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The Whitney on Prozac

A once outrageous art museum gets way too mellow.

“The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950”
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
April 23-Aug. 22, 1999

Each of New York’s big art museums has its own, distinct personality. The Guggenheim is a noisy extrovert that craves attention. The Met is deep, mysterious, and aloof–it takes years to really get to know it. MoMA is a bit vain, justifiably so. The oddball of the group is the Whitney Museum of American Art, which suffers from an institutional version of bipolar disorder. One day it shouts obscenities in your face. The next it’s calm nearly to the point of affectlessness.

Lately, the Whitney has been taking its medication, in the form of new management. Until November 1998, the director of the museum was David Ross, who left to run the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At the Whitney, Ross created a glittery uptown showcase for exhibitions of political and conceptual art that often took the form of whirring installations and blurry videos. The most notorious of these was “The Black Male in Western Art,” at which patrons were handed buttons reading “I Can’t Imagine Ever Wanting to be White.” This was a museum that so angered traditionalists that one of the local weeklies used to run ads for a Whitney-shaped trash can. The new Whitney, run by a dapper fuddy-duddy named Maxwell Anderson, who came from the Art Gallery of Ontario, is just the opposite in almost every respect. Anderson’s museum is traditional, art-history-minded, and eager to ingratiate itself with, rather than flabbergast and dumbfound, up- and out-of-towners.

The distillation of the Whitney’s new sedateness is “The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950,” the first half of a millennial survey scheduled to occupy the entire museum for the next eight months. Drawing heavily on works in the museum’s permanent collection, some of which are rarely displayed, Anderson’s first attempt at a blockbuster eschews political correctness, offers no historical revisionism, and even includes work by Norman Rockwell without quotation marks. It is a bland, textbook summary of American culture that eschews any explicit judgments at all for fear someone might disagree. Broad surveys don’t have to be dull. Robert Hughes’ PBS series and book American Visions managed to cover a much longer stretch of artistic waterfront with verve, insight, and erudition. The Whitney show, by contrast, makes no sense out of American art or culture. It merely drowns us in it.

The phrase “the American century” was the coinage of Henry Luce, who in 1941 declared the United States “the intellectual, scientific, and artistic capital of the world.” The first question asked by Anderson in his introduction to the exhibition catalog is whether Luce was right when it came to American art. How does the art created by Americans during the last century stack up against that created by Europeans? But having raised this issue, “The American Century” never gets around to proposing an answer. It’s as if such a massive assemblage is supposed to speak for itself. Actually, this exhibition does make a clear statement, but I don’t think it’s the one intended. The message is: basta!

There are more than 700 works on display here, including not only paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs but also sheet music, music playing in the stairwells, clips from movies, movie posters, novels, furniture, design objects, architectural models, and stills from dance programs, plays, operas, and musicals. The Whitney presents this haul chronologically. After finally getting through the line and into the museum, visitors get a brief orientation on the ground floor, take the elevator to the fifth floor, and work their way back down.

By the time they reached the 1930s, on the third floor, most viewers were exhibiting the dead-eyed stares of the Dust Bowl farmers in the Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange photographs on the walls. By Pearl Harbor, it was like Bataan on Madison Avenue. People were collapsing on benches with advanced cases of art prostration. The last section of the exhibition–Abstract Expressionism–was nearly empty, the audience having surrendered. To see this show at a brisk clip–say 30 seconds per object, and ignoring the banal wall text–would require at least four two-hour visits. To curate is to choose, and by failing to do so, the Whitney has abdicated its essential responsibility.

Nor does “The American Century” divide up this motherlode in any thoughtful or even coherent way. The top floor, covering the first two decades of the century, begins with works that 19th-century types, such as Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, happened to produce after 1900. It ends with Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, never having given you much sense of how the vast distance from Point A to Point B was covered. While the 1920s (the fourth floor) do stand as a plausibly distinct “era” in American culture, the 1930s (third floor) and the 1940s (second floor) don’t. The various forms of politically driven realism that flourished during the Depression continued to dominate American art through the end of World War II. And the New York School of abstraction, which became predominant after the war, was near its apex, not its end, by the arbitrary cutoff date of 1950. If you’re going to bundle art into packages, they should at least be tidy. And what’s the sense of imposing a rigid and arbitrary deadline on the exhibition and then decorating the cover of the $60 catalog with one of Jasper Johns’ flag paintings from 1958?

By shoveling so much in, Barbara Haskell, the Whitney curator who put together the exhibition, seems to be trying to build a case that American art in the first half of the 20th century was up to the standard of European art. But for me, the exhibition vindicated the conventional view that American art can’t hold a candle to what was happening overseas until after World War II. When you look at the early American modernists such as Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Joseph Stella, you see inventive and delightful things. But you can’t compare these guys to their European contemporaries, such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Piet Mondrian, Amedeo Modigliani, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Wassily Kandinsky, or Kasimir Malevich. Or maybe you can, but the Whitney doesn’t try. It is content to examine the American modernists in relation to their far less interesting domestic contemporaries and a broad cultural context that seems mostly irrelevant to their work. This approach may not make you homesick for the tendentiousness of the old Whitney. But it’s an only slightly preferable alternative.

So, what should the Whitney have done for the millennium? I’m not sure a modern art museum needs to celebrate the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus at all. But one better possibility would have been a real examination of how the century in art did finally turn American by way of various attempts to absorb European influences without being smothered by them. The raw material for that show is all here. Walking through the galleries, you glimpse a series of moments when an art both new and distinctly American appears. One was around 1915, when Paul Strand, Morton Schamberg, and Charles Sheeler rejected the gauzy pictorialism of Alfred Stieglitz for a cubist-inspired photography that also had a documentary purpose. Another, related, bright spot was the 1920s’ movement that has come to be called Precisionism, which celebrated American industrialism as a new religion (Sheeler called one of his paintings of Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant My Egypt). And, finally, the greatest and most distinctively American modern school was Abstract Expressionism, which blossomed after World War II and is snipped in mid-bloom by the end of the exhibition.

Another way to do it would have been a look at the Whitney itself. Such a show might have opened with the same Robert Henri portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney included here and brought many of the same paintings she collected out of the vault for a fresh look. But such a show would have meant the museum taking a hard look at its own, often controversial part in the art world. And I don’t get the sense that’s something the Whitney, or its conciliatory new director, is very eager to do.