An interview with Lisa Phillips, curator of Part II of "The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000" at the Whitney Museum, Sept. 26, 1999-Feb. 13, 2000.
For better or for worse -- and we think it's for the better -- the Whitney Museum has cast its lot with vanguard art. Nowhere is that esthetic adventure more pronounced than in Part II of "The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000," the largest and most ambitious exhibition ever presented of 20th-century American art and culture. The show is expressly dedicated to 50 years of avant-garde challenges to mainstream notions of art and society.
The exhibition fills the Whitney with over 700 works by more than 220 artists, ranging from Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner to Andy Warhol and Janine Antoni. Also at hand are 24 monitors playing film and video clips highlighting the interdisciplinary experiments of post-war artists, and six context-setting "cultural sites" assembled by guest curator Maurice Berger.
"The American Century" is supported by Intel, which has mounted a Web version of the show at www.artmuseum.net. The following interview was conducted with Lisa Phillips (recently named director of the New Museum) by Artnet Magazine editor Walter Robinson via email.
Q: "The American Century, Part II" features avant-garde art by more than 220 artists of the second half of the 20th century. What changes have we seen in 50 years?
A: The last 50 years of American art have been nothing less than a cultural revolution. American art achieved international recognition and led on the world stage. We have seen a succession of breakthroughs since mid-century, great formal innovations and fresh approaches as artists have continued to question and extend the boundaries of art. In the last 50 years, the scale of art has increased dramatically, from the mural-scaled pictures of the Abstract Expressionists to monumental earthworks like Spiral Jetty. We have also seen an increased audience for art, a greater appreciation for American art and a greater willingness to have an open mind about what art can be.
Q: Has the avant-garde of the '90s lost the political edge it had in the '60s?
A: The '60s were a watershed period in American life and American art. The experimentation and questioning of institutions in the '60s was fueled by a certain idealism that we don't experience today. The art and popular culture of that decade still remain models for younger generations, but we see their successes and failures more clearly now.
Q: As we approach the 21st century, can painting still "compete" as an avant-garde practice?
A: Of course. Since painting is the most traditional (and circumscribed) medium, it is perhaps more of a challenge to radicalize it. But new technologies, and new ways of seeing the world, are having a deep impact on painting. It is not really the medium itself but what is done with it that makes it vanguard.
Q: Do you have any surprises for us?
A: Some surprises are the linkages between media -- such as the film clips of avant-garde dance in the '60s and their relationship to Minimalism, or the splintering of the canon in the '70s in art, television and literature. Some of the eccentric abstraction from the early and mid-'60s and its extreme sensuality clearly prefigures much of what would follow. In general, much of the art -- some of it now 50 years old -- retains remarkable freshness.
Q: What about the audience? With its focus on the most dramatic and exciting developments in recent art, "The American Century" could well be one of the Whitney's most popular shows. How many visitors do you expect -- and how many would it take to set a record?
A: It will be interesting to see. Part I drew over 250,000 visitors, which is something of a record. Some people feel that the popularity of the first part was due to the narrative and illustrative content of much of the art. In part II, the content is not so literal. While there are very direct connections between the art and what was going on in the culture at large over the past 50 years, it manifests itself metaphorically rather than literally. I think much of this art, though now historic, will seem very new and contemporary to many viewers -- perhaps not what they expect to get from art. My hope is that people will approach the work with an open mind and see the last 50 years of American art for its truly remarkable achievement. The interesting thing is that kids get right into contemporary art immediately!
Q: The Whitney's brutalist Marcel Breuer building can be a hard place to install an art exhibition. Any comments?
A: The building, which was completed in 1966, expresses an esthetic of the period. Its monumentality, industrial materials and flexible open plan make it ideally suited to show work from the past 40 years. The architecture is very strong, but so is most of the art of this time. My only complaint is that there are not enough floors!
Q: Several critics -- Arthur Danto, Donald Kuspit -- have suggested that the avant-garde is exhausted. After working so closely with contemporary artists, would you disagree?
A: As a modernist concept, perhaps -- as there is less resistance to the new, the edge between mainstream and vanguard is blurred. The mainstream has a proven ability to absorb its opposition in a relatively short time. This does not mean, however, that artists have given up on experimentation, or introducing new ideas that might take years to comprehend, or expressing current issues or concerns -- even if it provokes discomfort or disbelief.
Q: The Whitney Museum, like most avant-garde art, is clearly allied with progressive social ideas. Anything you'd like to say to Hilton Kramer -- in advance?
A: Time to enter the 20th century -- there are only three months left! (I'm not holding my breath.) Kramer has a pathological antipathy to contemporary art -- but I do think he's keenly aware of how much he can exploit his niche for his own benefit.
Q: One constant issue with the Whitney is its exclusively nationalist focus. Is it time to drop "of American Art" from the museum's name?
A: Definitely a big issue for the next millennium.
Q: Finally, "The American Century, Part II" is a kind of farewell project for you at the Whitney. Any thoughts on how a New Museum director might approach the same subject?
A: Put a question mark after each word in the title, and then make bold moves towards creating a museum for the 21st century.