From the Whitney Museum of American Art, the pitch right now is all about authenticity, sincerity, and depth—a resistance to the fakery and bombast that afflict our culture in the age of Donald Trump. So, for instance, the museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, speaks of its current Biennial as an effort to “embrace complexity, subtlety, ambiguity, and poetry in a world that is increasingly binary and polarized and wants simplistic answers to overwhelmingly complex problems” and to “reckon with the real and the authentic in a world marked by the fake, the simulated, and the fraudulent.” As a result, he says, though “replete with indirect and direct sociopolitical concerns, this is not an exhibition made up of one-liners that are hectoring or finger wagging.” After crossing the country to find some of the bright spots on our cultural scene, Rujeko Hockley, one of the show’s curators, reports observing “a turn away from the slick and hyperfinished. In its place, we found an interest in and commitment to the work of one’s own hand, the process of making, and the provisional.” The show, says co-curator Jane Panetta, highlights “work that leans into the subjective, the poetic, and even the opaque. While the work often acknowledges our frightening reality, it offers alternative visions for what our world could be and what the future might hold.”

That sounds like an exhibition I’d dearly love to see, but it wasn’t quite what I experienced when I visited the 2019 Whitney Biennial. The show talks the talk, but the walk turns out to be more of a stumble than a steady forward stride. Too many of the pieces on view looked generically familiar, like slightly cleaned-up and straightened-out versions of things I’d seen somewhere else. The primarily young artists in the show are respectful of history—which is all to the good. Rightly, they seem to see the art of the recent past as a resource, an emergency supply of tools and strategies for crafting their own responses to the anxieties of the moment. But I couldn’t help feeling that in many cases they were too respectful, too careful in framing the answers to their own questions, like honor students who still want good marks from a pedagogical authority they no longer trust.

I’m inclined to blame the curators for this, suspecting that, like so many others in their profession, they’ve cultivated a familiarity with topical issues while scanting the critical reflection on their own aesthetic judgments necessary to develop sharper eyes. If that’s the case, then I could assume that an essentially similar but better, more sharply focused biennial could have been assembled by better connoisseurship—that is, simply by choosing some others out of the many artists out there whose work aspires, as Panetta says, to the subjective, the poetic, the opaque. I’ve felt similarly about some previous Whitney Biennials, essentially thinking that different personnel could better fulfill the job description, whatever it happened to be that time. But now I’m wondering, does the museum itself impede an appreciation of what the artists are doing or trying to do?

I started to suspect that the museum was at cross-purposes with the art it is trying to showcase after noticing that even works I had been enthusiastic about when I saw them elsewhere seemed harder to appreciate here. Take the assemblages of Robert Bittenbender, whose dense and intricate wall-mounted constructions struck me as downright magical when I saw them last summer at the gritty LOMEX Gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which occupies an apartment formerly occupied by the artist Eva Hesse. At the Whitney, I had to work hard to reconjure Bittenbender’s magic. Somehow the pieces just looked tidier and less potent than before, maybe in part because of the scale of the museum space makes them feel a bit lost and also because they’ve been installed near a big window that floods them with light; these are works that crave a domestically scaled environment and whose depths would actually be more apparent under less brilliant illumination.

Likewise, when I saw Jennifer Packer’s work at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood last winter, it seemed immediately apparent that she’s one of the best figurative painters around—and not only of her generation. (Like Bittenbender, she’s in her 30s.) What amazed me was how her delicate washes of color and concise, fluent, unpredictable draftsmanship evoke a synesthetic sensual richness, as if the eye—as I wrote in Artforum—were trying “to assume the ability to hear, smell, taste, and above all, I think, touch: The eye wants also to caress.” As with Bittenbender’s sculpture, the quiet intimacy of Packer’s paintings feels a bit overwhelmed by the context here, and unfortunately, the one relatively large work of hers included, A Lesson in Longing (2019), is also the most elusive, somewhat monotonous in its nebulous red translucencies, which seem to distance and anonymize the painting’s two figures.

Calvin Marcus’ Ghost of Younger Self, 2019. (Image courtesy the artist / Clearing, New York and Brussels; and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles)

There’s a lot of painterly figuration populating the galleries these days, and some of it’s in the Biennial (Janiva Ellis, Calvin Marcus, Keegan Monaghan, Jeanette Mundt, Pat Phillips, Kyle Thurman), but little of it has much of the spontaneity, warmth, and clarity of Packer’s work—though Marcus has an eccentric humor that can at first seem just misjudged, off-kilter, but may eventually sneak up on you. More typical of the show’s tone are Mundt’s fractured and recomposed scenes of Olympic sports competition. “By disrupting the regimented temporality of the original photos in this way, she hints at the complex systems—nationalist, sexist, and technocratic—underpinning the Olympics, the sport of gymnastics, and the media covering them,” according to the Whitney’s wall label. Well, maybe they do if you were already inclined to see the Olympics that way (as I am), but the paintings mostly look awkward. One feels they would have carried more electricity if the idea had been executed via cinematic montage, but in the end they probably would have been just as heavy-handed.

The disadvantage at which the context here puts work as strong as Bittenbender’s and Packer’s might simply suggest that even four years after the opening of its new location in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, the Whitney’s curators still haven’t figured out how to make the most of Renzo Piano’s building, which is elegant but in its own understated way tends to overpower the art. That’s certainly part of the problem, but I suspect there’s more to it than that. The Biennial as an institution is at fault, too. Like the 19th-century salons, it inevitably puts a premium on spectacle—on importance over nuance, no matter the intentions of the curators. This time, when spectacle has been deliberately kept to a minimum, the show inevitably feels flat, and all the more introverted pieces still tend to get lost.

That said, there are a few stabs at spectacle that mostly miss their mark—Phillips’s work, for instance, loses impact when blown up to the vast scale of his wall painting plus wooden fence Untitled (Don’t Tread on Me), from 2019. The one incontrovertibly successful crowd-pleasing showpiece is, perhaps surprisingly, a sculptural ensemble by an artist who’s better known as a painter and whose figurative art has undoubtedly been a major influence on the work of some of the younger artists exhibiting here. Situated on a roof deck, Nicole Eisenman’s Procession (2019) consists of 10 very dissimilar but equally abject figures, which all seem to be slogging onward like the benighted peasants in a Breugel painting. One of them, on all fours on a cart with square wheels, periodically blows white steam out of his ass, while a bumper sticker reads, “How’s my sculpting? Call 1-800-eat-shit.” The vulgarity is very much of our moment; what transcends it is the human sympathy the work conjures out of its wildly inventive way with figurative form: Each of these sad sacks is an individual, and while you can hardly believe they’ll ever make it to wherever they think they’re going—someplace immune to climate change, maybe?—it’s hard not to hope they do.

Diane Simpsons’s Lambrequin and Peplum, 2017. (Image courtesy the artist; Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago; JTT, New York; and Herald Street, London / Photograph by Tom Van Eynde)

Installed outdoors and isolated from the rest of the show, Procession is easier to appreciate—like a little solo show, outside the attention economy of the Biennial as a whole. And two more of the best presentations at the Biennial are likewise situated on their own. One, in an easy-to-overlook first-floor gallery (many museumgoers head straight to the elevators), is a roomful of sculptures by Diane Simpson, a Chicagoan, now in her 80s, who has begun to find a public outside her hometown only in the last few years. She makes architecturally precise constructions out of rigid materials, and her preparatory drawings on graph paper, some of which are also shown here, underline the connection to architecture. But the sculptures are human scale, not monumental, and their forms are based on the flowing forms of women’s clothing, usually historical. There are several pieces based on the idea of a peplum, a piece of pleated fabric attached at the waist of a woman’s garment, like a blouse or dress, to create a flounce. There’s also, hanging from dowels, a triple jabot (a decorative frill for the front of a blouse), and a freestanding robe—a much earlier work than the others by Simpson here, from 1986. It’s funny to see the sinuous organic forms of such fabric confections transmuted into hard planar constructions of medium-density fiberboard or aluminum. Hers is first of all a formal wit, and it permeates the subtle details of her seemingly straightforward sculpture, but that wit is also trained on conventions of femininity, its emblems of softness and pliability functioning as a kind of unbending armor.

The Whitney’s petite third-floor galleries house 16 color photographs made from 2013 to 2018 by Curran Hatleberg, whose work is new to me but which I won’t soon forget. At first sight, he is an explorer of the odd corners of America, in the tradition of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore—photographers who, while they wouldn’t call themselves documentarians, find a poignant, alienated beauty in a banal, everyday landscape. But there’s an eerie, dreamlike formality to Hatleberg’s images that provokes reflection. One wonders to what extent these are set-up situations—exercises in what’s been called a directorial mode of image making, à la Jeff Wall. In Hatleberg’s Untitled (Mantis), from 2018, a woman sitting at a table filled with beer bottles gazes quizzically at a man’s arm (we don’t see the rest of him) held out to show off a praying mantis on the back of his hand. Like her, we can view this situation only with a kind of skeptical wonderment. Untitled (Hole), from 2016, shows a group of workmen who have been digging some kind of pit standing around taking a cigarette break; behind them we see what seems to be an automobile junkyard surrounded by forest. We can’t see into the hole they’ve dug, only the pile of earth that came from it. But such is the sense of solemnity exuded by these laborers taking five that one can’t help seeing them as standing around a grave.

Steffani Jemison’s Sensus Plenior, 2017. (Image courtesy of the artist)

In general, photography fares well at this year’s Biennial. Beyond Hatleberg’s presentation, there is striking work from Heji Shin, a South Korean–born photographer whose work here includes five color pictures, dated between 2016 and 2017, showing the emerging heads of infants being born. These intense, close-up shots may not be pretty—they make it perfectly clear how hard, even harrowing, our coming into the world must be—but they are surprisingly delicate, with their often understated color (presumably owing to the low-light situations in which the photographs were taken) softening the impact of their blunt imagery.

Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s photographic project Studio (2017–18) is an experiment in authorship, “challenging traditional notions,” as a wall label explains, “by inviting friends, lovers, and fellow artists to his home or studio to shoot alongside him.” Thus some of the pictures are credited to Sepuya and A.L. Steiner, for instance, or Sepuya and Clay Kerrigan, but most are attributed not to Sepuya at all but to his collaborators, though all the works, at least to some degree, reflect his interest in a collagelike fragmentation and reconstruction of the image using the resources of the studio rather than postproduction trickery. This encourages an exercise in connoisseurship: I look to see what are the less obvious choices that distinguish one person’s interpretation of Sepuya style from another’s and what makes one rendition more or less effective than another. But I can’t help noticing that the images that seem strongest in themselves are the ones that are least like Sepuya’s solo work: three moody, lyrical black-and-white photographs by Giancarlo Montes. A Google search informs me that Montes is a 2018 BFA graduate from the State University of New York at Purchase and that in July of that year he signed up for two years in the Peace Corps. I’ll be looking out for more of his work.

I realize I may seem to be contradicting myself: I started by complaining of how this Biennial fell flat but have gone on to pick out some of my highlights. And I could have pointed to others as well. I’ll just mention Kota Ezawa, Ragen Moss, and Martine Syms as having works worth stopping for in the galleries. And look for Garrett Bradley and Steffani Jemison in the video program. Well, I’d hate having to play the curmudgeon. But for all that, what sticks with me is the feeling that something’s amiss at the Whitney. Maybe, as I’ve said, the building itself—which I was enthusiastic about when it opened—is part of the problem. Though it never seems to be trying to upstage the art, as some contemporary museums do, its refined and efficient hyperclarity is somehow inimical to any art that wants to cultivate its own opacity and provisionality, as the curators say the art they’ve chosen does.

These days, I have to wonder whether that mismatch is unavoidable. Can the values of those who control our museums still coincide with those of the people whose work fills them or who do the work of keeping them running? There’s an ongoing controversy about Warren B. Kanders, the vice chair of the Whitney’s board, who is also the CEO and majority owner of Safariland, a company that manufactures, among other things, tear-gas canisters that have been used against migrants at the US-Mexico border and at places ranging from Ferguson, Missouri, and the Standing Rock reservation in the Dakotas to Palestine and Egypt. (I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me why tear gas is forbidden in war but OK for use against civilians.) Nearly 100 Whitney staffers signed a letter calling for Kanders to leave the museum’s board, as have more than half the artists in the Biennial; one artist, Michael Rakowitz, withdrew from the show over the issue. The London-based Forensic Architecture collective responded with a hard-hitting, technically impressive video, Triple-Chaser (2019), that lays out the case for Safariland as potentially being engaged in abetting war crimes. (Since the writing of this article, eight artists, including Forensic Architecture, have withdrawn from the Biennial due to the Whitney’s lack of response to calls for Kander’s removal.)

Weinberg’s response to his employees’ call to ask Kanders to resign from the museum’s board was, essentially, to tell them to mind their own business. In an open letter addressed to “the Whitney community,” Kanders—whose other philanthropic activities include sponsorship of a lecture series at Brown University that recently included an exhibition program, “On Protest, Art and Activism,” featuring the work of, among others, Theaster Gates, the Guerrilla Girls, and Martha Rosler—wrote, “I am not the problem the authors of the letter seek to solve.” I think Kanders should go, but there’s a larger sense in which he may be right that his departure would change little. Eliminating the bad plutocrats (the arms manufacturers, the makers of addictive opioids) from the good ones (hedge fund managers, perhaps, who are quietly invested in tear gas and oxycontin, for all we know) won’t solve the problem that, as the novelist Marilynne Robinson succinctly put it, “plutocrats and kleptocrats are the same crowd” at a time of ever-increasing dispossession of the majority. The contemporary museum—and I’m not only speaking of the Whitney—is an increasingly corporatized milieu, and the best that can be said of much of the art that’s found there is that it doesn’t quite feel as if it belongs.