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The American Century

Art and Culture

Part II


The Whitney Museum of American Art

September 26, 1999 to February 13, 2000

The Cold War, Television, Hippies, Vietnam, Watergate, Rock & Roll, Bonnie & Clyde, the Space Race, assassinations, the environment, civil rights, fast food, suburbia, The Me Decade, Deconstruction, MTV, Bladerunner, graffiti...and art

Rabbit by Jeff Koons

Rabbit by Jeff Koons, stainless steel, 41 by 19 by 12 inches, 1986,

The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection

By Carter B. Horsley

This second and final installation of the Whitney Museum’s ambitious historical look at American culture in the 20th Century is less successful than Part I, because the pace of new "schools" and "-isms" accelerated greatly.

The first half of the century was nowhere near as complicated despite such stupendous events such as two World Wars, the Depression, Impressionism, Dadaism, German Expressionism, Surrealism, Realism, Cubism, Regionalism, radio, film, television, Abstract Expressionism, the Bomb and the Cold War, and the Russian and Chinese revolutions.

It could be argued that the first half, indeed, the first quarter, of the century was the most momentous in human history with intellectual, social and artistic upheavals of extraordinary influence.

Part I did a good job of documenting many of these changes although it overlooked the dramatic philosophical breakthroughs of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittenstein and others that significantly altered our understanding of knowledge and perception.

That exhibition and its accompanying catalogue looked at "The American Century" as a culture that rather slowly emerged from European influences and only came into its own with the end of World War II establishing America as the world’s economic superpower and the advent of the Abstract Expressionists who would focus international attention on its "New York School." While the notion that the United States did not mature artistically until the Abstract Expressionists is a conventional one that slights the many great earlier American artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, Marsden Hartley, George Luks and Stuart Davis just to name a few, the exhibition gave ample evidence that art existed before Jackson Pollock.

Indeed, America’s cultural accomplishments in the first half of the century included such supreme achievements as jazz, Art Deco skyscrapers, and the movies of Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley, against which the large works of the Abstract Expressionists pale somewhat.

Part I of the exhibition cast a very wide net and sought to provide a pretty comprehensive historical overview of the important cultural milestones, greatly supplemented by its catalogue that wove together many disparate trends and events. Virtually everything in the exhibition was included in the catalogue.

While Part I could devote individual floors to specific decades and often show more than one work by some artists, Part II does not divide itself quite so easily and hardly any artists are represented by more than one work. Far more disconcerting, moreover, is the fact that the huge catalogue for Part II does not reproduce many of the exhibited works. Rather than a catalogue, it should be considered as a companion volume and with more than 600 illustrations, most in color, and many essays, it is a bargain at $40. It should be noted, of course, that the exhibition’s website, developed in conjunction with Intel, a major sponsor of both shows, does contain catalogue entries for the exhibition, and much, much more including multi-media content.

The Part II volume, in fact, is a remarkably fascinating text book that will put into perspective the blur of artistic styles that were launched, seemingly rapid-fire, in the second half of the century. It is particularly good at documenting how, why and where many of these -isms began and keeps pretty good track of other contemporaneous events and developments. While it also suffers from insufficient space to convey the power and glory of many individual artists with one than one example, its commentaries are often very, very incisive.

Some critics have scoffed at the Heraculean and heroic task of trying to encyclopedically document the changing course of aesthetics during such a turbulent century especially when so much of it became global, let alone national. At certain points, the narrative is laughably and offensively short, but all in all the two books are a remarkable achievement.

While no specific American identify or unified culture emerges from such a broad overview, the catalogues go a long way towards establishing the rationale of many disparate movements, often with considerable sophistication, even when the movements themselves appear rather simplistic or shallow.

In his foreword to the catalogue, Maxwell L. Anderson, the director of the Whitney, remarked that "cycles of creativity are now so accelerated that barely has an art movement been charted by the critical, museological, and academic establishments than its energy seems spent."

"The story begins with Abstract Expressionism and the New York School, whose proponents set a new course for American Art. This sustained burst of individual creativity launched an art that affirmed America’s emergence from the shadow of the Old World," he wrote.

"The decade of the 1950’s," he continued, "was also defined by the Beat Generation and the introduction of assemblage and junk sculpture as well as environments and Happenings - all representing an openness to nontraditional media and an interdisciplinary enterprise that marked a decisive break from the norms of European art." There followed an unending stream of isms in which the avant garde kept reinventing and reshuffling itself.

"Mahoning" by Franz Kline

"Mahoning" by Franz Kline, oil and paper collage on canvas,

80 by 100 inches, 1956, The Whitney Museum of American Art

One of the best Abstract Expressionist works in the show is "Mahoning," a 1956, 80 by 100 inch, oil and paper collage on canvas by Franz Kline, shown above. The show also includes several excellent rather small square oils on canvas by Jackson Pollock and a very dramatic and impressive 92 3/4 by 203 3/4 inch oil on canvas, "The Seasons," by his wife, Lee Krasner, shown below, that was executed in 1957.

"The Seasons" by Lee Krasner, oil on canvas, 92 3/4 by 203 3/4 inches, 1957,

The Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase,

with funds from Frances and Sydney Lewis (by exchange),

The Mrs. Percy Uris Purchase Fund, and the Painting and Sculpture Committee

The catalogue devotes as much space to individual artists as it does to contemporary literature, television and architecture and a highlighted political history of the period and while these essays are frustratingly short, they are generally on target in their emphasis and insights.

Perhaps the most striking work in the exhibition is "Gun 1, Broadway, New York," a 1955 gelatin silver print by photographer William Klein (b. 1928) that shows an angry boy pointed a toy revolver at the photographer while another boy looks placidly in another direction at his side. Given the recent youth violence in the country, the image was particularly strong. Unfortunately, it is not reproduced in the catalogue. A similar fate befell some fine photographs by Minor White (1908-1976) and Roy DeCarava (b. 1919).

Perhaps the most impressive grouping of a single artist’s works are some stunning totemic sculptures by Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911) of which only a few were illustrated in the catalogue.

Two of the great trapezoidal windows at Marcel Breuer’s great Whitney Museum building were converted into art works that were among the more interesting in the show: "To Count: Intransitive (1972, 1999 version) by Mel Bochner (b. 1940), which covered one of the windows with numbers stenciled in soap on glass; and a painted that spread across some walls and one window by Jonathan Borofsky (b. 1942).

Another interesting work was a narrow and tall chipping away of a gallery wall by William Anastasi (b. 1933), "Wall Displacement."

Many of the most famous artists, such as Andy Warhol or Richard Diebenkorn, should have been represented by better, or more, works.

The installation is quite stunning and perhaps the finest work in the exhibition is "Tree of Knowledge," a long, narrow corridor in which Bill Viola (b. 1951) has placed a screen at one end whose images change in response to the approaching viewer.

Andres Serrano’s infamous "Piss Christ" photograph is in the exhibition, but despite its notoriety is quite lyrical especially in comparison with "Tale," a wax, pigment and papier-maché sculpture of a naken woman on all fours who is not separated from her extremely lengthy feces, a work that is infinitely more repulsive, offensive and shocking that Chris Ofili’s painting of a Madonna in the "Sensations" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in September, 1999 that incurred the wrath of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (see The City Review article on that controversy). Indeed, this show and its catalogue have plenty of "shock" value, including Robert Mapplethorpe’s photograph of a black man in a three-piece polyester suit with its fly open.

Some artists come off quite well, perhaps even better than they should, such as Jeff Koons, whose 1986 stainless steel "Rabbit," shown at the top of this article, is so delightful that one would be puzzled by much of his other art.

"Untitled VIII," by Willem de Kooning

"Untitled VIII" by Willem de Kooning, oil on canvas, 80 by 70 inches, 1983,

Whitney Museum of American Art, partial and promised gift of Robert W. Wilson

Willem de Kooning is one of the few artists with several works in the show and "Untitled VIII," a 1983 oil on canvas, 80 by 70 inches, show, above, is a very lyrical late work similar to many that were recently shown in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (see The City Review article on that exhibition).

On the other hand, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988 at the age of 28, could have been represented by a more interesting work than "Hollywood Africans."

The artists who probably come off best are sculptors Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, whose great "Spiral Jetty," an 1970 earth works sculpture in the Great Salt Lake in Utah that is shown in a film at the exhibition and in photographs in the catalogue.

However, Isamu Noguchi, probably the greatest sculptor of the century, is not included in either the book or catalogue!

The agenda here is the avant garde, and it is interesting that while many of the more important specific works, or happenings, might have had dubious or minimal artistic worth per se, their rationales as illuminated in the catalogue usually had considerable merit.

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects

Click here to view The City Review article on Part I of this exhibition that covered the years 1900-1950

Click here to visit the exhibition’s website at


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