By Carter B. Horsley
This second and final installation of the Whitney
Museums 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
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
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 worlds
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 OKeefe, 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
Indeed, Americas 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 exhibitions
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 Americas emergence from the shadow
of the Old World," he wrote.
"The decade of the 1950s,"
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.
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 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
artists works are some stunning totemic sculptures by Louise
Bourgeois (b. 1911) of which only a few were illustrated in the
Two of the great trapezoidal windows at Marcel
Breuers 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),
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
Andres Serranos 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 Ofilis 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 Mapplethorpes 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.
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
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.