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    An American Brand
by Walter Robinson
 
     
 
The Whitney Museum
 
Alfred Stieglitz
The City of Ambition
1910
 
The deli slicer.
 
George Bellows
Paddy Flannigan
1908
 
Morgan Russell
Synchromy in Blue Violet
1913
 
Gerald Murphy
Watch
1924-25
 
"The American Century"
installation view
 
Archibald Motley, Jr.
Blues
1929
 
Imogen Cunningham
Untitled (Two Sisters)
1928
 
Alexandre Hogue
Erosions No. 2: Mother Earth Laid Bare
1938
 
Reginald Marsh
Hudson Bay Fur Company
1932
 
Helen Levitt
Street Drawing
1940
 
"The American Century"
installation view
 
"The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000," Part I, Apr. 23-Aug. 22, 1999, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.

It's here. The Whitney Museum's much-anticipated end-of-the-century review, four floors filled with emblems of American culture. Organized by Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, the show features everything from Edward Steichen's fantastic 1903 platinum print of J. Pierpont Morgan to Jackson Pollock's pink and yellow Number 27 (1950).

In between are 25,000 square feet of art, about 720 objects in all. An extensive inventory of paintings, both familiar and too-little-known, is interspersed with a surprisingly large number of photographs. Sculpture is scant. Several items of furniture are included -- a Stickley clock, Frank Lloyd Wright chairs, vases by Tiffany and George Ohr -- looking rather odd in the Whitney, as if it suddenly had launched a decorative arts department. Architecture is present, with models and drawings, as is industrial design. Who could fail to appreciate a deli slicer or an Electrolux vacuum, presented under glass to exemplify "streamline moderne."

The museum has worked hard to inject some razzmatazz into the show, no easy task in Marcel Breuer's Brutalist Whitney. The exhibition features three or four giant photomurals -- one showing the mushroom cloud of the atom bomb -- and a number of ingenious video theaters displaying clips from several films at once. Among the novelties of the installation are samples of period music playing in the stairwell and small black-and-white video monitors set into the wall right next to the photos and paintings. A clip from Manhatta by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, for instance, is juxtaposed to a perspective drawing of the Woolworth Building by Cass Gilbert and Stieglitz's photogravure City of Ambition. It works well.

Despite all these pyrotechnics, at first glance "The American Century" seems disappointingly dull -- just pictures, dimly lit, hung in rows on gray walls. By happenstance, the drab Whitney installation was in dramatic contrast to two other shows that debuted in New York the very same day.

In Sotheby's auction rooms over on 72nd and York, some 1,200 objects from the estate of socialite Betsy Cushing Whitney had been installed in a lush display that included almost every sort of thing that such a collector would have had in her life, ranging from Cézanne still lifes to painted porcelain puppies, from handwritten manuscripts by Thomas Wolfe to Federal furniture, Persian rugs, Victorian silver, even a pair of marble lions to go by the drive. For all her wealth, Whitney's taste is pleasantly down-to-earth, with a real feel for the unusual. Sotheby's installation was richly interdisciplinary, mixing high and low with anthropological abandon -- a museological motif that mirrors the shop, the marketplace, the bazaar (as well it should at an auction house).

Further uptown on Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum unveiled its new Greek galleries -- elegant limestone halls of soaring Beaux-Arts dimension, flooded with natural light and filled with ancient treasures. The sculpture, pottery and other objects are spaced throughout the rooms at an agreeable scale and distance. Esthetically, it's the epitome of a classical temple, and has already been dubbed one of New York's great public spaces.

The Whitney installation doesn't have this kind of showmanship. All the same, the museum did an amazing job on its exhibition, considering that it was in the midst of an institutional transition. The trick for viewers is to treat the show as a collection of art works that demand to be looked at singly, one at a time, as did the artists when they made them.

And "The American Century" is certainly full of great art, things that demonstrate dramatic contrasts of form and sociological point of view. Stanton Macdonald-Wright's 1918 Synchromist abstraction shows the dawn of 20th-century modernism in America, while George Bellows' Men of the Docks (1912) exemplifies the kind of muscular figuration that is intimately linked with U.S. populist democracy. The photographs especially range across the economic landscape in outrageous extreme, from Lewis Hine's 1910 picture of a horde of grime-covered children working in the mines of South Pittston, Pa., to Baron de Meyer's photographs of haughty, bejeweled aristocrats.

The show begins in the Whitney's low-ceilinged new fifth floor galleries with "America in the Age of Confidence, 1900-1919." Here are pictures of people shopping, a notation of the beginning of American consumerism, and pictures of child labor, the subconscience of that prosperity. Other motifs are the city at night and the immigrants and urchins of the Ashcan School. Also present are two later versions of Duchamp's Urinal and In Advance of a Broken Arm -- about which, the less said the better.

The poor Native American makes a pathetic appearance here -- in the admittedly romaticized photos of Edward S. Curtis. African Americans do much better, and are present throughout the show, though their first big appearance is on the fourth floor in "Jazz Age America 1920-1929." Here, next to Bellows' masterful Dempsey and Firpo (1924) and a large selection of Precisionist pictures of crankshafts and factories is a sexy photograph of Josephine Baker -- Pictorialism in advance of Penthouse. But the standout is Blues, a 1928 painting of an uptown nightclub scene by Archibald Motley, Jr. The wall label lists it as in the artist's collection -- calling Whitney president Leonard Lauder, don't let this one get away!

Floor four is also devoted to flappers, cocktails, and nudes on the one hand, and paintings of the Dust Bowl on the other. If you like biomorphic nature abstraction, don't miss the row of three fairy tale pictures from the collection, two paintings by Agnes Pelton and a pastel Nativity by Joseph Stella.

More farmers are on three, which is dubbed "America in Crisis, 1930-1939." Perhaps the prize of the entire show is Hale Woodruff's cycle of three paintings on the Amistad Rebellion, dating from 1939. There's lots of Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Grant Wood -- and if the museum can get more of these artists, it should. There's a great Hopper from the Delaware Art Museum, one of several great Hoppers in the show -- they look rather better spread out than concentrated in a single gallery.

There's lots of 30s Surrealism -- Louis Guglielmi, Federico Castellon, Peter Blume -- with which the Whitney collection is well supplied. The show features a very generous selection of '30s abstraction by Calder, Bolotowsky, even Rolph Scarlett (one of Peggy Guggenheim's old favorites). And there's still more immigrants and urban poverty, pictured by Gordon Parks, Ruth Orkin, Aaron Siskind, Helen Leavitt and others. And it was the period of World War II, a time of Capa and corpses, the first in the show.

Things begin to wind down on two, dubbed "Postwar America, 1945-1950," as the art world gathers itself for the great leap that will triumph over the entire world. Note the wild Helmholtzian Landscape (1946) in painted iron by David Smith, and Andrew Wyeth's haunting Winter 1946. With high-end art objects like this, we hardly need the stupid mushroom-cloud banner. Glamour photos are on view throughout, demonstrating America's relentless esthetic escapism. The exhibition ends with an unprepossessing Ab-Ex display -- a tiny black-and-white calligraphic Lee Krasner that looks like it could have been done by Ben Vautier, and a wan yellow Barnett Newman from the National Gallery. Oh well, that stuff is just so much kitsch, anyway.

All in all, you can't lose if you focus on the art objects.

One final word, regarding the "escutcheon" of the exhibition, which says it all. This escutcheon, which I vaguely remember from reading Giles Goat Boy in college refers to a certain kind of display common during mating season down on the farm, features a reproduction of Jasper Johns' glorious 1958 Three Flags, which the museum bought in 1980 for a then-astonishing $1 million, an appropriately dramatic typographic presentation of the exhibition title in red and white type and, in a smaller point size, the title of the painting with the following legend: © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

There's no need to belabor the obvious poor taste, not to mention legal feebleness, that would conscience an attempt to copyright an image of the American flag, however "rectified" by an artist. Collecting a fee for something that is in the public domain is, as the late critic Craig Owens pointed out over a decade ago, the essence of Postmodernism, which is after all a construction of Capital.

The complaint here is that the claim to this mark, to this brand that embodies the essence of "American art," should be presumed by a single individual, not to mention by the vampyrean VAGA. The great American brand belongs to the Whitney, which holds it for the rest of us and must use it to advance our cause in the global esthetic marketplace. As Saatchi advertising genius made "Young British Art" into an invaluable cultural commodity, so too must the Whitney rationalize and instrumentalize its presentation of United States art production on the global market. If not for profit, then do it for fun! We expect this work to begin in earnest with the next Whitney Biennial, which should kick enough ass to undertake a global tour to the Tate, the Hamburger Bahnhof, the Grand Palais and points east and west. Get to work.


WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.