There are a lot of firsts at this year’s Whitney Biennial, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s survey of contemporary art in the U.S. every two years. It’s the first Biennial at the museum’s new downtown New York City location, the capacious Renzo Piano–designed quarters it moved into in 2015. It’s the first time both curators are people of color–Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew are Asian American–and, at 34 and 36, they’re possibly the youngest pair to hold the job. It’s also the first Biennial under Donald Trump’s presidency.
It’s this last first that has most clearly shaped the response to the work of the show’s 63 artists and collectives, on display until June 11. Though the pieces were conceived and selected before the election, they are being shown together at a moment of intense yearning for art that can help us process current events. Not since 1993–when depictions of racial tension and the AIDS epidemic earned that divisive show the nickname “the political one”–has a Biennial seemed to so thoroughly take up ideas beyond the tapered edges of the art world.
Politics at the Whitney hasn’t always gone over well. (This magazine called the ’93 show “a fiesta of whining.”) But this year is different. The critical response has been overwhelmingly favorable. The New York Times’ Roberta Smith wrote that, in the face of the Trump Administration’s proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, “this exhibition makes an exciting, powerful case for art.” Another critic declared making fun of the Biennial “obsolete.”
For one, the show makes clever use of the museum’s high-ceilinged, industrial spaces. Raúl de Nieves’ faux stained-glass installation takes up a wall of windows, morphing as the sun crawls across the sky. In Ajay Kurian’s Childermass, mythical creatures appear to ascend an open stairwell. Several pieces are interactive: one recent afternoon, a woman with blond curls spilling out from either side of a VR headset playing Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence abruptly stopped chewing her gum–presumably at the moment one simulated man took a bat to another’s head.
And then there’s the work, in which Trump is directly named only a few times. Celeste Dupuy-Spencer’s Trump Rally (And some of them I assume are good people) features Make America great again hats, for example. Other pieces echo last year’s divisive campaign, like Postcommodity’s dizzying video installation of fences on the U.S.-Mexico border. Two paintings have attracted particular attention: one of Henry Taylor’s canvases shows Philando Castile being fatally shot by a Minnesota police officer last year. And Dana Schutz’s portrait of Emmett Till’s mutilated face has been criticized as a case of a white artist profiting from a black child’s murder.
This show may not be a chronicle of the art world’s response to the Age of Trump exactly. But since viewers need only a working knowledge of recent headlines rather than a graduate degree to access the exhibit, this Biennial is less alienating than in years past. And the issues here–immigration, civil rights, climate change–are not going away anytime soon. So if this work seems political, just wait another two years.
This appears in the April 10, 2017 issue of TIME.
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