean not to have Texas artists represented? His answer to the first seems to be a function of curatorial inadequacies, a condition of endless and deserved attention. The response to the second question suggests that Texas artists are not yet taken seriously by elite, largely east coast, art institutions and their representatives. This observation reinvents the laments advanced by the California art world of the 1960s and 1970s…why does New York ignore us? Terry Allen wrote a song about it. Like CA, the TX laments are well-founded…and they are not limited to these constituents.

Brandon’s observations about the dynamic, provocative, exceptional individuals making art in Texas are without fault. I have lived in Texas longer than any other state in our union and was and am still amazed by the vitality and richness of artists, gallerists, museum professionals, critics, publishers and more who live or work there. Yet, the characteriztion of artistic pursuits based on political boundaries, demographics, environmental niches, coincidences of birth, or choice of residency has some inherent weaknesses…perhaps of the apples and oranges variety. Brandon’s remarks have a hint or subtext of exceptionalism, a shaky condition by no means unique to Texas.

Reply
Bruce Nivens March 27, 2024 - 17:49

Brandon just seems to be a bit whiny. Yes, there are many really fine artists in and from Texas, but having seen and enjoyed a lot of Texas art through the years, it always seems to be a little parochial. And while I am also typically frustated by the offerings in the Whitney B shows, it does seem to have a broader focus that may account for the lack of Texans in the mix.

Reply
Jack Robbins March 28, 2024 - 09:19

Great article! Thanks

Reply
Michael Corris March 28, 2024 - 11:44

Regarding Peter Briggs’ reply, I have no issue with anyone taking exception to a view of the “art world” that is New York/East Coast-centric, or even LA-centric. But the problem raised focused on the Whitney Biennial, a New York-based institution.

The “art world” has many levels, even if the cultural managers insist on pushing the image of a global network; in other words, a horizontalist organization rather than a hierarchical one. My comment points to Brigg’s relevant intuition that there is a whiff of Texas “exceptionalism” in the air. When we begin to parse the problem into “global” v. “local”, or “national” v. “regional”, we are falling into a trap. So say the cultural managers, whose promotion of the plurality of the “art world” is an ideological construct that hides the actual hierarchical levels.

Bruce Nivens remarks that “Brandon just seems to be a bit whiny.” I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but it does raise an interesting issue: why should Texas artists care about being validated by a cultural institution outside Texas? I think regionalism is just as managerial a term as globalism, but clearly, its valency depends on where you are standing. Outside Texas, an East Coast cultural manager can look upon its art and be comfortable with the label, “regional”. What that means is that it is just too intimately tied to the history and demographics of a place. The implication is that it is not yet fully “universal” in its outlook, thus betraying the simple home truth that some cultural managers talk like globalists yet are really modernists at heart.

The problem of “provincialism” was once a hot topic, one that was raised by artists and theorists on the “margins” of the West, and, most recently in the mid-oughts by critics such as Christina Rees. When I arrived in Dallas, the “Arts District” (sic) was nearly completed; the city politicos sensed that this would be the crown jewel of a Dallas cultural awakening, making Dallas a “global” city. I wrote about this aspect of Dallas in a series of three articles for Art in America—“Atlas: Dallas. Self-Help”, Art in America (June 2016); “Atlas: Dallas. Civic Duty”, Art in America (January 2016); and “Atlas: Dallas. Dallasian Spring”, Art in America (October 2015). Some Dallasites and some other Texans are not yet satisfied—and justifiably so—that Texas art is being evaluated on its own merits, rather than assessed according to criteria that are in many respects alien to their ambitions. I don’t expect a quick resolution to this issue, nor should we surrender to fatigue and fall back on platitudes about how great and varied Texas art is. The question seems to me to be: what do Texas artists want? And if their desires are found lacking by some cultural managers—whether native to Texas or not—what is their response?

Reply
Tino Ward April 4, 2024 - 12:51

Yes, Texas could’ve/should’ve been represented, but it wasn’t. So what? The curators are probably just too scared to come here.
But why didn’t any artists from the other states that weren’t in the show get put in the show? Don’t get your feelings hurt – there’s always next time!
Also, a reminder that Dallas’ Leslie Martinez recently opened a show at MOMA PS1 – a pretty big endorsement of Texas talent by a major contemporary art institution.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Funding generously provided by: