Page from the Pale King materials, “Midwesternism” notebook, undated. Manuscript notebook, 10 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (26.7 x 21.0 cm). Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. Image used with permission from the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust
| Credit: © David Foster Wallace

What is the state of American art? It’s a question that the Whitney Biennial tries to answer every two years in New York, with a sprawling survey that has become one of the most closely watched art shows in the country. For an unknown artist, being featured in the biennial can spark a successful career, or at least hike up prices. For viewers, it’s a one-stop opportunity to discover the names that are shaping the landscape of contemporary art today. But with more than 100 works in every medium on view, the show can be overwhelming, confusing and, to the uninitiated, impenetrable. To help you navigate, here’s a guide to the people stirring up the most chatter at the event, which starts today and runs through May 25.

Charlemagne Palestine

The Minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine is not an artist in the traditional sense. Yet he created one of the buzziest works in this year’s biennial by installing 12 speakers—each decorated with little stuffed animals—throughout the Whitney’s stairwell. Every day, visitors passing between floors will hear a droning recording. It’s from a day when Palestine paced up and down the stairs with a glass of Cognac, singing to himself.

Bjarne Melgaard

The irreverent Norwegian artist is one of the fastest rising stars in New York’s art scene today. Known for his ostentatious—and often pornographic—installations, he has previously filled galleries with live tigers, dilapidated dollhouses and sculptures of life-size Pink Panthers. For the Whitney, he stayed true to form by strewing mannequins and plushy penises around a room that recalls the aftermath of a college kegger.

David Foster Wallace

This year’s curators relied heavy on the written word, and even took the unusual step of including notebooks by the late novelist David Foster Wallace. The handwritten notes on view here pertain to his unfinished novel, The Pale King, and include a number of scene sketches and lively lists—one of which is titled “good names” and proposes such characters as “Nugent Brian Nugent” and “Iguana Named Homer.”

Sterling Ruby

Already touted as a critical favorite of the biennial are the Los Angeles artist Sterling Ruby’s lumpy ceramic basins, which look something like kiddie pool–size ashtrays. Slathered in a slick glaze and filled with bone-like detritus from the artist’s studio, the sculptures look as though they were simultaneously excavated from the ancient past and flown in from the future.

Laura Owens

With the biennial’s emphasis on identifying the “new” in art, there’s not usually much space for the decades-old tradition of abstract painting. But the young L.A. painter Laura Owens is a master of updating the genre by infusing her immersive abstractions with screen-printed graphics and pop culture symbols. Her canvas at the Whitney depicts a cartoonish boy and a monkey dangling from a rope, with the phrase, “When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot and hang on”—which doubles as sound advice when you are navigating this year’s biennial’s art labyrinth.

Rachel Corbett is a freelance arts writer and New York correspondent for the Art Newspaper. Follow her @RachelNCorbett.