I ♥ American Art
In the Times today, Holland Cotter offers a thorough and thoughtful review of the exhibition, and notes
The work is mostly arranged by loose theme rather than date, an approach I like. It enlivens objects by setting them in unexpected, often energizing company. And it points up the basic arbitrariness of orthodox art history and critical opinion. An unfamiliar little piece off to the side is revealed to be every bit as interesting as a celebrated big piece in the center of the room.Gary and I had left ourselves only a short period to see the whole show, so we unfortunately had to rush through it a bit, but each time we emerged on a floor I felt a rush, like the proverbial kid stepping into a candy shop. There, right outside the elevator, on the fifth floor hung my sentimental favorite American painting of all time:
The important thing the show does, though, is deliver the story — a story — of American culture through art. It is a culture of staggering contradictions: idealism and amnesia, censure and unruled pleasure. It is diverse and narrow-souled, with a devotion to the idea of power so ingrained as to make discord inevitable and chronic. If "Full House" is about one thing, it is about discord. It is about how harmonious America never was.
Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, 1930, Oil on canvas, 35" x 60", Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
I have more personal reasons than aesthetic or conceptual reasons for loving this painting, but it set the tone and got my mind racing like that of child on Christmas Eve about what lay ahead.
The entire 5th floor is devoted to Hopper, the artist most identified with the Whitney according to wall text. You do walk away from it a bit less sure he wasn't simply a very talented illustrator not interested in the challenging revolution painting was undergoing in his day (he had spent time in Paris during the tumultous turn of the last Century and managed to emerge apparently untouched by the ideas flourishing there). But limited to one, I'd take Early Sunday Morning over most other American paintings any day.
The fourth floor covers Minimalism, and it's a remarkably handsome installation. We spoke with the exhibition's lead curator Donna De Salvo about the installation at the opening, and she pointed out that they symbollically opened up (uncovered) every window in the museum for the show. The 4th floor installation feels remarkably open and allows some larger pieces to have a dialog with smaller ones in a way most installations wouldn't achieve. Minimalism is getting is share of criticism these days (it's fashionable to reject it as fraudulent), but I loved this floor all the same.
The real treat for me though was the third floor, whose installation is subtitled "The Pure Products of America Go Crazy." With works as disparate as those by Stuart Davis and Andy Warhol, this floor is more than a candy store, it's virtually Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. This floor illustrates the point at which American artists began to turn their attention outward (as opposed to how the Ab Exer's had turned it inward) to deal with the reality of the world around them (and truly examine the discord Holland Cotter highlights). The argument seems to have been that life in America wasn't really some noble narrative full of heroes and ideals, it was, as rock star Bono once noted "The best of everything and the worst of everything." In order to capture that dichotomy truthfully, American fine artists began blurring the lines between high and low culture, and, as Arthur Danto argued, managed to bring Art History to an unceremonious end.
So why with that depressing baggage did I love this floor so much? I'll explain with an anecdote: There's a lesson about art I learned from the dealer I consider my first mentor that I'll never forget. When a client asked him why a rather pricey Diebenkorn etching was so special, he responded quite emphatically "Just look at it!" Indeed. That's all there is really. Walking around the third floor at the Whitney, that's all one needs to do to be enthralled...just look at the work. It's exhilarating.
On the second floor are the works that finally enabled New York to steal the title of World's Art Capital away from Paris, those of the Abstract Expressionists. As on the 4th and 3rd floors, there's a blend of art not quite defined by the central theme installed throughout, making for some eye-opening juxtapositions, like the Joan Mitchell sandwiched between a Pollock and a deKooning.
Adrian Piper, Out of the Corner, 1990, mixed media, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
It was about this time in our tour however that the museum was closing down, so we didn't get to see the Calder on the first floor or spend anywhere near enough time taking it all in. But we have all summer to return and there's so much more to see and learn there. The hard-hitting Adrian Piper installation (see above), for example, took my breath away, and it was a bit overwhelming to see the Mark Lombardi piece in this context...I can recall meeting Mark at his first exhibition of that work at Pierogi as if it were yesterday...and now here it was, part of the canon...part of American history.
Have a safe and fun-filled weekend folks...and Happy 4th!