Faced with the responsibility for selecting an inaugural exhibition from a collection of 22,000 artworks, the Whitney curators have come up with a thoughtful solution. Selecting the title America is Hard to See, a line from a Robert Frost poem, they have foregone the traditional chronological survey and opted for a sequence of thematic groupings in twenty three mini-exhibitions, each with its own visual coherence and compatible content.
These groupings elide smoothly one into another, leading viewers gradually through a century of artworks that reflect the many cross-currents of national experience. To avoid making claims for any body of artworks, the title of each subdivision has been taken from one of the works in that group. Thus Large Trademark, the title of Ed Rusha’s 1960’s painting of a movie studio logo, becomes the heading for the Pop art section, and a Fred Wilson 1991 title, Guarded View denotes the chapter on race, identity and gender.
Facing the elevator on the eighth floor, the recommended starting point, are Marsden Hartley’s two powerful abstract “portraits” of a German officer from his 1915 War Series, a fitting introductory statement about America’s awakening to modernism on the heels of the unadorned realism of the Ashcan School paintings hanging nearby. That stylistic split continues with the elegant installation of John Storrs’ geometric sculpture in front of a window overlooking the Hudson River, juxtaposed with George Bellows’ Floating Ice, a view across the river toward the snow-covered Palisades.
Modernism makes further inroads with color-based abstraction under the heading Music Pink and Blue that includes the synchromist movement and a surprise non-objective painting by poet e.e. cummings who, like so many of the artists represented here, lived in the adjacent Greenwich Village neighborhood.
The large section devoted to Abstract Expressionism takes its name New York, N.Y. 1955 from a painting by Hedda Stern, the only woman in Life magazine’s 1950 photograph of fourteen male artists associated with the beginning of Abstract Expressionism and an entire wall is occupied by Lee Krasner’s nineteen foot long canvas, The Seasons. Clearly the exhibition is being used to redress past imbalances, even when the museum is not at fault, as in the case of Hans Haacke. A separate gallery houses his Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a real time Social System, as of May 1971, a diligently researched project which led to the cancellation of Haacke’s planned solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971.
Such attempts to right gender neglect or to counter censorship reflect the museum’s conscientious embrace of inclusiveness, as opposed to highlighting its most celebrated works. Here and there, however, popular favorites like Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning or George Bellows’ Dempsey and Firpo, make an appearance along with Alexander Calder’s much loved Circus.
Photographs, graphic art, and video make up a sizable portion of the exhibition, mostly in the sections addressing troubled times: the Depression, the Aids epidemic, lynching, anti-war protests, and race and gender discrimination. (There is scarcely a reference to pending environmental crises). The building’s spaciousness encourages visitors to move back and forth to make their own connections and comparisons. Two widely separated paintings, Robert Bechtle’s 61 Pontiac, 1968-69 and Peter Saul’s Saigon, 1967, a cartoon-style melange of rape and violence in Day-Glo color, when considered together convey the reality of the Vietnam era. Then for sheer pleasure one can look through a wall of windows to the seventh floor terrace, where the burnished steel surfaces of David Smith’s Cubi XXI gleam in the sunlight against a wide-angle view of Manhattan
Among the works by Gertrude Whitney and her artist/friends in the ground floor gallery is John Sloan’s Backyards, Greenwich Village, 1910, a reminder of the museum’s origin in the heart of the artists’ territory. It was Sloan who said, “Artists in this frontier country are like cockroaches in kitchens, not encouraged, not wanted.” This was the situation Gertrude Whitney set out to correct, first by purchases, then by providing exhibition space. If we wonder in our global era whether the idea of maintaining a museum devoted solely to American art is something of an anachronism, it is useful to be reminded of the Whitney’s original mission to raise the status as well as the circumstances of American artists. Perhaps at this point the museum could say “mission accomplished” and redefine its agenda. Then there could be room both to reflect contemporary art’s global scale and to acknowledge the dialogue many Americans maintained with art from abroad, often through foreign sojourns, as well as the impact of the 1913 Armory Show and the influx of cultural refugees as Fascism rose in Germany.
The title of the inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See, admits in advance that there is no comprehensive way to package American art. The present format of small thematic units has the advantage of flexibility, leaving room for hope that some of the accumulated backlog of artists and movements not currently represented will be brought out in contexts that will fill in what is now a limited view of a rich and diverse epoch for American art. Some of the topics announced for the coming year are the paintings of Archibald Motley, a “jazz age modernist” associated with the Harlem Renaissance, a career retrospective of Frank Stella, immersive environments by filmmaker/journalist Laura Poitras (Citizen Four), one hundred works by Stuart Davis, a pioneer in using images from popular culture, and three solo shows of emerging artists.
The most significant aspect of this stupendous gift to the city and the nation is the populist spirit of Renzo Piano’s welcoming building and the artworks it houses. If only it could counter the present day perception of the art market as a billionaires’ playground and mechanism for tax avoidance.