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'America Is Hard To See' at The New Whitney Museum

By Kasia Maciejowska  |  New York, 21 September 2015

The new Whitney building, designed by Renzo Piano, with its multiple jutting terraces between which you can clatter up and down stairwells, is a welcome addition to Manhattan’s art scene. From its decks you can look over what feels like the whole of downtown Manhattan in one direction, and across the Hudson River in the other. Inside its walls you can currently see America Is Hard To See, the Whitney’s polemical opening exhibition, and the defining US museum show of the season.

This exhibition’s mission is to reconsider American art history through highlighting 600 works from the Whitney’s permanent collection. It manages this challenge convincingly in places, integrating striking works by lesser-seen artists into the American canon, and offering a welcome historicised contextualisation of Postmodern and Contemporary art against what had gone before and what you see in commercial galleries today. Most of all, it exhibits great numbers of artworks thematically, so moving through the show you grasp art history’s waves anew.

The top floor predictably starts with American learnings from the European avant-gardes. Lots of collage and Futurism, and works reflecting the shadows of America’s founding and its nostalgic but irreverent adoption of elements from European culture. In this new building, and in today’s field of installation, performance, digital, post-digital etc art, this top floor feels like a different world to the present, but the ideas—if not the materials—in art feel the same as now. The main concerns are the sense of fracture and dystopia, and the need to change how those things are represented in art, brought on by the heightening automatism of modernisation.

The first galleries explore abstraction and the early twentieth century moderns’ experimentation with form that still captivates the popular eye, despite (or probably because of) having faded into conceptual simplicity against the contemporary’s complications. Emphasis is emphatically placed on certain reminiscences, such as the flattened forms of Patrick Henry Bruce and Stuart Davis’s 1920s paintings, John Covert and Arthur Dove’s morbidly forlorn palette from the decades either side, and Lyonel Feininger’s Gelmeroda, VIII, from 1921 with Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1926 Abstraction, both of which employ shadow and angularity to locate the viewer and paint modernity as serenely seductive. One of the exhibition’s goals is showing that art history picks its stars by caprice, but these rooms undermine this sense by the brilliance of major stars like O’Keefe whose work shines out as somehow “more” brilliant, “more” talented than its neighbours.

A romantic interlude on a single wall celebrates abstraction’s affinity with synaesthesia and music. Concise curation here makes it work with only six pieces: paintings by Charles Burchfield and Oscar Bluemner, and two small poised and beautiful gelatin silver prints by Imogen Cunningham and Alfred Stieglitz. The line-up has impact because it’s quiet; the theme continues more brashly opposite with poet EE Cummings’ bright swirling painting Noise Number 13 and Richmond Barthé’s 1933 lyrical sculpture African Dancer, beside a work by Agnes Pelton, another O’Keefe, and work by Stanton MacDonald-Wright who in the 1910s founded the colour-based practice Synchromism, the first abstract movement that art history considers originally American. Here Four Part Synchromy, by Synchromism co-founder Morgan Russell, and Oscar Bluemner’s Last Evening of the Year look fresh, even though we’re still in the 1920s.

Moving into the following decades, Alexander Calder, Man Ray and Theodore Roszak succinctly locate visitors in mid-century mechanisation—useful as Joseph Stella’s 1939 painting The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme could be 1990s street art. Here the silvery representations of the Empire State and the Chrysler make their inevitable appearances, taking their proper place in the canon at the expense of the exhibition’s promised curatorial novelty.

On the floor below, things get big, boisterous and ugly as the show lands in America’s heyday. Calder’s downright adorable and insanely fiddly Circus installation of miniature figures contrasts with its strong-stroked canvas neighbours, but defines the character of this floor as one of animated spectacle. Reginald Marsh and Thomas Hart Benton dish up hips and tits in grotesque social realism. Overtly queer art emerges here in Modernism, setting the scene curatorially for its blossoming a few decades later, on the gallery floors below. Gentleman lovers admire a cock’n’balls sculpture in work by Charles Demuth and Paul Cadmus gives his terrifying hookers and muscular sailors cartoonish full physiques with the virtuosity of Renaissance painting. It’s the seedier side of a spectacular society. In a clever touch, colourful works like these are broken up at intermittent rhythmic intervals with small-scale photography and etchings; their flattering monochrome offer relief and invert the narrative of the period, foregrounding the underside in colour and putting society’s glamorous echelons in the background in black and white miniatures.

The gallery opens up towards the terrace, and Willem De Kooning’s eye-catching Woman and Bicycle (1952-53) portrays the pin-up girl with maniacal double grin (the second being her pearl necklace) riding a bike in homage to Duchamp. Abstract Expressionism (with its Surrealist outtakes) always appears to be the art form that is most at home in big American museums, their white cubes scaled up precisely to flatter expressive gestural works like these made in vast lofts when progressive artists could afford to live in Manhattan. They look striking, are pleasingly dwarfing for the viewer and deliver that sense of awe many people seek at galleries. It inevitably feels repetitive, however, to revisit these overexposed works. Although welcome, their historical contextualisation by this show is noticeably sidelined by the sheer aesthetic experience these showpieces produce. That’s probably a result of its quality as stand-alone art though.

Three sculptures work hard in this gallery to locate their painted neighbours in time. Louise Bourgeois’ Quarantania (1947) of empathic ghostly painted white wood figures huddled together, John Chamberlain’s Velvet White (1962), a Ford Triumph crushed to resemble a figure, and Mark di Suvero’s domineering Hank (1960)—a champion of repurposed wooden beams—demarcate through their material forms that we are in the American pre-Now in a way the surrounding paintings can’t.

Despite their overfamiliarity and the machismo of this era in art history, the stellar paintings here are moving and beautiful to re-encounter, with De Kooning’s luminous chalky-hued Door To The River (1960) and Rothko’s heavy Four Darks In Red (1958) leading the charge to show that the adoption of these works into the vocabulary of corporate taste merely dinted their aura from afar and only for a passing moment. The Whitney’s distribution of space is significant here as it gives these big guns their proportional acknowledgement without resorting to short shrift, in keeping with the realigned canon attempted by the exhibition.

Fighting With All Our Might, a gallery about the Great Depression, holds a set of gems by Jacob Lawrence. His 1940s War Series conveys struggle and suffering in graphic, naïve strokes using repetition and evocative figures. The African American artist had recently served in WWII and his skill for combining colours drawn from the ocean and naval dormitories creates high-impact little paintings. Next door, George Tooker, Peter Blume and Louis Guglielmi, alongside Hopper and Man Ray, look at America after modernity’s impact on the mind and society. The most outstanding works here, however, are a set of eight wood block prints from Chiura Obata depicting the American landscape in the Japanese tradition in a beguiling blend that highlights the cultural conditioning of the artistic lens.

Down further, floor six brings us into familiar early contemporary territory as brash commercialism vies for attention with minimalism’s serenities. A gallery titled Large Trademark is dominated by the loud and influential imagery of people like Jasper Johns and Alex Katz, but the softer aesthetics of Diane Arbus, William Eggleston and Malcolm Bailey counterpoint with their framing of Americana through nostalgia and tragedy. Nearby, Carmen Herrera, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella and Jo Baer’s monochromatic works populate the White Target gallery, where minimal colour blocks appear to be the most gorgeous things you’ve ever seen having had your retinas seared by Tom Wesselmann and Andy Warhol.

The room called Scotch Tape is one of the most engaging, full of the strange, textural mixed media of Jim Dine, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Smithson, Claes Oldenburg and Bruce Conner. Particularly special is Louise Nevelson’s 1959 white sculpture in painted wood called Dawn's Wedding Chapel II, and Noah Purifoy’s playful untitled leather figure from 1970 is a potent example of the ‘new canon’ angle. Suddenly, the art here seems to have jumped ahead in time. The works in the Raw War gallery are particularly interesting having seen the responses to war on the previous level. By now it’s Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement; slogans, smooth photography and graphic lettering. Larry Clarke, Judith Bernstein, Bruce Nauman, Robert Morris and On Kawara are among the artists whose angry and mournful observations make this a powerful room.

Richard Tuttle, Anne Truitt, Keith Sonnier, Richard Serra and Michelle Stuart are among the artist’s whose clever works, often sculptures, give the segment called Irrational Rationalism its intriguing, if at times alienating, mood of being very serious about playful approaches. Overall, floor six reminds of how assemblage and Pop Art never lose their easy appeal; dynamic, witty, full of caricatures and quotation, but what’s interesting is their contrast with barely-there canvases and soft-touch photography. The sheer density of images proliferating in the middle of the last century comes through on this floor, an easy ride compared with the previous, and one that marks a notable step towards the dominance of the image culture we live with today.

The last floor, level five, is the show’s greatest strength, celebrating with tender polemic the art scene that gave New York its sceney kudos, and using the exploration of identity and personal narrative that dominates more recent contemporary art to support its curatorial proposition. It can sometimes feel jarring to mix works dating as far back as the 1960s with today’s, framing everything as the Contemporary, but those of today’s themes and artistic approaches included in the Whitney collection actually don’t diverge too far from what occupied radical artists fifty years ago, meaning the selection resonates together to reflect what does feel like American art today.

Threat and Sanctuary is one gallery here; it shows the emergence of conceptual art and attempts to reform painting entirely. Aesthetically incredibly diverse, compared with higher floors, works range from Cy Twombly’s subtle scribbly-handed paintings to Alma Thomas’s graphic bright Mars Dust (1972) and Chuck Close’s photorealist portrait Phil (1969). Individual works are enticing here but thematic coherence is strained. Far tighter is the neighbouring room Learn Where The Meat Comes From. Through mainly photography and video (Lynda Benglis, Paul McCarthy, Ana Mendieta, Martha Rosler) the low-tech qualities of a grunge mood emerge. The room feels like the American subconscious memory, where hyper-performativity, sexism, and an encompassing fascination with self-image still reside today. Racing Thoughts is equally about a media-dominated society, but here it becomes glossier as the 1980s produces a Pop Art reloaded style, in contrast to the gritty realism of the previous decade. Barbara Kruger, Jeff Koons, Nam June Paik, Jean Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring make this gallery fun, if not especially moving.

Through emotionally charged photography from artists such as Nan Goldin, David Wojnarowicz and Robert Mapplethorpe, Love Letter from the War Front portrays the tragic romanticism of the legendary 1980s and 1990s Downtown Scene during the AIDS epidemic. It also reveals the documentary turn that art took as photography became the medium for expressing the moment, giving these works more intimacy than art from previous periods, and adding poignancy to viewing it as many of the artists who made it have since died from the illness.

When you get to Guarded View, the nub of this exhibition becomes clear. The Whitney was founded on outsider-ish principles back in the 1930s, and when in the 1990s it exhibited work by gays and lesbians, women and ethnic minorities, critics complained on grounds of aesthetic taste and political correctness. Of course their exhibitions like Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art turned out to be the zeitgeist. In this room today the museum shows Matthew Barney, Catherine Opie, Jimmie Durham, David Hammons, Mike Kelley, Karen Kilimnik, Lorna Simpson, Sue Williams, and Fred Wilson, often using the body in their work to push similar themes of identity and cultural construction as defined those earlier radical shows. America Is Hard To See is aimed at re-iterating the Whitney’s credibility as a change driver in American society, using the site of a new building to claim the role of the big New York museum most in tune with art and culture now—and it does so.—[O]

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