The first Whitney Annual in 1932 was transgressive. The museum was a one-year-old fledgling, set in a rowhouse on West Eighth Street. Its founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, was a collector and heiress, but also a serious sculptor. Invited artists chose what work they showed.
In 1973, the exhibition became a Biennial, and its history is the history of American modern and contemporary art. Or, at least one version of that history: one centered in New York City, one heavily white and male. That is no longer the case. This year, a majority of the show’s artists are women, and they are racially and ethnically diverse. New York, however, remains home to nearly half of them.
Until 1975, the exhibition catalogs listed the addresses of the artists who were included each year. Mapping these locations tells a story of influence and power — but also one of friendships and creative communities, of housing prices and economic change, of landscape and light. Here are some of its facets.
The early Whitney Annuals were a neighborly affair. With the institution housed on West Eighth Street, many American Modernists and early Abstract Expressionists only had to haul their work from a few blocks away.
Even in 1932, Greenwich Village was already the heart of New York bohemia. Edward Hopper, the Village painter par excellence, established his studio on Washington Square North back in 1913 and stayed there until his death in 1967. He took part in the first Annual. So did Ben Shahn, Marsden Hartley and Stuart Davis, living a few blocks north.
The Cedar Tavern, first at University Place, was headquarters for the Abstract Expressionists and their Beat pals after 1949. It was an easy stumble home for Willem de Kooning, then listed on Fourth Avenue. Franz Kline’s studio was nearby, on East 10th Street.
Soon, a great migration began. Artists mostly moved south. Some went all the way to the waterfront, where Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Indiana, Agnes Martin and others lived near each other at Coentjes Slip, around Water Street.
By the mid-1960s, the center of gravity had moved again — to the warehouse world of SoHo. Spaces were huge, cheap and not necessarily legal. Artists as distinct as Chuck Close, Romare Bearden and Eva Hesse were all listed within a few blocks of one another.
Until the 1960s, many Los Angeles artists — at least the ones who appealed to the Whitney’s curators back in New York — lived in Hollywood, Pasadena or the hills. Galleries that mattered were clustered along a stretch of La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood. By the early 1970s, the new scene was near the water.
In the rundown Ocean Park section of Santa Monica, the painter Richard Diebenkorn, the conceptual artist John Baldessari and the painter William Wegman (with his famous dog Man Ray), among others, lived within a few blocks of the beach. The photorealistic painter Vija Celmins and the sculptor Fred Eversley, a Brooklyn emigré, took up residence in what was then a seedy section of Venice Beach.
Eversley, Betye Saar and Melvin Edwards took part in the 1970 Annual — three Angelenos among the few African-American artists on the roster. For the most part, however, artists in the Los Angeles black art scene, which thrived in this period on its own terms, would appear in the Biennial only much later, if at all.
Chicago’s presence in the Whitney show has been steady and mostly low-key. Artists from the city have been involved in the Annual from the start. A high-water mark came in the 2014 Biennial, with 17 Chicago artists out of a total of 118. Two of the show’s three curators that year, Michelle Grabner and Anthony Elms, had long histories in Chicago, and several other artists they selected had spent time there, giving their work what Chicago magazine called a “Chicago vibe.”
That vibe — independent, a bit grass-roots, a bit defiant of the New York scene and its tendencies — crystallized in the mid-1960s, with the three “Hairy Who” exhibitions at the artist-founded Hyde Park Art Center and the emergence of the Chicago Imagists, a movement inspired by Surrealism, folk art, and the era’s casting off of inhibitions. The 1967 Whitney exhibition picked up on this scene, with two of the six “Hairy Who” artists, Gladys Nilsson and Karl Wirsum; the first Biennial, in 1973, included Nilsson’s husband Jim Nutt, along with fellow Imagists Christina Ramberg, Roger Brown and Ed Paschke. All four reappeared in at least one other edition.
The Imagists were Chicago loyalists: While several moved away briefly, almost all made their way back to the city.
At first look, mapping the locations of artists in the 2019 Whitney Biennial shows how little has changed. The New York area still supplies the lion’s share of participants. Los Angeles still runs a distant second. This year’s exhibition has no artists located in the Great Plains or Mountain West, and only three currently working in the South. For all of the country’s regional art scenes, artists who made the cut for the most prestigious American contemporary exhibition still work in many of the same places as they did decades ago.
Now, when nearly half of the artists in this year’s Biennial live in New York City, the vast majority of them list addresses in Brooklyn. It suggests that despite the gentrification and the rising cost of studio space, artists — especially the younger ones — still find a benefit in remaining in the city, and are finding ways to make it work.
Still, this is a diverse biennial, with more artists of color than white artists and more women than men. It includes Native artists and five who list addresses in Puerto Rico. As is now common, a number of artists in the show live outside the U.S.; the museum has loosened its definition of “American art,” and many artists live peripatetic lives. It is far too soon to know how strong an imprint this year’s Biennial will leave as a marker of the current American social and cultural climate. But the exhibition, as an institution, has maintained and arguably reinforced its influence on the art scene, in no small part by expanding the frame.