Whitney Museum Ends The American Century
What can you say about an American art museum that offers a survey of American art of the last half of the twentieth century, and leaves out many of our most important painters and sculptors? On September 26 the Whitney Museum of American Art launched part II of its omnibus exhibition: The American Century: Art and Culture 1950-2000 and did just that. In what seems to be a massive cover-up, recent art history as seen at the Whitney is distorted, biased in favor of politics and lacking the best art, both representational and abstract, produced in America since 1950. The Whitney Museum would scream bloody murder about its first amendment rights if anyone objected to their right to exhibit a work like the sculpture of a defecating woman by Kiki Smith in their current exhibition. I wonder about violations of artists' first amendment rights when an institution like the Whitney Museum elects to keep hundreds of works hidden from public view. When does the museum's action cross the line and become a violation of freedom of speech?
Does the Whitney Museum curtail freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and violate the first amendment rights of artists by censoring and suppressing works of art from its own collection? What is the Whitney Museum's responsibility to the public and to the art world, and to its own collection? Should institutions like the Whitney Museum be held accountable when they tailor art history by hiding entire movements from public view?1 An American art world that tolerates the type of dictatorial, cultural elitism that infects this institution and others gets what it deserves. The hour is late, aesthetic censorship is a serious issue and the time has come for people to speak up. Artists have power and artists have a responsibility to let their views be heard. The old saw "my work speaks for itself," is a little pale in comparison to what our museums have been doing to us lately. The real scandal is not what the Whitney Museum shows, but what it doesn't show. In the real world at y2k, it's Root, Hog or Die.2 In its attempt to define its version of the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties, the museum leaves out wholesale chunks of great American art. The museum presents a phony picture filled with revisions and remakes of history. Does anybody care?
Grandiose claims notwithstanding The American Century: Art and Culture 1950-2000, is dreadful. This is a nasty show. The omissions are legion and outrageous. Sadly and predictably this exhibition undermines the subtlety and meaning of American painting and sculpture of the last fifty years. Abstract painting is subverted and compromised; abstract sculpture is misrepresented; and the public is duped into thinking that this is the whole story. Works that are about the pleasures of paint, drawing, surface, material, color, feeling, sensuality, pure visual language, visual ideas, plastic space, beauty, and intuitive expressions are by and large left out. Representational works that resonate with intimate and precise perceptions, delicate sensibility, and rough-hewn expressivity are not to be found. Painting and sculpture are used and abused to demonstrate political motifs.
The exhibition begins with a severely clipped sampling of Abstract Expressionism, some sculpture; Colorfield painting and Figure painting are jammed into two and a half rooms on the fifth floor. That out of the way, rather perfunctorily, Whitney Museum curator Lisa Phillips makes a mad dash for her new salon. Throughout the museum is displayed the new art school academy of Pluralism, Anti-Art, Post-Dada, Pop Art, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism, Earth Art-ism, Post-Earth Art-ism, Conceptualism, Post-Conceptualism, Deconstructivism, Neo-Expressionism, Performance Art-ism, Video-ism, Neo-Geo-ism, Post-Neo-Geo-ism, Installationism, Appropriationalism, and the other new isms like commercialism, sexism, political-correctism, careerism, corporation controlism, shock the publicism, egotism, opportunism, and Post-Modernism.
This insulting, predictable academic salon describes the demise not the triumph of American art. The show is stuck in an endless repetitious rut. We are inundated by the out of date and the passé. At the Whitney they've decided who was cool enough to put on display, but it is a badge of honor to be excluded from this vacuous salon. The museum fails to breathe life into its effort or to deliver the best of contemporary art of our time. At the Whitney I felt as if I was in a mausoleum, drowned in darkness, and trapped by the lifelessness of the selections. I had the eerie feeling of seeing the work as though it were in prison or in the zoo. There is a pervasive deadness that haunts this show. What might have been a great exhibition with more than an occasional flash of genuine artistic power and brilliance is brutally botched.
The fifties are presented with most of the important sculptors and dozens of painters both abstract and representational missing. Most Colorfield and Hard-Edge painters, Lyrical Abstractionists, dozens of welded steel sculptors, and scores of both representational sculptors and painters are left out of the presentation of the sixties. The seventies, the eighties, and the nineties likewise are presented with a one eyed view. By showcasing exactly what it pleases and disregarding history, the Whitney Museum makes a ludicrous farce of its enterprise.
Mindful of the narrow limitations of this show from the outset, given the amount of important artists and directions of American art left out, the curators still leave much to be desired. Art hangs, but nothing is developed. Where more than one work is needed, the show doesn't deliver the goods and conversely there are multiple works by some artists where one work is more than sufficient. Artists whose work changed and grew are misrepresented on every floor of the show. Even trying to figure out the chronology of the works in this mixed up, tangled mess is impossible because the curatorial style of Lisa Phillips and her associates is haphazard, sloppy, confused, illogical, and a hodge-podge. They stick Robert Mangold's minimal painting in the basement, instead of on the fourth floor with Minimal Art, and Alfred Leslie's Abstract Expressionist painting is in the lobby for no apparent reason, while the rest of Abstract Expressionism is on the fifth floor.
Curator Lisa Phillips is responsible for this debacle. Hers seems to be a narrow-minded, careerist vision that embraces an elitist definition of art, masquerading as democratic. Her previous efforts have only hinted at a broad blind spot in her knowledge of aesthetics, contemporary painting, sculpture and this exhibition sadly proves just that. Once again painting and sculpture is dissed, abstraction is all but eliminated, and politics and artbiz dominates. The show is bad but the accompanying 400-page book is worse.3 One assertion of many that I found particularly hypocritical was on pages' 55-56, where she states: "The Color Field painters were popular and well received. Their work was lyrical and decorative, which may explain why it soon found a comfortable home in corporate headquarters and government buildings. This purportedly advanced abstract art was far less threatening in the early sixties than art with obvious content and subject matter." Her point is to present Colorfield abstraction as unchallenging because it was collected by rich corporations. But given the corporate underwriting of this presumably challenging exhibition at the Whitney Museum and the vast quantity of Pop, representational and politically charged art that has appealed to corporate collectors over the years, who is she kidding? As though her exhibition doesn't gorge us to tedium with art as corporate investment. Although most artists want to sell their work, she implies that it's okay for a Conceptual work or a Rauschenberg to sell to IBM, but if a Noland is collected by that same company, it's not okay because it must have been sold just as decoration . . . I don't think so.
As I've said, the lion share of both abstract and representational painting and sculpture produced in America since 1950 is left out. The broad scope of production in the fine arts in America for the past fifty years has been magnificent to say the least and this museum does not show it. The museum prefers to show us novelty art by the likes of Robert Gober, Jenny Holzer, Matthew Barney, Barbara Kruger and dozens of others that reads like yesterday's news. They drop high art to pursue an agenda of politics, Freudian symbolism, and fun and games. Although I kind of like some of it, most of the recent works displayed are aimed to shock, are devoid of feeling, slightly hysterical, and morally bankrupt. Irritating and unnerving and with an egocentric need for attention, very few of the most recent works appear to even hope to be universal or lasting let alone masterpieces of universal expression. The few great artists the Whitney includes like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, David Smith, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, and a few others, carry this show on their backs. The museum cops out on its suggestion of a so-called triumphant American Century.
Theater of the Absurd
The exhibition begins on the fifth floor, entitled America Takes Command: 1950s into the 1960s, with Abstract Expressionism, Fluxus, Junk Sculpture, Collage and Assemblage, Anti-Art, Beat Culture, Proto-Pop, and even some figurative painting. The viewer gradually descends to Pop Art, Minimalism, and Post-Minimalism on the fourth floor; Conceptual Art, Earth Art, Performance, Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo on three; Installation Art, Appropriationalism, and the other isms on two. Like a textbook from Southern California Conceptual art heaven, we go from the absurd into the ridiculous on a nightmarish journey fraught with historical omissions, hypocritical assertions, erroneous assumptions, bad curatorial decisions and bad scholarship. Make no mistake-this is the new academia, the salon, the safe and the corporate, artistic censorship, aesthetic suppression on a big scale-all screened behind a cynical, hypocritical, and cowardly shield of radical politics.
As you step off the elevator on the fifth floor the Whitney's show begins at the place where part one left off, with Jackson Pollock's Number 27, 1950. This time however the horizontal Number 27, 1950 is rotated ninety degrees and is exhibited as a vertical. Alongside the verticalized Pollock there are four small, handsome, vertically stacked, square paintings and on the wall to the right are four more vertically stacked Pollock paintings. These resemble the eight small paintings that Pollock included in his 1950 Betty Parsons Gallery show that flanked Autumn Rhythm. To the left of the elevator and opposite the five Jackson Pollock paintings are Willem de Kooning's Woman and Bicycle, (1952-53) and his Marilyn Monroe, (1954). Flanking the five Pollock's are two terrific sculptures by David Smith: Hudson River Landscape, (1951) and Running Daughter, (1956).
Jackson Pollock's painting is turned vertical because the curators had a revelation according to the New York Times, when Berkeley art historian T. J. Clark said that Jackson Pollock had once hung the painting that way.4 The fact is that Pollock signed the painting as a horizontal, and the Whitney Museum, having acquired it in 1953 while Pollock was still alive, has exhibited Number 27, 1950 horizontally for forty-six years. Lee Krasner never opted to change the painting's horizontal orientation, and if she had, the Whitney Museum has ignored her request for all these years.
Jackson Pollock's 1950 Parsons exhibition was dominated by huge horizontal paintings including his 1950 masterpieces: Lavender Mist, Autumn Rhythm, Number 32, 1950, and One: Number 31, 1950. If he hung the painting vertically in his one-man show, he might have had his reasons. Maybe as seen in the installation shot (although I am not convinced that the painting in the photograph is Number 27, 1950), Pollock opted to show it vertically because he was out of wall space or because he thought it looked good that way for the show or because of a friend's suggestion at the time.
The symbolic importance of respecting a deceased artists wishes about hanging his or her work isn't a small matter to be played with as the Whitney Museum has done with their Pollock. By changing the orientation of the painting without the consent of the artist, the Whitney Museum establishes a dangerous precedent. So what are the curators doing by turning the Pollock now - are they trying to create a contrived controversy? The Museum asserts that their vertical hanging demonstrates a long forgotten (albeit obscure) precedent. However, and ironically nothing else in this exhibition even pretends to be historically correct. If the Whitney Museum is being historical in its display of Jackson Pollock at the outset, - it is the only place in the entire exhibition where they are. Everywhere else is a jumbled mishmash of historical incoherence.
Entering the first rooms of the exhibition that feature Abstract Expressionism, and Stain Painting, the educated viewer's credulity takes a nose-dive. What is called "The Second Generation" is often represented by works that are concurrent with or predate the works by the people who are called First Generation. Included among the Abstract Expressionists are important works by Franz Kline, Mahoning, (1956), Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, (1958), Clyfford Still, Untitled, (1949), Barnett Newman, Day One, (1951-52), Philip Guston, Dial, (1956), capped off by Willem de Kooning's Door to the River, (1960), which is the best de Kooning the museum owns. Grace Hartigan's Sweden, (1959) and Joan Mitchell's Hemlock, (1956), are unexceptional works and Lee Krasner is represented by the largest painting in the show, The Seasons, (1957). The Alfred Leslie painting hung in the lobby Big Green, (1957), is an example of his Abstract Expressionist period that should have been hung in this room. A Mark di Suvero sculpture: Hankchampion, (1960), and eight Louise Bourgeois sculptures complete the tableau. The inclusion of so many Bourgeois sculptures are strange since as Phillips herself acknowledges in her catalogue that no one recognized her enterprise as particularly consequential or mainstream at the time.7 Why, then, does this artist have eight pieces in this room, while artists who were well regarded at the time and who are still well regarded and influential have none? Is Phillips attempting to rewrite history? The installation at the Whitney reflects blatant, if not radical, revisionism.
The exhibition leaves out several major Abstract Expressionists and significant works representing other movements and meaningful directions, which undermines the achievement of American artists of the fifties. Where are important works by Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Tobey, Stuart Davis, Bradley Walker Tomlin, James Brooks, Jack Tworkov, Richard Pousette-Dart, Conrad Marca-Relli, William Baziotes, Theodore Stamos, Esteban Vicente, Charles Seliger, Milton Resnick, Giorgio Cavallon, Kenzo Okada, Ray Parker, Julius Hatofsky, or Stephen Greene? Where is the sculpture by Alexander Calder, Rueben Nakian, Ibram Lassaw, David Hare, Richard Stankiewitcz, Sidney Geist, Raoul Hague, Philip Pavia, Theodore Roszak, Herbert Ferber, Isamu Noguchi, Seymour Lipton, Richard Lippold, George Rickey, George Sugarman, Gabe Kohn, Len Lye, Dale Eldred, Robert Mallary, or Peter Agostini? Or paintings by Hedda Sterne, I. Rice Pereira, Robert Goodnough, Michael Goldberg, Norman Bluhm, Ed Clark, Lenore Jaffee, Hassell Smith, Norman Lewis, Beauford Delaney, Lester Johnson, Joseph Albers, or any work by the Indian Space painters or members of the Abstract Artists Association?
More needs to be said about the disorganization of the works on the fifth floor. The curators jumble together artists from the First Generation with artists from the Second Generation, and more clarification would have helped viewers to better understand both the directions and quality of the work of the late fifties and early sixties. Typically what is referred to as the Second Generation included painters and sculptors of the late fifties, during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, whose work seemed to be directly influenced and inspired by Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, or Clyfford Still, or influenced indirectly by Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, and Barnett Newman. Jackson Pollock's influence was indirect but profound as scores of painters adopted his painting technique by working unstretched on the floor. By 1959-60, the Second Generation appeared derivative and fell out of favor. I think many of those so-called Second Generation artists were first rate but were shortchanged; they were judged more for who influenced them and classified by which year their work was made than how good their work was. Everyone is influenced, so what is the big deal? Pollock and Gorky were influenced by both Miró, and Picasso; de Kooning was influenced by Gorky; Miró was influenced by Picasso, and Picasso was influenced by everything he could possibly use. Gertrude Stein wrote of Picasso, "Genius is knowing who to be influenced by." What exactly defines the difference between being derivative and being influenced is an interesting question that isn't addressed by the Whitney.
The look of American art changed in the early sixties. Radical, new, Hard-Edge painting, Colorfield painting and Pop Art replaced what had become the conventional look of Abstract Expressionism. Mark di Suvero's sculpture, and to a lesser degree John Chamberlain's (whose sculpture bridges Abstract Expressionism with Hard-Edge painting), and the paintings by Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, and Alfred Leslie resonate with the qualities of the Second Generation. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg by adding imagery, collage and assemblage elements to their paintings are considered a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Larry Rivers by including commercial imagery in his paintings is also considered to be a precursor to Pop Art. Helen Frankenthaler developed her own original style by staining fluid paint into raw canvas as did Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland after having been influenced by Jackson Pollock. Sam Francis developed his original style out of an Abstract Expressionist manner, reminiscent of Hofmann and de Kooning. Grace Hartigan's work changed in the sixties as she added subject matter to her paintings while Joan Mitchell to her credit stuck to her guns and produced her best work in the eighties. Alfred Leslie by the mid-sixties abandoned abstraction altogether for realism. His black and white, larger than life portraits might serve as influences on the portraits of Chuck Close in the late sixties. The recent rehabilitation of many Second Generation artists is long overdue. Unfortunately the Whitney Museum fails to clearly define the development and the relationship between American art of the fifties with American art of the sixties.
The adjacent room of Hard-Edge and Colorfield Painting is as empty and absurd an installation as I've ever seen. The curators, in a malicious act of artistic censorship, cut the highest and most potent direction of American painting in the bud. Forty-five years of abstract color painting, defined rather reductively by Phillips as stain painting, is inadequately represented by four lonely works, that span a mere six-year period: Helen Frankenthaler's Mountains and Sea, (1952), Sam Francis's, Black in Red, (1953), Morris Louis's Iris, (1954) and Kenneth Noland's Song, (1958). Where are the 1950s and 1960s paintings of Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Ray Parker, Larry Poons, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella, Ron Davis, Gene Davis, Neil Williams, Larry Zox, Friedel Dzubas, Al Held, Burgoyne Diller, John Mclaughlin, Alfred Jensen, Jack Bush, Jack Youngerman, Walter Darby Bannard, David Simpson, Ralph Humphrey, Myron Stout, Budd Hopkins, Leon Polk Smith, Ludwig Sander, Nicholas Krushenick, Tom Holland, Alma Thomas, Paul Feeley, Thomas Downing, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kaufman, Nassos Daphnis, Paul Jenkins, Charles Hinman, Sven Lukin, Knox Martin, Albert Stadler, Edward Avedisian, or dozens of others?
Important sculpture made in the sixties is also terribly lacking from this show. In the 1960s, David Smith produced a series of multi-colored painted steel sculpture, the powerful welded steel Voltri Series that were mostly black; and his Cubi Series, a large body of abstract, geometric, unpainted, stainless steel sculptures that were among his greatest masterpieces. Smith's work of the sixties had a close relationship to the paintings of his younger friends Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, and Smith's work influenced the work of Sir Anthony Caro as well as a new generation of American and English sculptors. The clean shapes and lines of the Cubi Series transcended any residue of Abstract Expressionism and prefigured the direction that abstract sculpture took in the hands of the younger generation. But there is no trace of either Smith's later work or the work of the younger Americans.
Following stain painting we are treated to single works by Larry Rivers, Fairfield Porter, David Park, Alex Katz, Edward Hopper, a figurative Richard Diebenkorn and a Bob Thompson in the stairwell to the mezzanine which collectively covers figure painting in America for the past fifty years. In spite of an unbroken stream of high quality figurative painting and sculpture in America, the Whitney Museum offers only a severely abridged sampling. Where is Milton Avery, Marisol, Jan Müller, George McNeil, Will Barnet, Elmer Bischoff, Nathan Oliveira, James Weeks, Paul Wonner, Manuel Neri, Joan Brown, Jane Freilicher, Nell Blaine, Elaine de Kooning, Robert de Niro Sr., Louisa Matthiasdottir, Leland Bell, Wolf Kahn, Alfred Leslie, Charles Cajori, Irving Petlin, Mercedes Matter, Marcia Marcus, Chaim Gross, Leonard Baskin, Paul Resika, Susan Crile, Ann McCoy, Red Grooms, Audrey Flack, Janet Fish, Robert Beauchamp, Jay Milder, William Bailey, John Clem Clarke, Lennart Anderson, Jack Beal, Paul Georges, Robert Barnes, James McGarrell, or Neil Welliver? On the fourth floor there are two Philip Pearlsteins, another Alex Katz, a Richard Estes, a Robert Bechtle, a Chuck Close and lots of Pop Art. According to the Whitney, Neil Jenney, Susan Rothenberg, David Salle, Eric Fischl, Philip Guston, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, along with a few other Neo-Expressionists in the seventies are the so-called rescuers of figure painting who brought it back to life - that fiction is reserved to the third floor.
Theater of the Ridiculous
As you keep traveling along the fifth floor into the Anti-Art movement, you see excerpts from a film about Marcel Duchamp, Silence, Sea and Marcel Duchamp, (1968 and 1994), paraphernalia from the Fluxus group, and an homage to Alan Kaprow, Nam June Paik and Happenings. There are three Robert Rauschenbergs, including his famous erased de Kooning drawing, notes by John Cage, and four Jasper Johns pieces including Three Flags (1958). The highlight of this part of the exhibition is the tour de force The Rose, (1958-66) by Jay DeFeo that is truly a remarkable work. Other works include: a John Chamberlain sculpture, sexy photographs by Carolee Schneeman, two Bruce Conner pieces, a Lee Bontecou on the wall, a Cy Twombly, five Ray Johnson collages, a Wallace Berman, an Edward Kienholz, three mixed media works by Jess, a sculpture by Frederick Keisler, photographs by Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Robert Frank, William Klein, and Roy DeCarava, and three Romare Bearden collages. It is surprising how minor and uninteresting most of this work looks. It's also surprising not to see Joseph Cornell's collaged boxes in this context, but then this is the world according to the Whitney.
The fourth floor, entitled America at The Crossroads: 1960s into the 1970s is the strongest and most coherent of all the floors with its garish displays of Pop Art and its homage to Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. However the works on display represent the re-capitulation of American art to European influence, as nearly all the works on the fourth floor have a European flavor; showing the influences of both Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys. Pop Art is well represented by Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, George Segal, Jim Dine, Wayne Thiebaud, Tom Wesselmann, Duane Hanson, and Ed Ruscha. Minimalism is presented with cold, colorless, black, white or gray paintings and sculptures by the usual suspects including: Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Tuttle, Robert Irwin, a red Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, Jo Baer, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, Tony Smith, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Carl Andre, Richard Serra, Robert Morris, a blue John McCracken, Louise Nevelson, and a wall drawing by Sol Lewitt. Post-Minimalists' works (the school of Joseph Beuys) include tame, cute, dreary, giddy and listless pieces by Bruce Nauman, Mel Bochner, Robert Smithson, Barry Le VA, Linda Benglis, William Anastasi, Richard Artschwager, and some not so cute pieces by Louise Bourgeois whose works are more appropriate in this context, Gordon Matta-Clark, Lucas Samaras, and an intense piece by Eva Hesse, missing is Alan Saret whose wire sculptures should have been included. There are interesting photographs by Diane Arbus, Danny Lyon, and Garry Winogrand. Ironically work that emanated from mostly American roots is left out of the fourth floor and from the remainder of the exhibition, with only few exceptions. The fourth floor contains the most glaring omissions of important American painting and sculpture and the Whitney Museum's most egregious acts of self-censorship, suppressions and affronts to American art and to American artists I've ever seen - making this exhibition a ludicrous travesty.
The Whitney museum's one-eyed view, doesn't explain that the art world was at a crossroads at the end of the sixties. Abstraction splintered into opposing camps, and representational art also splintered into opposing camps. These splits were characterized at the time as Formalism versus Anti-Formalism. In one direction, American artists struggled with convention, materials, and process to articulate a more personal expressivity, addressing aesthetics, political and social issues both metaphorically and literally through their work. In what I consider to be the strongest mainstream of American art, (continuing the powerful tradition that emanated directly from American artists like David Smith, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Milton Avery, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Clyfford Still, Robert Motherwell, Hans Hofmann, and others), American artists created painting and sculpture that explored and expanded the vocabulary and boundaries of visual expression. Unfortunately, the Whitney Museum doesn't show many works after the mid-sixties that issued from this direction.
Instead, the Whitney Museum chose to exhibit works by artists that returned to European influence. Most of the artists of the sixties and seventies that the Whitney features were influenced by and created derivative variations of the work of Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Dubuffet, and various other European Dadaists and Surrealists. Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Post-Minimalism, Eccentric Abstraction, Neo-Expressionism and whatever came next were influenced directly by the German artist Joseph Beuys, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Dubuffet, Giorgio Morandi, and other European painters and sculptors. Many of them struggled to address social and political issues exclusively, describing through signs, symbols and process, their conceptions of anti-art, and anti-form, in a detached, impersonal and often ironic way. Disregarding convention and tradition many Minimalists and Post-Minimalists embraced the notion of shock as an end in itself. Most of the work featured in this exhibition is reflective of politically oriented art emanating from Europe since the early sixties. Starting with Pop Art, and its antecedents, most American art showcased at the Whitney Museum are works with literal content that address only one side of the so-called critical, intellectual dialectic.
The Whitney Museum would have done well had it shown at least some of the other mainstream of American art in depth. At the risk of being redundant where are the major 1960s-1970s Abstract Expressionist, Colorfield, Hard-edge, or Lyrical Abstractionist paintings of Robert Motherwell, Hans Hofmann, Morris Louis, Adolph Gottlieb, Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Sam Francis, Larry Poons, Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Stella, Ron Davis, Gene Davis, Jules Olitski, Ellsworth Kelly, Friedel Dzubas, Al Held, Ray Parker, Neil Williams, John Mclaughlin, Jack Bush, Ed Moses, Walter Darby Bannard, Sam Gilliam, Ronnie Landfield, Peter Young, Dan Christensen, Joan Snyder, Pat Lipsky, Stephen Mueller, Stanley Boxer, Joe Goode, Larry Zox, Jack Whitten, Lee Lozano, Charles Hinman, Robert Natkin, Thomas Downing, John Griefen, Doug Ohlson, Tom Holland, Jack Youngerman, Sandi Slone, Edward Avedisian, David Novros, David Prentice, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Chuck Arnoldi, Laddie Dill, Dennis Ashbaugh, Kikuo Saito, Carol Sutton, Frances Barth, Harriet Korman, Ralph Humphrey, William Pettet, Lawrence Stafford, Jake Berthot, Paul Feeley, Al Loving, Ludwig Sander, Nassos Daphnis, Paul Jenkins, David Diao, Frank Bowling, Harvey Quaytman, Katherine Porter, Ed Ruda, Alan Cote, David Budd, Leo Valledor, Alan Shields, Natvar Bhavsar, Francine Tint, John Seery, Carol Haerer, Philip Wofford, Thornton Willis, Carl Glicko, Dorothea Rockburne, Bill Jensen, David Reed, Gary Stephen, and where is abstract sculpture? Important sculptors like: Larry Bell, Robert Hudson, Beverly Pepper, Ann Truitt, Alexander Liberman, Christopher Wilmarth, Michael Steiner, Robert Murray, Peter Reginato, Robert Grosvenor, Stephen Antonakas, Willard Boepple, James Wolfe, Guy Dill, Forrest Myers, Mel Kendrik, Sylvia Stone, Michael Todd, Joel Perlman, Ronald Bladen, Isaac Witkin, and dozens of others are missing.
While the Whitney Museum cannot be expected to show works by all of the artists listed above, basic credibility requires the recognition and acknowledgment of the achievement and existence of those important artists and movements. But the refusal to even recognize many of the artists I've listed above goes far beyond just this show or just this museum. This is not a dismissal of failed directions; it is a massive cover-up. Serious, insidious, and egregious acts of re-writing art history, self-censorship, and suppression currently infects most of our art institutions. This project of revising art history is on a big scale. I can't say why all this censorship is taking place, although its been going on for decades.
Much of the work left out of the Whitney Museum's exhibition should be seen especially in the context of the sixties, even if for only equal time. I can't get past the suppression, and censorship of sixties abstract painting and sculpture and painterly painting in general, because I don't see the best art of our time-they've left it out. After the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, America produced some of its greatest painting and sculpture - trust me- they will not let you see it. The Whitney Museum's view is cranky, ignorant, narrow, inaccurate, annoying and seems patently ridiculous to me. Their claim is that only a handful of abstract painters and sculptors working in the sixties were notable, and they were all Minimalists and this is stupid. The refusal to recognize and acknowledge living artists whose works are being made today and many of whose works are in the Whitney Museum's collection verges on the criminally insane. The Whitney Museum curators claim that it took some courageous mavericks in the seventies to reinvigorate painting; are they kidding? Painting never stopped being vigorous except to those close-minded bigots and their blind hatred of Clement Greenberg. To acknowledge the truth, these people first need to learn how to see. The art establishment's blind and close minded prejudice against anything it doesn't endorse, has alienated America's best artists. The best of American painters and sculptors, both abstract and representational, exist today in a disconnected, disenfranchised underground, paying terrible consequences, in an uphill struggle for recognition while creating a new, genuine avant-garde.
The work on the third and second floors cover the late seventies, eighties, and nineties. Nearly everything on the second and third floors looks derivative, and by early sixties standards would be classified as tenth-generation junk. Fortunately in the nineties we have to look at everything on its merits. Artists today who borrow and appropriate from other artists are held to a different standard and are called Neo. Perhaps the trashing of the Second Generation because their work looked derivative was a critical mistake and perhaps the treatment of Lyrical Abstraction ironically is bound by the same mistake, All art should be seen for its merits. Once again the museum treads a narrow trail showcasing artists that were newsworthy once upon a time and who tend to show in a small coterie of selected salon galleries. Here there are works to read, watch on television, or to examine via photo documentation. I don't object to this work, although some of the conceptual art seems tired. I do object to the physical condition of the yellow in Elizabeth Murray's painting Children Meeting, (1978), because it badly needs conservation. Frankly, I'm more interested in expressive, felt, visual art than idea art and when I encounter idea art en masse, as in this show I am offended by the pushing of so-called cerebral art at the expense of first rate, visual art.
It would be a laughable enterprise if it wasn't so pathetic and if art wasn't so important to so many people. The curators of this debacle seem to lack basic information, they show poor common sense and a nasty meanspiritedness permeates the show. The show does well in describing Beat Culture and it does well in presenting underground film and video, and a credible job in describing some of the movements of the past fifty years. But they describe - they don't convince. The more I think about this haphazard, disorganized, dangerously damaging show, the more I realize that it was put together with arrogant ignorance - rather like road rage. Perhaps this exhibition reflects twenty percent of an esoteric view of the art world according to Artforum, but what a waste of valuable time, energy, and resource, and what a shame. What is the Whitney Museum thinking? The exhibition is filled with false assumptions, hypocrisy, erroneous history, bad taste, foolish choices and worst of all - The Brooklyn Museum brouhaha stole all the thunder. What a shame for the poor Whitney Museum they have created a laughable and awful show and no one seems to care anymore.
Ronnie Landfield, NYC, October 1999