"The American Century" began on a bus ride though Connecticut in 1992. Two months into his turbulent directorship at the Whitney Museum of American Art, David Ross, who has since left for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, told his trustees (then on a field trip), "We have to do something big for the millennium."
Ross was the Whitney's Clinton: Gregarious and enthusiastic, he liked to do things "big." Lisa Phillips, who is now the director of the New Museum, organized the second segment of this show before she left the Whitney. What would you do if you were Lisa Phillips? You have six years to get ready. Would you make a stand? Get rid of the dead weight, make the hard choices, rewrite the story, jettison artists and brave the storm? Or would you build a boat?
Phillips builds an ark. Assuming the role of guardian, she gathers artists one by one -- from Abstract Expressionism and color field painting to Matthew Barney and Kara Walker. But in her attempt to provide safe passage to the many, she weighs down this raft with 700 objects by nearly 300 artists, then abandons ship. Left adrift, this detached, captainless exhibition becomes a kind of Flying Dutchman, condemned to sail the seas until Judgment Day.
It's sad. During the '80s and '90s, the Whitney was the most passionate museum in town about contemporary art. Phillips and Ross (and Tom Armstrong before him) were there when we needed them. They took the heat and did the shows, popular or not: Eric Fischl, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat. And it was great. On top of that, the work done in the last 50 years is the art that was done on our watch. Esthetically speaking, it's our amniotic ocean. If you don't like anything in this show, either you loathe the art of your time or you know something no one else does.
If only the show weren't so predictable. Phillips presents the half-century whole, as a readymade: a catalogue of fashionable or familiar names, a chronicle of trends and styles and a social record of sorts. Part II is the classic-rock version of the half-century, a list of least resistance, a Teflon selection. I'm sure it will be a big success.
It starts strong -- how could it not? -- with Abstract Expressionism. "America Takes Command" proclaims a sign just off the fifth-floor elevator, and as you walk past the art of the '50s and early '60s, you think, "You can't touch this." Phillips is also good at peppering Pop, Minimalism and Post-Minimalism with videos of dance and performance.
But this is less a show than a tasting menu. Déja vu takes over when the Whitney switches to automatic pilot, reproducing past biennials, retrospectives and other in-house exhibitions (e.g., "New Image Painting," "The New Sculpture," "Image World," etc.). Less familiar work fares better. Although Helen Frankenthaler's signature but seldom seen Mountains and Sea looks great, a great artist like Andy Warhol looks weird. Meanwhile, weird artists like Dorothea Tanning, H.C. Westermann and Paul Thek look great. There are yummy portraits by Fairfield Porter and Alice Neel (both, oddly, of Andy Warhol), and the 10 white male "Resurgence of Painting" guys (including Fischl, Terry Winters, David Salle and Lari Pittman) look impressive, in spite of an uneven selection of their work. Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is absorbing, even more so in its protected minicineplex installation.
Mostly, though, you can't see anything because it's all so packed together. Go to the bottleneck of Cady Noland and Ross Bleckner, or the intersection of Philip Pearlstein and Alex Katz and feel bad for them. Or behold the paltry alcove of Pattern and Decoration. They should have dumped these artists, or just had Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt build some crazy altar. Give the art space or get rid of it.
It's time we realized that more is too much. Either big exhibitions are outdated or our museums aren't big enough to house them. The Whitney could have cut a hundred artists. Is it too soon, or too scary, to let the editing begin? Who will be the first to say no to Jim Dine or Edward Kienholz or Nam June Paik? How about Robert Morris, Hans Haacke, Carrie Mae Weems, Kenny Scharf, Martha Rosler, Tony Oursler, Mary Kelly or any three conceptualists? A friend gasped, "That's unfair! Without them it's incomplete!" But this isn't about fairness or accuracy, it's about having an opinion and taking a chance. As it is, the exclusions feel tainted: Gary Hill and Bryan Hunt are in; Robert Longo and Kerry James Marshall are out. Recent trendies Ida Applebroog and Ana Mendieta are in; Keith Sonnier and Jennifer Bartlett are out. Dorothea Rockburne didn't even make the catalogue. And where's R. Crumb? But see how silly such nit-picking feels in the face of an exhibition of this magnitude.
This "American Century" exhibition makes clear just how short the American part was. Lasting little more than 25 years, from 1950 till about 1975, it started out big on a smallish stage and ended up important -- but not so central -- on an enormous stage. Maybe the best thing to do is let this ark drift quietly into the future like some message in a bottle. The most incontestable sentiment was expressed by an artist at the opening who said, "It's a great show because I'm in it."
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.