The Whitney's installation of 100-some mostly pre-1950 items from its permanent collection in crisp new galleries that were designed for the purpose is an obvious news hook. So I can do a column on it. Meanwhile, important though unobvious news gets made constantly by all of the rarely changing museum installations that spiritualize New York. If alive to art, you can't step into the same collection twice. Works alter in the night, their charm and significance waxing and waning and their relative worth an endless, silent scrimmage.
To care about art in a city of great museums is regularly to inhabit a past that isn't past. Art retains the best intuitions of departed souls. Being departed, the souls cannot reintuit in response to the present, whose harsh perspective may make them seem more foolish than not. Revelations of the past's foolishness are part of the news that old art always makes. So are revelations of lost wisdom and irretrievable brilliance, humbling us.
Most art, even if very good shrivels sedately over time like fruit on a windowsill, losing nutrients while perhaps gaining a homey aroma. Great art doesn't resist time so much as seem spookily exempt from its course, as if the artist foresaw the future and, unimpressed, simply snubbed it. Then there are wild cases, which make museumgoing an adventure, where stuff that was born third-rate reacts with some catalyst in the present moment and, like a cactus flower, blossoms for an improbable hour.
Consider Thomas Hart Benton's advertising-illustration-like 1948 painting of Marlon Brando and the rest of the original Broadway cast acting up a storm in A Streetcar Named Desire. That crashingly prosaic, goopy picture has long struck me as easily one of the worst museum-certified artworks of all time. But in the Whitney's sparkling new array of, loosely speaking, Social Realism -- the dreariest of gone modes, in my usual view -- the cheesy Benton crackles, suddenly piquant and interesting. So do neighboring illustrational turns by Paul Cadmus, John Steuart Curry, Raphael Soyer, Reginald Marsh, Charles Burchfield, Jacob Lawrence, and (well, almost) Andrew Wyeth.
What gives? I think it is a dawning epiphany, lately advanced by audacious younger painters, of painting's power as an individual, hyperconscious means of inhabiting collective, dead-brained types of imagery. (And what other types of imagery are there anymore?) The bad news is a historic humiliation of painting that requires accepting brotherhood with the scabby likes of Benton. The good news is a spate of fresh vision that, unconfined by the present, rejuvenates (or juvenates, truly quickening for the first time) art that has moped in obloquy for decades.
The new Whitney galleries score architecturally. The cunningly lighted, parlorish chambers make four-foot pictures loom large, as four-foot pictures did before Abstract Expressionism exploded standard art size. Starting with Robert Henri and the Ashcan School, the modernizing selection stops at Arshile Gorky and others on the mid-1940s, abstract/surreal brink of AbEx. The museum properly tries for a conservative, consensus overview. Agreeing and disagreeing with it will give you data on who you are.
Permanent solo rooms feature Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Alexander Calder, and another space temporarily stars Elie Nadelman. I would have opted for Hopper, the majestically souled Marsden Hartley, and the indispensable Gorky, with passing emphasis given to rascally old Man Ray. But I see thematic sense in the Whitney's choices. Calder, the Frenchified Yankee tinker, and Nadelman, suave Polish immigrant by way of Paris, celebrate weddings of the insouciant and the chic without which modern art could never have danced with high society.
The fascinating O'Keeffe is a paragon of American modernity and, of course, of heroic womanhood. What she isn't is a very appealing painter. I find her pictures arbitrarily designy and puritanically arid, indicating strange, stony refusals of feeling. As such, and given their status as all-American icons, those works bemuse in major ways. We should talk more about O'Keeffe.
Hopper is one of the four greatest American 20th-century artists, along with Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Andy Warhol. (That's my list. Let's have yours.) He should have his own museum. But his densely hung room here, a nuclear core, neatly establishes how Hopper just keeps improving with age. Every time I see Early Sunday Morning, it is another first time. I never quite registered before the other day the particular, breathtaking effect of that picture's unusually extended horizontal proportion. And dig the sampled drawings for the Chicago Art Institute's Nighthawks (1942). At piecing together visual drama, Hopper recalls nobody else except maybe Alfred Hitchcock.
I remember when American so-called "early modernism" got hot in New York in the 1960s. With a sort of cozy self-condescension, we doted on juvenalia of a scene that would grow up to rule the world. In today's postimperial, globalized art world, it is harder to get with the precocious thrill of the Armory Show era, when a wretched Cubist pastiche like Max Weber's Chinese Restaurant (1915) could earn an A for effort. Back then, to be mistaken even only at first glance for Parisian avant-gardists made American artists the cat's pajamas. Now that all seems quaint.
Who looks startlingly good now, amid the circa-1920s Stieglitzerati, is the patrician naïf Florine Stettheimer. She didn't fret about stylistic ideology. She just rapturously seized the day. In this, she feels retrospectively in league with American's dark prince of cynical estheticism, Man Ray, who likewise never tumbled to pompous sentiments of progress. The latter's New York (1917/1966), a skyline-suggesting sheaf of chromed metal slabs held in a C-clamp, seems to me a sublimely proportioned joke about a smart little artist's utterly ragamuffin position in the big dumb world. What a cool guy.
Patriotically, the Whitney selection features in its first room George Luks's compositionally hopeless but excited and exciting panorama of breaking news, Armistice Night (1918). I remembered the mood of that work when later, deeply moved, I contemplated Gorky's tersely titled Painting (1936-37). Rigorous and passionate throughout, this early, frankly Picasso-influenced Gorky touchstone beats with the heart of a sensual Thomas Jefferson. In a troubled year in a Union Square studio, the comical and tragic Armenian immigrant made this extremely good thing -- news that has stayed news. God bless America? I'll vote for that.
PETER SCHJELDAHL is art critic for the Village Voice, where this article first appeared.