THE WHITNEY MUSEUM CELEBRATES THE AMERICAN CENTURY
A Review by Ronnie Landfield, May 1999
This season the Whitney Museum of American Art presents The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950. Part one, of a planned double exhibition with part two of The American Century: Art and Culture 1950-2000 scheduled to open in September. The exhibition is both marvelous at times sometimes in spite of itself because of so many works of art and utterly dreadful. We are presented with a multilevel view of the first five decades of the century and the show subdivides into distinct eras such as World War One, The Great Depression, World War Two, etc. Longtime Whitney Museum curator Barbara Haskell has taken on an enormous task and the show is overburdened with too much story to tell and uneven material.
At first view the exhibition seems complete and it takes a while to realize that The Whitney Museum continues its long-term policy of undermining American painting and sculpture in subtle ways and in some not so subtle ways. This is about slick, sociological chicanery and not about great art. Like a wolf in sheep's clothing this exhibition pretends to be about art while it undermines American painting and sculpture. The works in this exhibition depend upon literal content not quality. Mass culture, glam, kitsch, commercial art, and Hollywood, are glorified and revered and with a few exceptions American painters and sculptors are showcased in a poor light. Dozens of important American painters and sculptors some still living and some dead are left out. Marcel Duchamp is represented by two facsimile pieces from 1964, in spite of his spending most of his professional career in Europe and not in America while Albert Pinkham Ryder, Hans Hofmann, and Milton Avery are left out altogether. The seeds of Pop Art and Conceptual Art have been carefully sown in part one and the thoughtful viewer's logical conclusion about what is to come in The American Century part two would be the new academy, cool art, the new salon of Post-Dada, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Pop, Video and Postmodern kitsch.
The tip off to what the Whitney Museum is telling us - the art public - is in the title of the show and what they say and what they don't say about it. The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-2000, is a pretty catchy title. Henry Luce the owner of Life and Time magazines coined the phrase "The American Century" in 1941. Luce is credited for his catchy phrase as if those were salient words from on high on the book jacket and at least four times in the accompanying 408 page book. However Clement Greenberg who for more than thirty years was known for his famous collection of essays Art and Culture is ignored. Greenberg who supplies Haskell with half of her title is not credited and he is generally dissed whenever his name appears in this voluminous and informative text. Perhaps because his ideas about art were so opposed to what this show is all about.
Very subtly the historical and traditional story of the development of American art in this century has been changed. We are being given a selected art history. American Dada is elevated to a more important position than it held, while dozens of artists whose works created the art of the thirties and forties are omitted. The false impression created distorts the lineage of American art as it exists today. This comes as no surprise because since 1973 this institution has suppressed its collection of abstract works from the late sixties as well as other works from other decades. This institution continues to suppress a generation of works by living American artists which really is an outrage. I've written before about the suppression of Lyrical Abstraction but even I am appalled by the arrogant disrespect that The Whitney Museum displays towards American artists and to the American art public. I suspect that if she were alive Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney would close them down-if she wasn't bowled over by the glitz and the glamour and the media attention paid to her museum.
The museum's annoying and ever present politically correct position works in its favor in this ambitious show given what they're trying to do in revealing every aspect of American artistic production on every level. The only special interest group not properly represented here are young children whose works are probably every bit as worthy as some of the inclusions. Art of every type including painting, sculpture, drawing, printmaking, posters, architecture, fine, commercial and journalistic photography, commercial art, literature, furniture, design, and film is presented to represent each distinct time period in as broad a way as possible.
The American character is presented as materialistic, optimistic, industrial, democratic, venal and entertainment oriented but the soul and the spirit of America is missing at the core as is the sense in the end that America produced important painting and sculpture of the best quality in the world. The problem with this show is that our attention is diverted through forty years of billboards, book jackets, bombast and a lot of derivative painting and sculpture. With a few exceptions like Calder, Stuart Davis, Hartley and a few others America didn't consistently produce the best paintings and sculptures in the world until the Abstract Expressionists of the forties finally did. Suffice it to say then that the Whitney Museum tells the story of American Art 1900-1950 with a surprisingly thin representation of Abstract Expressionism. Hans Hofmann, Milton Avery, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, and the artist of whom Jackson Pollock said "was the only American master that interests me" Albert Pinkham Ryder, are left out altogether. I would have liked to have seen a Ralph Blakelock, a Karl Knaths, a Myron Stout, a George McNiel, an Esteban Vincente and a Will Barnet painting as well as dozens of others.
Our time and attention are diverted by all mannerism's of American commercialism, movie posters, film clips, book jackets, souvenirs, comic books, propaganda posters, Tiffany glass, vases, craft, sociological display boards, journalism, literature, advertising photography, illustration, social realism, third rate cubism and third rate geometric abstractions. Charles Demuth, Stuart Davis, Patrick Henry Bruce, and Gerald Murphy are disabused when they are presented as prophets of Pop Culture and I question why facsimiles of Marcel Duchamp's urinal Fountain, signed r. mutt 1917, but actually made in 1964 and his shovel In Advance of a Broken Arm, 1915, also recreated in 1964 are presented as indispensable examples of American Dada. Duchamp's presence in America began when he was twenty-eight years old and he fled France in 1915 to escape World War One and I would have hoped the Whitney Museum could of come up with the genuine articles.
The highlight of the exhibition comes in the very beginning. Paintings by Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, the Ashcan School - William Glackens, George Luks, Everitt Shinn, John Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies and Robert Henri are solid and lend credibility and weight to the early days of the American Century even though the paintings are stifling and conventional. Robert Henri's portrait of the Whitney Museum's founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is particularly appropriate and enjoyable to see in this context. Paintings by George Bellows, several early drawings by Joseph Stella and the accompanying photography of immigrants and urban life by Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand, Lewis Hine and others are also interesting and provocative. The last remaining residue of Art Nouveau is exemplified by a stunning Louis Comfort Tiffany glass window. Photographs by Edward Curtis, Edward Steichen, Imogen Cunningham, and others create an historical record and the setting for the first decade of the century.
However as soon as the Synchromists like Morgan Russell and other American abstractionists appear the show goes awry. Something very important and very necessarily American is missing from this period. Perhaps it's the presence of Duchamp or the poor quality of the paintings, or the total dependence on Cubism that dominated American art until the forties - but I suspect it is the absence of the work of Albert Pinkham Ryder.
In the wake of Ryder's absence there is a hollow contrivance to this exhibition. Ryder's work brought originality, substance and style to American painting at a time when most American artists went abroad to escape the stifling conventionality of American art. Ryder's work for all of its eccentricities is at the very soul of the American consciousness. Independent, romantic, mysterious, poetic, and as raw as the wind. Ryder's paintings created a real basis for a Twentieth Century American art. Marsden Hartley in particular was inspired by Ryder. Hartley commented that when he saw Ryder's painting for the first time in 1909 it was like seeing a page from the Bible. Of the dozen or so paintings of Ryder's in the 1913 Armory Show it was said by critic Charles Caffin: In his unobtrusive sincerity he, in fact, anticipated that abstract expression toward which painting is returning and may almost be said to take his place as an old master in the modern movement. The visual basis of the works of the most interesting of this group of American painters like Georgia O'Keefe, John Marin, Arthur Dove and the great Marsden Hartley ultimately depended upon the work of the Cubists, the Fauves and Albert Pinkham Ryder. Most of those artists went to Europe and although their dependence on Cubism and Fauvism is apparent, the importance of Ryder is not acknowledged.
During the teens and twenties the aforementioned Charles Demuth, Stuart Davis, Patrick Henry Bruce, and Gerald Murphy produced marvelous hard edged paintings mostly in Europe that I suspect were intended as American ironies at the time and in Davis' case were not his best works. Joseph Stella, Charles Sheeler, and Edward Hopper weigh in with powerful and haunting pictures of New York and Cape Cod. On the whole the photography is much more interesting than the painting while Art Deco became the prevailing design and architectural style. Perhaps the dominance of photography was Alfred Stieglitz' revenge. The works of Steiglitz, Edward Steichen, Margaret Bourke-White and the elegant nudes of Edward Weston, Man Ray, Imogen Cunningham and Charles Sheeler are a highlight of this part of the exhibition.
During the early thirties the Great Depression took its toll. The photography of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Ben Shahn, Berenice Abbott, and others recorded the lives, suffering, surroundings and hardships Americans endured so movingly and on such a high aesthetic level that the best of these works transcends time.
The Great Depression defined the thirties as American Art entered the dark ages with social realism and genre painting leading the way. The dreadfulness of this period for American artists is beyond description. Socially aware and socially conscious novels, films, music, mural painting, social realist painting, addressed the ills of American society. The profound relevance and sociopolitical importance of this terrible time to the well being of the American character and future were incalculable. There is a special romantic nobility to this era in American art. Painters and muralists addressed racism, poverty and injustice. The Roosevelt Administration created the WPA (Works Project Administration) to create work for impoverished artists to help them survive. Neglected artists such as Milton Avery worked through their obscurity with quiet dignity. Avery in particular was an enormous influence on the young painters Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb who would become prominent in the forties and fifties. It's a shame that Milton Avery and others were overlooked by the Whitney curators. The American Surrealist movement of the thirties seems to have missed the point altogether while developing the worst of Surrealism's innovations by turning toward Super Realism.
The best art of the thirties includes the works of Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Alexander Calder, Ralston Crawford, Burgoyne Diller and Arshile Gorky. Gorky is the first and the only American abstract painter of genuine originality to emerge at this point. The gentle intensity and force of The Artist and His Mother is one of the great early masterpieces of Abstract Expressionist Painting. The Gorky painting entitled Painting 1936-37 owes much to Miró but it transcends European Surrealism and his magnificent Liver is the Cock's Comb, from 1944 begins the era that culminates in classical American Abstract Expressionism.
Although unfortunately Hans Hofmann was left out of this exhibition, his arrival in America in 1930 was one of the most hopeful highlights of the early thirties for the American art world. When the artist and teacher Hans Hofmann arrived in the United States from Germany to teach an art class at The University of California at Berkeley a new era of American artistic achievement began. Hofmann who was born in Bavaria in 1880 lived and painted in Paris from 1904 until 1914. He knew Picasso, Matisse, Braque and Kandinsky and he was close friends with Robert Delaunay. Hans Hofmann had firsthand knowledge of the advent of Fauvism, Cubism and other important European Modernist movements and with his unique ability to teach what he knew he had much to offer to young American artists. His teaching was a catalyst that allowed American artists to approach Modernism in new and personal ways.
In 1932 with the aid of Art Students League instructor Vaclav Vytlacil a former Hans Hofmann student in Germany, Hofmann came to New York and taught briefly at the Art Students League. By 1933 the fifty-three years old Hans Hofmann opened his own art school in Manhattan. Hofmann permanently moved to New York and in 1941 he became an American citizen. The Hans Hofmann School in New York City and his summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts became one of the most successful art schools in America attracting scores of young artists who went on to successful careers in painting and sculpture. Lee Krasner who later married Jackson Pollock was one of Hofmann's students.
Hans Hofmann became known as a great teacher and later as a great Abstract Expressionist painter. Influential and articulate Hofmann introduced European Modernism to his students and with his unique interpretation of Cubism changed the face of American art in the thirties and forties. Hofmann wrote In Search Of The Real a collection of essays outlining his lectures, teaching philosophy and theories about art - some of which were originally published by the Art Students League.
In 1938 The Hans Hofmann school was located on 8th St. in Greenwich Village and it was a close neighbor to the fledgling Whitney Museum that was also located on 8th St. then. One of those people who regularly attended Hans Hofmann's lectures and was inspired by them was a man who would become the most controversial and influential voice in American Art in this century.
In 1939 Clement Greenberg wrote Avant-garde and Kitsch the brilliant essay that catapulted the then somewhat obscure Greenberg to the vanguard of American art criticism. In that essay Greenberg dissects American art and culture; and he suggests that high and low art can exist simultaneously at any given moment in our civilization. He goes on to define what he means by high and low art and as an example he draws the contrast between a poem by T. S. Eliot and a Tin Pan Alley song; or a painting by Georges Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover; all being examples of contemporaneous culture.
Greenberg clearly preferred high art and he goes on to outline why America as a culture needed to create and value high art. Art for its own sake, art that's content is art, art that only serves to create quality in art. Greenberg goes on to define high art by the degree to which the content of the art is in the meaning of the art itself. He says Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, Miró, Cézanne, Klee, Matisse, Mondrian, Kandinsky derived their chief inspiration from the medium they worked in. (In his footnotes Greenberg credits this idea to a lecture by Hans Hofmann that he attended.)
Greenberg said that subject matter and content per se doesn't distinguish or define quality in high art. For Greenberg the degree of pure aesthetic content found in T.S. Eliot's poem as contrasted with the aesthetic content found in the Tin Pan Alley song defined quality in high art and created a scale of aesthetic values. In his definition of the avant-garde Greenberg discounted the value of popularity or monetary success in the market place as a valid barometer of quality in high art. Mindful of the need for the fine arts of patronage since it tends to receive its support from an economic elite - which Greenberg feared was disappearing - he prophetically predicted a classless society brought about by the coming age of industrialization and a broad leisure class.
By kitsch Greenberg meant all of those popular and often commercial products and art forms that tended to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In music it might mean a popular showtune, in the visual arts perhaps a poster or an illustrative scene, in poetry the lyrics to a popular song. Greenberg outlined why high art threatened the status quo and promoted intellectual independence and aesthetic individuality. He points to Hitler's preference for kitsch and both Stalin and Hitler's abhorrence of modern art as an example of those totalitarian dictator's fears of freedom and independent thought.
Both Clement Greenberg as a writer and colleague of artists and Hans Hofmann as a prestigious teacher, theorist and practicing artist had an enormous impact and influence on the development of new American art of the late thirties and the early forties. Greenberg developed many of his Formalist ideas from what he learned from Hofmann. John Graham was another figure similar to Hofmann in New York then. Graham who came from Russia wrote a treatise on modern art, painted, lectured on Modernism, and mentored younger artists with tales of his personal experiences with figures such as Picasso and Matisse in Paris and his other adventures in modern art circles in Europe. Among some of the younger artists that were close to John Graham were Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky. While a John Graham painting is included in the exhibition, I'd like to know why Hans Hofmann was excluded from the exhibition especially because the Whitney Museum owns Magenta and Bluea great picture from 1949-50.
The accompanying book pays short shrift to Greenberg briefly acknowledging his viewpoint, essays and his Formalist theories and informs us that his ideas have been repudiated and dismissed by the art world. Perhaps the current dictators in the art world are still threatened by the notion of intellectual independence, aesthetic individuality, artistic excellence, and High Art? Personally I'm not of the same era of Clem Greenberg-I knew him and we agreed about some things and we disagreed a lot. We held different viewpoints about many things but I always respected what he did for American art in the forties and he was a great writer about art.
The early forties saw the end of American Social Realism and although American Mannerism survived in the work of Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, John Steuart Curry, Ben Shahn, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, and a few others, and American Geometric Abstraction survived in the hands of Stuart Davis, Fritz Glarner, Alexander Calder, Burgoyne Diller, Joseph Albers and a few others; the dominating influence of Surrealism became paramount to the fledgling American artistic vanguard. Artists like David Hare, Ibram Lassaw, Adolph Gottlieb, David Smith, Willem de Kooning and several other artists are represented by Surrealist inspired works.
World War Two brought massive upheavals to the world and many European artists sought refuge in New York. Henry Luce the owner of Time and Life magazines coined the expression "The American Century" in 1941. Much of the incredible photographic record of the war by Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Alfred Eisenstaedt and others that graced the pages of Luce's publications and other newspapers and magazines still defines for us today that chilling and calamitous era.
Photography is one of the overall joys of this exhibition mostly for its unique ability to convey fascinating and valuable historical information. Lisette Model and Weegee provided an unconventional and sometimes outright weird view of nightlife on the homefront while Robert Frank presented a wide ranging cross section of America and Aaron Siskind's work approached the abstraction of his friends' paintings like those of Franz Kline. The forties ushered in the first great era of American painting and sculpture as Abstract Expressionism came of age and finally removed the yoke of European domination.
The final rooms of the exhibition fall flat. The expected explosion of Abstract Expressionism never comes. That heroic era is ushered in with a whimper and with a thin group of almost token paintings and sculptures. The curators seem to be sending us a message here - either it's just wait until part two opens in September or watch out all of you abstract painters and sculptors out there we are going to get you - we are changing history; politics is all and aesthetics are passé. Root, hog or die to quote Donald Judd. Perhaps the real message is a little bit of both.
Single works by Yves Tanguy, Mark Tobey, Robert Motherwell, Clifford Still, Adolph Gottlieb, Bradley Walker Tomlin, William Baziotes, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Richard Pousette-Dart, Lee Mullican (whose inclusion is a welcome surprise), Lee Krasner, a couple of Mark Rothko's, a couple of Barnet Newman's - one from the mid forties and a nice yellow zip painting from 1949, another great Arshile Gorky painting Betrothal ll, 1947 and sculptures by David Smith, Herbert Ferber, Theodore Roszak, and Isamu Noguchi finish the show with a disappointing anticlimax. The final painting in the exhibition is the silver, yellow and pink, Number 27, 1950, by Jackson Pollock.
It's like they had this titanic of a big party and they reluctantly invited the Abstract Expressionists to hold open the door. The guests of honor, the underlying powerhouse of American Art is left waiting in the wings. Would there have ever been a show like this in New York City if it wasn't for Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, Hofmann, Gorky, Still, Tomlin, Brooks, Rothko, Newman, Gottlieb, Motherwell, Avery, David Smith and Clement Greenberg? Or would we all be going to Paris and Berlin?
When all is said and done this enormous exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950 falls far short of any expectations of experiencing the true greatness of American Art. The exhibition is too long, and the curators tell us that American art has triumphed but they don't really deliver the high quality goods. The Abstract Expressionists put American Art on the map and The Whitney Museum seems to take them for granted. This part of the exhibition is thin and is unfortunately also typical of how contemporary abstract painting has been treated by The Whitney since 1973. The museum often seems to resent good abstract painting and they resist showing it to the public - a public that I suspect really wants to see it if only they knew it existed.
The Whitney Museum has a new director and apparently he is building a new curatorial staff that hopefully will begin a new era and clear the air for this often beleaguered institution. Perhaps the new director and his fresh team at the Whitney Museum can set a better course for what once was a great institution. Optimism which is so vital to the American character consistently desires a happy ending. I hope the need to satisfy a political will and agenda will modify to satisfy a real appetite for great works of painting and sculpture that are aesthetic and sound. If not then I shudder to think what this institution will bring us in part two of their politically correct, dumbed down, all things being equal, kitsch filled celebration ofThe American Century: Art and Culture 1950-2000.
Ronnie Landfield NYC May 1999.