America is hard to see. It’s big, it’s diverse, it’s constantly in flux. It’s a melting pot of divergent elements.
The inaugural exhibition of the same name at the new Whitney museum is all of those things as well, and yet it gives a clear view of how American art has evolved in the past century and what makes it unique, particular and wonderful. To inaugurate its new building in the Meatpacking District, a curatorial team led by Donna De Salvo, chief curator and deputy director for programming, selected over 600 works by some 400 artists, filling every indoor and outdoor gallery in the light-filled, soaring Renzo Piano-designed space. After an extensive process of reexamining the museum’s permanent collection of over 22,000 works, they’ve culled a vision that they hope will bring viewers a new understanding of American art.
The intelligent, elegant exhibition is dense, thought-provoking, filled with surprises and loaded with star power. It’s been divided into 23 “chapters,” each anchored by at least one iconic work of art, each exploring a different theme or moment. The entire exhibition is laid out democratically and chronologically, one of its strongest points. “It tracks,” De Salvo explained, “the Whitney’s collecting history and…acquisitions over time.” This arrangement allows visitors to view history, artistic trends, superstars, and hidden gems.
A small gallery on the first floor (open to all without admission fees) pays tribute to the Whitney’s beginnings. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder, was an accomplished artist and a great patron who built a collection exclusively by American artists. Titled “Eight West Eighth” (the museum’s original address) this gallery includes classic black and white photographs by Berenice Abbott and Charles Sheeler, an array of sculptures, including a work by Whitney herself, and American Realist paintings like John Sloan’s Backyards, Greenwich Village, with impressionistic lavender and gray shadows in snow on a New York rooftop.
The rest of the exhibition fills floors five through eight, starting on the eighth, which covers the years 1910-1940. Here, abstraction rules. Two bold Marsden Hartley paintings with swaths of color and only slight references to recognizable objects announce the shift from the earlier works downstairs. Here we see early 20th century artists experiment and find their voices. Stuart Davis’s House and Street shows city blocks formed of color blocks. Georgia O’Keeffe’s lyrically beautiful 1929 masterpiece Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 shares a gallery with a painting by the poet E.E. Cummings, Noise #13, which echoes surprisingly in both color and line. Arthur Dove’s quiet tonality and fluid shapes find a companion in a powerful work by John Covert, an artist whose work I’d never seen before. Another delightful discovery was an Italian Futurist-inspired vision of the national pastime, in James Daugherty’s watercolor, Three Base Hit from 1914.
The seventh floor brings you to the beloved sculptural assemblage, Calder’s Circus. It’s a delight to see, all shined and polished in new circular vitrine for ease of viewing. This section explores spectacles and showmanship--with a boxing painting by George Bellows, Poker Night by Thomas Hart Benton and a boozy, floozy atmosphere captured by Reginald Marsh in Ten Cents a Dance. In other sections, politics and the American landscape are presented with iconic works by Edward Hopper, Ansel Adams and Margaret Bourke-White. Ben Shahn’s The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti and Armenian-American artist Arshile Gorky’s memorial portrait with his mother, who died of starvation in 1919, are arresting, thoughtful paintings about difficult subjects. They also point to the curatorial care in presenting what De Salvo called “the diversity…and the hybrid nature of American art.”
Masterworks of Abstract Expressionism are on display in a section titled “New York, 1955” after a painting by Hedda Sterne--a geometric, almost architectural abstraction in dark greens and oranges. Pollock’s Number 27 (hung sideways? It doesn’t match the Whitney’s own object description) is placed next to Alfonso Ossorio’s Number 14-1953. Both are compelling; neither overpowers the other. The juxtaposition, like so many others in “America is Hard to See” raises the question of which artists achieve fame and why. The rest of the gallery is filled with sculptures by Mark di Suvero and John Chamberlain and major paintings by Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning and others. An enormous, striking abstraction by Lee Krasner (Jackson Pollock’s wife) spans the entire width of the room filling it with energy.
The sixth floor galleries bring us from the 1950s to the 70s. Signage, trademarks, technology, advertising, consumerism and shifting values find voice in great works of Pop art, minimalism and post-minimalism along with assemblages and a focus on found materials. Jasper Johns’ Three Flags, Andy Warhol’s Green Coca-Cola Bottles and Wayne Thiebaud’s painting, Pie Counter capture a corner of the American spirit of the 60s. The section titled “Raw War” covering the late 60s and 70s captures another. “Rational Irrational” focuses on artists championed by the Whitney and a period when artists began to bridge the divide between their space and the viewer’s with art coming off the wall as in Eva Hesse’s hanging latex, rope, string and wire piece, “No Title.”
The period from 1965 through the present fills the fifth floor, which is the largest column-free gallery space in the city. However, for this presentation, it’s been broken into smaller sections. Several of these works made their Whitney debuts at past Biennials, and many of the artists deal with issues of gender, race, identity, the AIDS crisis, and politics. New media and new materials are explored—everything from Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners to Nam June Paik’s television V-yramid.
A particularly beautiful section is titled “Threat and Sanctuary” and pays homage to artists who continued to pursue painting in an era when many abandoned it. Huge canvases by Chuck Close, Susan Rothenberg, Philip Guston and Cy Twombly are displayed in a vast, contemplative, sun-bathed space. Elizabeth Murray’s ebullient Children Meeting shines. “One of the things that’s a hallmark of the Whitney,” curator De Salvo noted “is to have huge respect for the work of art, giving it the space it needs. Quantity shouldn’t be the operative. It’s really about understanding the power of each object and allowing that to show through.”
In “America is Hard to See,” that power is evident. Thanks to a gorgeous new space and inspired curatorial vision, the exhibition provides maximum visual impact, enjoyment, and understanding. It’s quite a feat. Don’t miss it.