Culture

A Thesis is Hard to See: American Art at the Whitney and Elsewhere

Tuesday, May 30, 2017
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In the two years since it moved downtown, the Whitney has done more than just display its greatest hits. Instead, in shows like “America is Hard to See” and “Fast Forward: Paintings From the 1980s,” the museum has used its permanent collection to reevaluate American art history and rehabilitate unjustly obscure masterpieces.


The latest of these exhibitions, “Where We Are: Selections From the Whitney’s Collections, 1900-1960,” attempts to do the same for the first half of the 20th century. Curator David Breslin has organized some 140 paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures into different thematic groupings based on lines from W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939. It’s a bold experiment, one that ignores the dictums of rigid art historians in favor of an approach grounded more in thematic and aesthetic concerns. Unfortunately, its admittedly excellent parts never combine into a coherent whole.


But first the good. Every piece of art in this show is incredible. Although the Whitney’s modern art collection pales against the holdings of the MoMA and Guggenheim, there’s no doubt walking through this show that the museum has a truly first-rate collection. While there are a few world-famous pieces—Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning, Jasper Johns’ Three Flags, Joseph Stella’s The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme—the real highlights are the less familiar paintings like Morris Louis’ Tet, a large 1958 abstract work that seems less like a painting than the lingering after-image of one. Larry Rivers’ 1960 Washington Crossing the Delaware is another standout. One of the two paintings by the artist riffing on the Leutze original (the other one is at the MoMA), it shows an abstracted Washington, his body no more than splotches with some rough drawn-on outlines, piloting an equally abstract boat. Breslin has said that childhood exposure to this painting inspired his lifelong love of art. It’s easy to see why.


Yet as good as all this is, it also speaks to the exhibition’s broader curatorial deficiencies. Although it promises an overview of American art from 1900-1960, only 20 or so of the pieces on view were made prior to 1930, and hardly any of them are particularly large or attention-grabbing. In contrast, there are over 60 works on display made between the end of the war and 1961. The idea that American art was a wasteland until the ‘40s is a myth in dire need of correction, yet this show hardly challenges it. Even worse, the chronological limit of the exhibition’s title is broken to fit in 1961 paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. It’s as if the museum’s curators found exhibiting the early decades of the twentieth century too hard or too boring, and just decided to do something else.


The thematic groupings in “Where We Are” do the work on display another disservice, forcing viewers to interpret art in narrowly particular ways. While some make sense—”Furniture of Home,” for example, is concerned with domestic spaces—others are not so clear, or strain to incorporate plainly irrelevant works. “Strength of the Collective Man” is based around pictures of industry and work, yet includes Frank Stella’s all-black proto-Minimalist canvas Die Fahne hoch!, a work that is both not based around industry, and which, following Stella’s maxim “what you see is what you see,” was expressly created to resist the sort of easy interpretation that the show imposes on it. Yet here it is, representing American industry. Again, it feels like the curators had backed themselves into a corner, and just decided to fudge their way out.


Given all this, it was a relief to come across Sotheby’s auction of American art last week. In contrast to the Whitney’s show, which seems to look at everything as just a prologue for the ’60s, Sotheby’s show highlighted genres of American painting often ignored or derided, like social realism, cowboy paintings and magazine illustrations.


Part of this, according to Sotheby’s American Art department head Liz Sterling, has to do with the simple fact that there aren’t too many Pollocks out there anymore. As the market for big-name post-war and contemporary painters dries up, collectors with a transactional mind-set have been forced to look for other art to invest in. “As these works become more difficult to come by, people are starting to look at movements that were happening outside of New York City that were incredibly important during their day, but perhaps don’t have the wide recognition of big name artists,” she says. For this reason, regionalist paintings by Marsden Hartley and Thomas Hart Benton, illustrations by Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell and American Modernist work by Oscar Bluemner and Georgia O’Keeffe were the auction’s centerpieces.


The most shocking event at the auction was the sale of Norman Rockwell’s Two Plumbers, estimated at $5-7 million, for nearly $15 million. “It’s a perfect example of the artist’s work. It was the cover of the Saturday Evening Post—it’s really a quintessential Rockwell,” says Sterling. Rockwell is often derided for his sentimentality, but viewing Two Plumbers in person, it’s hard to ignore his immense talent. Up close, a pointillist, almost Benday dot-like approach to detailing is revealed, and Rockwell’s thickly applied paint seems almost like encaustic. Looked at this way, its easy to see a mass production aesthetic and a knowing kitschiness in Rockwell’s work not dissimilar to later pop artists.


This is part of why the Whitney’s omissions are so frustrating. Whether or not Rockwell was a fine artist (or even a good one), his images were incredibly important for his era, and any narrative of American art in the first half of the twentieth century that doesn’t include work by him, or by artists like him, is deficient. It’s a problem that doesn’t just end with Rockwell—there’s a surprising lack of social realist painting in “Where We Are”, and barely any sculptural work at all. Although the Whitney’s show has a lot of great works of art in it, it ultimately seems defined more by what’s not in it than what is. It lacks a clear thesis on the evolution of American art while it clumsily categorizes and clumps together completely unrelated works.


One can only hope that whoever bought Two Plumbers is also on the Whitney’s board.





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