American Art for Dummies

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    Things were, certainly, quite different once. "The American Century," Henry Luce wrote in his now famously bombastic Time editorial, "[will be] a vision of America as a world power which?will guide us to the authentic creation of the 20th Century?our Century." Incredibly, Luce's chauvinistic prediction came true. By the 50s and 60s, America led on all fronts: military, political and cultural. It was taken for granted that New York was the center of the art world, as Paris had been in the 19th century and Rome in the 17th. Now we are not so sure.

    Taking as its starting point the period in which New York wrested control of the art world from Europe, the Whitney Museum of American Art recently unveiled Part II of "The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000." A massive, nine-month-long undertaking, involving some 1200 artworks, two 400-page-plus catalogs and, presumably, hundreds of Pentium microchips (the Intel Corp. is underwriting the show to the tune of $6 million), "The American Century" features a moderately liberal, high school textbook view of the last century of American art. Part I was, by most accounts, an exhibition seriously compromised by the museum's penchant for marshmallow-soft cultural studies and state-of-the-art gizmos. Part II, curated by New Museum director Lisa Phillips, treads fleetingly over the years 1950 to the present, advancing on the History-Lite example set down by Part I curator Barbara Haskell some four months prior. Witness, for example, what the museum calls "cultural sites"?multimedia nooks located throughout the exhibition that explore, through advertising spots like Coca-Cola's "Perfect Harmony," magazines like Playgirl, audiotaped memoirs like Christopher Reeve's Still Me and doodads like lava lamps and beanbag chairs, "how the culture at large affects the visual arts and vice versa."

    Yet disturbing as is the Whitney's lowest-common-denominator, entertainment-based appeal, a lack of confidence in the art it has championed over the past few decades emerges from a closer examination of what has been billed as the museum's most important exhibition. From director Maxwell Anderson's defensive foreword to the exhibition catalog ("the exhibition...also reflects the Whitney's own history in these years as a leader in identifying and championing the avant-garde?despite the indignant stance of some critics") to the staid, rather uninspired ratification of the work of 70s and 80s artists ("many of the works included in Part II are by artists who received their first or early-career exhibitions at the Whitney") to the lack of commitment evidenced by the increase in bells and whistles on the exhibition's closing floors, the Whitney gives the appearance of feeling sapped, weakened after so much controversy by its contribution to what its director, using corporate lingo, incredibly calls "the research and development phase of art history." "The aim of this project," Anderson states flatly elsewhere in the fine print, "is not to create a definitive 'A-list' of vanguard artists during the past fifty years." (Funny, I thought the exhibition was about celebrating the best American art of the century.) Does this then mean that Anderson and the Whitney will be offering visitors who are not completely satisfied their money back?

    Part II of "The American Century" begins innocently enough, with Jackson Pollock's drippy Number 27 hung next to several smaller square paintings and Hans Namuth's photographs of the artist's first show at the Betty Parsons Gallery. The same room holds a David Smith sculpture and several de Koonings, including the Dutchman's violent gestural rendition of a Marilyn pinup. Arrayed in adjoining galleries are equally canonical works by Mark Rothko, Lee Krasner and Robert Rauschenberg; there follow more experimental pieces from Claes Oldenburg, Allan Kaprow and Carolee Schneemann; and, eventually, the dreaded "cultural site," this one featuring the requisite CBS interview with Joe McCarthy and, among other cultural tchotchkes, a copy of Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male sandwiched between plexiglas panels, making it just so slightly difficult to read.

    Among the 700 works on view in "The American Century" are a wealth of icons of late 20th century art?among them Jasper John's Three Flags, Robert Indiana's Love painting, Andy Warhol's Campbell Soup Cans, Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Andres Serrano's Piss Christ. Amazingly, these and other seminal works in the history of American art come in for the same uniform, stultifying MTV treatment, making this exhibition, for yours truly, awfully hard to want to write about. Inside the Whitney's brutalist Marcel Breuer building 24 monitors play film and video clips and a wealth of recordings are piped into halls and stairways (one peroration on art and AIDS moons on continually inside the first-floor bathroom, of all places), not to mention the six "context-setting" cultural sites.

    The message delivered by a century-long art survey that ends with last year's Gap commercial is quite simple: The art by itself is not enough. More proof still that there is nothing new under the Whitney's dimming sun.

    "The American Century: Art & Culture 1950-2000," through February 13, 2000, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. (75th St.), 570-3676.