PRINT November 1966

The Show

THE WHITNEY MUSEUM HAS COME a long way since Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney institutional­ized her collection in 1931, and most of it has been downhill. The inaugural exhibition in its sleek new Madison Avenue quarters, Art of the United States: 1670–1966, is no exception to the general decline. Up from the storerooms have come all the standbys of a legion of Whitney an­nuals: Bernard Karfiol, Leon Kroll, Eugene Spei­cher, Abraham Rattner, Paul Cadmus, George Too­ker, et. al. The 19th-century works (borrowed for the occasion, since the Whitney long since dumped their own collection in order to buy contemporary works) can only be described as a random sam­pling. The great names––Eakins, Homer, Ryder, Sargent, Whistler, etc.––are there, but few of the great pictures have been assembled. The single exception, perhaps, is Eakins, who has several mas­terpieces in the show, including the superb, lumi­nous portrait of Miss van Buren.

Otherwise, the American Impressionists are badly represented, each looking like a poorman’s ex­ample of some French master, and Mary Cassatt looking like a wooden, over-painted version of herself. There are, of course, a few surprises: a strange religious painting by Ryder, and a brood­ing, melancholy Inness, whose Gothic landscape is a case of Symbolism avant la lettre.

The pictures are arranged chronologically, and the chronological order is the only order I could discern. Instead of using this occasion to make a few simple points about the development of American art, or to provide a context for its inter­pretation, Lloyd Goodrich has chosen an ahistor­ical presentation accounting for many curious juxtapositions which do not illuminate so much as they confuse. Such a disregard for historically crucial works amounts to irresponsibility on the part of an art museum. To take only two ex­amples, where are the pioneer abstractions of Walkowitz and Weber (just last winter a 1910 Walkowitz abstraction could have been purchased for $600)? And where are the surrealizing works of the Abstract Expressionists of the forties?

If art history has been ill served by such an ex­hibition, we might expect then that painting must be, at least, the benefactor. But the truth of the matter is that the 18th and 19th century selections seem an arbitrary assemblage of what was easily available, whereas the 20th-century examples amount to a near scandal. There are works here that do not belong in any museum, let alone the Whitney, among which I would number the inept Schnakenberg, the vulgar David Park, the shoddy Herman More and the unspeakable Bernard Re­der in the sculpture court. The curious thing is that, in its repugnance to “academic” art, a hang­over from the days when Mrs. Whitney supported the Ash Can school in its rebellion, the Whitney has neglected good academic painting, choosing in its stead slick (or even crude) illustrational works that look unacademic because they are freely rather than lightly painted and structured. More good solid academic work might have raised the general level of the exhibition, which is woe­fully low. In fact, even the greatest painters were often represented with second-rate examples.

What, then, is one to think of this exhibition? My first thought, to be honest, was that the Whit­ney must be party to a conspiracy to discredit American art. Since this was obviously absurd, I took the lack of quality simply to mean an inabil­ity to discern quality. For this is an exhibition without taste, without focus, and without imagi­nation.

Until recently, the Whitney bumbled along in­nocuously enough, the country cousin of the New York art world, mainly featuring the primitive, the provincial and the retardataire. Now, however, like every other American museum, the Whitney seems anxious to “get with it.” Getting with it in this case means buying work spotlighted in the mass media and collected by the dozen or so pacesetting collectors on New York’s cocktail­ party circuit. Superficially, this hardly seems cause for alarm. On second thought, however, one real­izes that a subtle change has. been wrought in the relationship of the patron group (museums, collec­tors) to present-day art styles. Previously, at least in the recent past in New York, taste was formed by artists and critics. An artist or style survived as he or it had critical or artistic support. This is no longer the case. Prominently on display at the Whitney are a number of works which have re­ceived no backing from either the artists’ com­munity or from critics. On the other hand, these works, which have in common a high degree of technical finish and some sort of novelty or gim­mick attraction, have been featured in the mass media and in the more plush collections.

The question that remains to be asked is whether the hip new uptown Whitney of Marisol and Trova is any worse than the schmaltzy old down­town Whitney of Ben Shahn and Leonard Baskin, even if both represent the same popular, lower-­middlebrow taste of the democratic mean. I think the answer is yes, because it swings more weight. For all practical purposes, the art museum, in con­cert with collectors and the mass media, is in a position to formulate style by deciding what will survive and what will be allowed to perish through neglect to a greater degree than formerly. Because the disappearance of the avant-garde has meant the fragmentation and finally the elimination of the artists’ community, replaced now by The Scene, that mythical nexus of perpetual fun, the museum has a crucial new role to play. This much the museums seem to have realized; but with this realization has come a crisis of identity. Is the museum today a church or a discotheque? (These seem to be the only two possibilities.) Is it a place of worship or a place of entertainment?

Part of this crisis of identity springs from the fact that our great New York museums have not altered their original identities as they have grown but not matured. Thus, the Modern still favors art reminiscent of Dada or Surrealism, the Guggen­heim remains more at home with some form of Expressionism, and the Whitney continues to cling to the nostalgic urban realism of the Eight, That this style was vulgarized in the thirties by the Regionalists and American Scene painters to be­come a mere parody of realism is not taken into consideration. If there is, in fact, one sad lesson to be learned at the Whitney, it is how American realism deteriorated from its apogee in Eakins to its nadir in the thirties and forties, Similarly, the strength of the genre tradition in 19th-century American painting gave no hint of its disappear­ance in the 20th century. For genre has been kept alive in America, not by a contemporary klein­meister like Morandi, but by Pop art. (By this time, the point that the homely verism of Peto and Harnett, with its collection of common objects, repre­sents a continuous tradition with the new painting of common objects has been made so often it is hardly worth making again.)

A few works in the show, had they been iso­lated in some meaningful context, might have shown the real virtues in American art. At the Whitney, however, the Man Ray, the Joseph Stella, the Hartley, the Covert, the Carles, the Storrs, are islands of quality in a sea of mediocrity.

For all practical purposes, there has not yet been a first-class exhibition of American art from its origins until the present; nor is there a truly outstanding historical collection of American art. The Whitney’s current exhibition only makes the need for such a show and such a collection pain­fully clear Why the Whitney is not busy planning exhibitions like the recent Synchromism and Color Principles––held, incidentally, at a commercial gallery––or the Federal Art Patronage exhibit held a few months ago at the University of Maryland, which brought into focus whole chapters in Amer­ican art, or why they are not organizing much­ needed retrospectives of Arthur Carles, John Gra­ham, John Storrs, or Morton Scharnberg, to name a few, is not, unfortunately, equally clear.

Is the art museum merely another of our con­temporary panem et circense, or is it a more seri­ous enterprise? This is the question to which the Whitney, along with its sister museums, must ad­dress itself.

––Barbara Rose