PRINT December 1969

Modern American Art at the Metropolitan Museum

WHEN THE NEW YORK TIMES’ Grace Glueck, in the first of the pre-opening puffs, called what was to become “New York Painting and Sculpture, 1940–1970,” simply “Henry’s Show,” one’s heart sank. So that was to be the way of it: America is given a culture by a handful of geniuses and the celebration of it, come at last, was to be just Henry Geldzahler’s show. Later, Time featured Henry leaning on a David Smith and New York Magazine had four pages of Henry along with some pictures from the exhibition, but smaller. In the end, Grace Glueck turned out to be right—it was Henry’s show, not because he painted all of those pictures (it became harder and harder to keep in mind that he painted not even one of them) but because there was no understanding the exhibition without referring to Geldzahler and his peculiar relations to the art of his time.

The exhibition is exquisite and rude, high-minded and petty, ravishingly beautiful and monumentally vulgar, and at no point can one be certain that one is dealing with a toughly thought out presentation rather than a series of irresponsible caprices. Had Henry Geldzahler, for example, truly pondered and deliberated, and having thus pondered and deliberated decided that Tony Smith was a greater artist than David Hare, Herbert Ferber, Louise Nevelson or Richard Stankiewicz? Had he considered deeply and concluded that Roy Lichtenstein and James Rosenquist were deserving of space in an exhibition with Pollock and Smith but that Jack Tworkov, Ray Parker, John Ferren and Conrad Marca-Relli were not? Had he really meant to divide a room between Guston and de Kooning while Stella and Noland are given a room each and Ellsworth Kelly is practically given a suite? Does he mean what he implies by showing late Motherwell but not late de Kooning? Does he really think that the only value of sculpture is to enhance paintings?

Yes and no. For Geldzahler has been true—consistently and ruthlessly true—to his own experience, and he is plain in recounting to us in the catalog essay what that experience has been. It has not been an experiencing of art (about the experiencing of art there is nothing) so much as an experiencing of the art world, of dealers and galleries and museums and collectors and magazines and critics. It is a milieu the worst part of which consists of hypocritical art profiteers and mental go-go girls, but the best part of which can more or less be defined as that group in American society which passionately shares the belief that Jackson Pollock and David Smith are cultural figures of an importance equalled only by the like of Herman Melville or Walt Whitman. Geldzahler came into it at a time when de Kooning was being cannibalized by swarms of gestural artists professing to be recording their “actions,” and his earliest enthusiasms were for artists of another persuasion: Stella, Frankenthaler, Noland, Olitski, Chamberlain, Johns, Rauschenberg. Admiring them, he admired the artists they admired—Pollock, then Hofmann, later Newman and Louis—and the critics they, or most of them, admired, Greenberg above all.

Another side of Henry (or maybe the same side) was attracted instantly to Pop, to having his picture taken floating about in Happenings, to underground movies and to assiduously attending art world parties at which he met the people who bought the paintings and who, because of Henry, bought more paintings, and better paintings. And as Henry convinced more and more people that an artist like Clyfford Still might be at least as central to our life as a culture as, say, Philip Roth, even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, dedicated to the exhibition and collection of great art, finally came to exhibit and collect the great art that had been born on its doorstep. In this sense, too, it is “Henry’s Show.” No Henry, no show.

Experience of the kind Geldzahler describes doesn’t disqualify one from putting on a show like “New York Painting,” and one wonders why Hilton Kramer thinks that it should. In its main outlines the show argues that the movement of the best art made in America extends from Pollock, Smith and the artists of the First Generation to Louis, Frankenthaler, Noland, Stella, Olitski, Johns and Rauschenberg. Although Mr. Kramer suggests that the exhibition called for a more heavily accredited “authority” with less “received ideas” than Geldzahler, it is difficult to imagine what kind of authority would have produced a show substantially different in its basic outlines. To be sure, someone like William Rubin, say, would not have allowed himself the eccentricities of the Geldzahler show, might have been more generous in his treatment of the fifties and certainly would have been more consistent with regard to sculpture, but the general argument of the exhibition would have remained the same. Besides, in modern art especially, it has been established more than once that “authority” does not make the show: the show makes the authority. Peter Selz has proven the former and Henry Geldzahler, it seems to me, has proven the latter, for he has put together an exhibition of American art of the past 30 years as beautiful as any we are ever likely to see again.

Quite simply, the exhibition represents great taste, and this taste in the end overrides the rudeness, the imbalances and eccentricities. The level of taste is maintained unimpeachably in most of the early rooms of the exhibition, those devoted to the first generation Abstract Expressionists. Still, Hofmann, Gorky, Rothko, Tomlin and Kline are each represented by a group of paintings of remarkable overall quality. The Hofmann room seemed to me superb, and probably the finest moment in the exhibition. The paintings by Franz Kline measured up to the Stills in the same room in a manner I could not have imagined, and Geldzahler deserves thanks, if for nothing else, for restoring to Kline the status he had held prior to the dismal retrospective organized by the Whitney’s authorities last year. The room Gottlieb and Motherwell shared dropped a bit; Motherwell’s Africa seemed terribly bombastic and messed up the scale of all the works, and the Gottlieb sculpture, a dumb, happy, totally unserious thing took over the room like a kind of good-natured, overgrown puppy. The surprise was in a small adjoining room, where a beautifully chosen group of small, early works by both Motherwell and Gottlieb achieved a dimension of dignity that one would have thought impossible for smaller works in this exhibition; the room is one of the show’s high moments.

De Kooning is treated shabbily. Sharing a room with Guston, who hardly provides a foil, he is represented by too many Pink Angel pictures, and, unlike Newman, Motherwell or any number of younger painters, is denied any recent work at all. The grudge represented by this spiteful treatment is a grudge against 10th Street and the excesses of the late fifties, but it is a grudge that has long since died in others and should have long since died in the Curator of Contemporary Art at the Met. (This will not be the only instance in which Geldzahler’s insistence on being true to his experience rather than re-evaluating it will damage the exhibition and throw his judgment into question.) The Reinhardts looked thin and tinny—perhaps because they were confined to a very small room; very much the same pictures looked much more impressive in Maurice Tuchman’s First Generation exhibition several years ago. The attempt to re-create the splendid Pasadena installation of Cornell by Walter Hopps failed rather badly; what was intimate and jewellike in the context of the Cornell retrospective in the old Pasadena Art Museum was theatrical and precious in the context of this exhibition, but there was something admirable and fraternal, nevertheless, in inviting a colleague from another institution to install the works of an artist with whom he is especially familiar.

The high level of taste in the individual selections drops badly in the rooms of the ludicrously over-represented Ellsworth Kelly. Hilton Kramer correctly protested an entire roomful of Kelly drawings in the absence of similar attention to the drawings of de Kooning or Gorky. But in addition, Kelly’s sculpture, which has yet to attain the state of utter, Matisse-like simplicity for which it strives, is represented by five examples in an exhibition which contains no more than five Calders, four Judds and three Chamberlains. Louis, Frankenthaler, Noland and Stella are all adversely affected by a decision to present a sampling of their various periods in preference to a strong selection from one or two of their best series while Olitski is hurt by a decision to do just that. And in every case except perhaps Frankenthaler, a chronological installation would have greatly enhanced the presentation. Stella’s room looked especially disorderly, dominated as it was by an uninspired and eccentric 40-foot long picture, Sangre de Christo, though the quality of the other selections was extremely high. The exact and particular decisions each represented in terms of color, shape and scale were lost in the disorder of the installation.

While almost every Stella period was touched on, several critical Noland periods were ignored: no pre-1961 paintings were shown, though they look better with each passing year, and none of the “cat’s-eye” series were represented. Nor did it seem to me that either Via Lime or Trans-Median conveyed a sense of the extraordinary level of the paintings of the past two years. The decision to exhibit several pre-1960 Olitskis (which, unlike pre-1960 Nolands are of no interest at all) and no Olitskis from the period between 1960 and 1965, was one of the most arbitrary in the exhibition. Here we are done a serious disservice, for we are permitted no opportunity to gauge for ourselves the success of Olitski’s lifelong struggle with the Surrealist dreamscape. To have simply excised five years out of Olitski’s mature career represents one of the most inexplicably senseless decisions in the exhibition.

The Johns and Rauschenberg rooms are among the most impressive in the exhibition, with works chosen carefully and with confidence from the artists’ best periods. Surprisingly, the works of Johns that are shown do not convey either Stella’s debt to him or Robert Morris’s, but works like Device Circle, Painting with Two Balls, Screen Piece, Jubilee and (especially) False Start instead point to where only three other works in the exhibition point: outside the Museum, to the literalism and problem-solving that characterize such artists as Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra and Peter Young. In Rauschenberg’s room, the big surprise is Factum I and Factum II. A generation of critics appear to have understood these works as a kind of exposé of Action Painting, the frenzy that inspired Factum I supposedly casually and deliberately being repeated in Factum II. But Factum I turns out not to be especially frenzied and Factum II is specifically different rather than the same in almost every detail. In fact, the pair seems to be more about how different two “same” pictures can be than how “same” two different pictures can be, more about the impossibility of choosing which one is “better” than which one is genuinely spontaneous.

The room devoted to Larry Poons is one of the most successful in the show, and it is here that we can see how a more or less chronological hanging helps a clear and orderly presentation. One of Poons’ most recent pictures, Night Journey rounds out the exhibition perfectly, for the picture irresistibly points, even to its title, to the spirit of the late ’40s in the work of the older generation of artists on whose shoulders the entire exhibition rests. It is as if Poons has sensed, at this stage in his career, that if there is to be such greatness again then one must begin again. But of course, to begin again does not mean to paint as they painted in their beginnings, but to be lost, as they were lost, to be desperate, as they were desperate, to be as totally without a sense of what to do as they were.

Had the exhibition ended with Poons, the difficult and ungenerous view which it takes of recent American art would have been more than simply defensible—it would have been, if not “definitive” (as Hilton Kramer would have liked) certainly the standard view. For if the show was proposing to exhibit only works the quality of which seemed to be more or less beyond question it had for the most part done it magnificently, and in good measure the magnificence lay in the toughness, even rudeness, with which Geldzahler had dismissed from the exhibition those works which did not meet that criterion. But Poons’s room is followed by three galleries full of Pop art, an art whose quality is not only not more or less beyond question, but whose quality is questioned by Geldzahler himself in the catalog essay. Once, of course, the exhibition is opened to work whose quality may yet prove high, to work which “may well find its converts and adherents in unexpected future corners and pockets of major art,” then hosts of artists come out of the shadows and claim their right to the same generous view of their possible future influence.

Why commit such a blunder? Again because Geldzahler is being true to his experience, and a vital part of his experience was his early defense, at a considerable risk to his own career, of Pop art, and his patronage of the movement extended right up to the exhibition of Rosenquist’s F-111 at the Met in 1967. Simply unable to apply the standards of the exhibition as a whole as rigorously to those as to other artists, he opens himself painfully to Kramer’s charge that “energy and enthusiasm” have replaced the “clear intellectual” authority needed for the exhibition.

A second blunder, considerably more serious, is the show’s treatment of sculpture. About sculpture Geldzahler seems to be in possession of only a single conviction, that of the greatness of David Smith, but even this is insufficient to prompt Geldzahler to give Smith a room of his own. Throughout the exhibition sculpture is simply deposited in the rooms that deserve it, used as message-carrying markers. Thus the Pollock and Stella rooms are heavily planted with David Smiths—something IMPORTANT is always signalled by a David Smith. De Kooning and Guston only get a Gabe Kohn (message: “Three Dear Souls”); Johns gets a Chamberlain (message: “Two Stars of the Late Fifties”); Poons gets a di Suvero (message: “Young Painter, Young Sculptor Carrying on the Great Tradition”).

While Geldzahler would never think of showing David Smith’s or John Chamberlain’s occasional paintings, he sees no problem in showing Gottlieb’s, and Newman’s and Olitski’s occasional sculpture (which, whatever they are serious about, are not serious about sculpture), a fact which lifetime sculptors such as Nevelson or Ferber or Hare have a right to find galling. For, by its exclusions, the exhibition is proposing that subsequent to David Smith an entire generation passed before anything of consequence happened in sculpture again. It is a very tough statement, but not one that could not be defended. But to bypass that generation in order to land on Tony Smith, Noguchi and Gabe Kohn is simply to do violence in no cause. After the David Smith the best piece of sculpture in the exhibition is Don Judd’s huge, heavy and perfectly scaled new box, and Geldzahler might just as well have gone straight to it and had done with it. Then, at least, his position would have been clear and the exhibition as a whole might have come to some sort of sensible, if difficult, conclusion. As it is, no one is happy.

Had this exhibition been held in 1960, the youngest artist in it would probably have been Jasper Johns. In his work would have been hints of the oncoming Stella and the developing Noland, of Robert Morris and even of the Pop artists to come. No single figure in the current exhibition even hints, as Johns would have ten years ago, at the kind of art consciousness that has been developing among many younger artists although, in addition to the Johns’s previously mentioned, the new Judd box, the Flavin room and Rosenquist’s Tumbleweed all make motions in that direction. (With none of his grease, mud or process pieces in the exhibition, Morris is simply muzzled down to a Minimal artist circa 1966.) The figure needed to bring out these suggestions and indicate the manner in which their implications have been picked up and extended is, of course, Carl Andre, and Geldzahler’s failure to include him is a part of the same failure to think things through that characterizes his treatment of sculpture generally.

As it is, Judd’s box and Rosenquist’s Tumbleweed will have to stand for the directions sculpture has taken in the work of Andre, Sonnier, Nauman, Smithson, Heizer, Serra, Bollinger, and Saret. Less than 15 years after Pollock’s death, Conceptual Art has come to passing its messages on the back of index cards, Michael Heizer has dropped a steel ball fifty feet to the pavement of the Kunsthalle at Berne, Robert Smithson is covering an island with broken glass, Richard Serra has built a work in an Alhambra steel foundry too heavy for the floors of any museum in the world. It is as if their main concern is that, whatever happens, “American Painting and Sculpture, 1970–1980” will be an impossibility. The cultural shock waves of “Pollock and those guys” seem hardly to have begun.

Philip Leider