PRINT April 1972

The Whitney Annual, Part I

THE ELEVATOR DOORS SLIDE OPEN. It’s not really like a curtain going up, but it does provide the only well-thought-out moment of curatorial theater in the entire show: the first glimpse of a four-paneled “work” in which Cy Twombly, Larry Poons, Virginia Jaramillo, and Nancy Graves are jumbled together to strike this year’s keynote—which they do, more or less. Twombly reaches back to the ’50s, coming to rest (for curatorial purposes) somewhere near the end of the ’60s. He’s the “old” old-timer, Poons the “young” one who pushes the ’60s up to the present. Graves, the aging rookie, is there to imply a future based on solid beginnings, and Jaramillo, the fresh rookie, stands for the unknown quantities intended to give this show its real buzz.

All except Jaramillo are interested in getting out from under traditional composition—yet, brought together this way, their paintings form a composition of the most tedious sort. Beginning at the left with Twombly’s soft gray, nonchalantly scribbled canvas, the line of this curatorial “work” veers upward with Poons’ high-keyed bravura. It peaks to the right of center with Jaramillo’s first appearance, sharp, contrasty, “classy,” and then turns down with Graves’ neopointillist surface, high-keyed but softer than Poons’ cracked one. This imaginary line is counterpointed: there are two men and two women; Twombly and Jaramillo are linear and slick, while the other two are rough; Poons and Twombly show the master’s touch, while the women avoid it. The canvas by aging rookie Graves has its superficial resemblance to some by Peter Young. He is a “young” old-timer like Poons, and this brings the compositional line to rest, giving its fourth segment an echoed equivalence to its second.

For this curatorial “work” to be assembled, each of the four paintings in it had to be generalized out of its individuality—that is, dismantled into formal and historical fragments, some of which are made to serve, the rest ignored. This is most damaging for Jaramillo. Her green line on its purple ground is a pretty close approximation of the line of the curatorial “work” itself, but this (outrageous) meaning has of course been imposed by the context, how consciously it isn’t necessary to know. The deliberateness with which painters’ intentions are ignored, even defied, in the presentation of this show could belong to unformulated bureaucratic instinct, to fully enunciated—but unrevealed—policy, or to a combination of both. The last is most probable, but after all it isn’t important to decide: the deliberateness is the point. The responsibility for it rests with the curators who selected the paintings, James Monte, Marcia Tucker, and Richard Doty.

As I said, Jaramillo is made to stand for the unknown future. This is too much strain for her painting to bear, with its hard-edged, mid-’60s look. One assumes that from the curatorial point of view the strain is borne by the extra-artistic fact that Jaramillo is appearing here for the first time. It’s an honor, of sorts, to be onstage when the curtain goes up, but it’s also a denial that she has any intentions of her own. Graves doesn’t stand up to these compositional pressures much better than Jaramillo does. Poons and Twombly do all right, considering they had no chance to anticipate the problem.

This composing goes on throughout the show, but nowhere else do the curators create a “work” with the internal coherence of the keynote piece. In the four-part assemblage centered on Darby Bannard, the compositional theme is rectangular shape—and the effect is blinding irrelevance. It’s true that Jim Sullivan, Richard Anuszkiewicz, and Bannard use vertical rectangles in the paintings hung together here. And it’s true that these various usages could be illuminated by certain juxtapositions—I’d like to see this year’s Bannard next to this year’s Bolotowsky—but juxtaposition works in the event only to abstract a simpleminded notion of rectangular and vertical from paintings whose connections to each other are at best tangential. Sullivan’s scraped rectangles, Bannard’s carefully balanced ones, and Anuszkiewicz’ mechanical repetitions of the edge offer each other very little mutual clarification. A play of imposition and evasion occurs in this portion of the “work.” The curatorial thematics only trivialize form.

There are plenty of other abstractions containing rectangles in this show. Any one of them could have been substituted for any one of these without any loss or gain in meaninglessness. This particular incoherence has been presented because the slack in its theme based on shape is taken up by a historical progression based on color: from Anuszkiewicz’ Op to Bannard’s field color, and on to Sullivan’s late ’60s lyricism.

But Op art doesn’t locate itself along the line that connects Bannard and Sullivan—so Poussette-Dart’s large color disc is hauled in to suggest that the color line can be bent into a curve and joined where ’50s color turns into Poussette-Dart’s transcendental pointillism. A theme appears in these curatorial assemblages only to disappear under the scatterbrained pressures exerted by another. The keynote “work” is not so elusive, not so pointlessly open-ended as the rest, but it too has a denial of itself built in: it employs only abstractions, and yet it introduces a show filled with realist paintings.

It will be suggested that one ignore the way the exhibit is presented. This is impossible, unless the viewer is either so naive he doesn’t notice the arrangement, or is to some extent in sympathy with the diluted formalism guiding it, in which case he will devise an attitude of accommodation. The trouble with both the naive and the collaborative visions is that they ruin the capacity to experience individual quality when it appears.

To consider the difficulty in terms directed at the shortcomings of collaborative vision: an art work arrives from a specific context, not from a transcendental realm of formal and historical values. This originating context is not a real space; it is the “intentional space” of reflexively grasped (that is, esthetic) perception which the viewer reconstructs to find a work’s individual meaning. This space obviously cannot be duplicated by the literal space of a gallery. At best, the lighting and arrangement of the works leave an opening to it. When an artist has no control over the literal context of his work, as in a group show at a museum, he can only hope that the context will be neutral—that the curators will have no “artistic,” transcendentalizing intentions of their own. This, as everybody knows and we’ve seen in some detail, is not the case at the Whitney Annual. The show is an extravaganza of curatorial “creations.”

The grid does get more explicit as one goes from Virginia Barr to Jane Thorne to Kenneth Noland to Richard Diebenkorn—though the logic of this progression should put Noland in the fourth spot. If it’s answered that this logic wasn’t imposed, then it must be asked why Noland and Diebenkorn are together at all: Noland would be more visible next to Stella, and Diebenkorn next to Okada. The notion of the grid in effect here is so abstract as finally to literalize itself in an extra-artistic game of pattern recognition, which removes these paintings from anything like their own contexts. The appeal is to values higher than the ones informing individual works. This puts a certain mystery on the side of the curators, but it’s an appallingly hokey mystery—and it sets the tone of the exhibit.

Al Held’s architecture is placed next to William Omwake’s soft spangled pattern. Paintings can comment on each other, but not, as here, if they don’t speak the same language. Perhaps it’s being suggested that they employ variations on the same alphabet. Perhaps not. The fact is, they don’t. At any rate, this juxtaposition only makes sense somewhere entirely outside perception; and the younger painter suffers unnecessarily from it. If Stella can’t be near Noland, he should be near Harvey Quaytman, who also plays off illusionary space against literal shape—a device which still requires an accurate description, among other things. But Stella is placed between Jasper Johns and Peter Plagens; Quaytman is next to Marvin Brown, who is concerned only with literal shape and the process of creating and clarifying it. Quaytman’s balance is upset by Brown’s singleness. His piece is all-too-undeniably and literally there. It takes on an aggressiveness which Brown does not intend. The two are crowded into a corner, and this induces the architecture of the building to intrude in its own way.

John Clem Clarke’s close-up of brushstrokes hangs next to one of Lichtenstein’s mirrors. This naturally recalls the latter’s brushstrokes, to which Clarke’s pay homage. Here is the one acceptable juxtaposition in the show—acceptable because Clarke seems to ask for it, and Lichtenstein doesn’t seem to mind. Joe Haske and Frances Barth would never have asked for the placement they’ve been given. Their paintings are side by side; the different greens in them clash so badly that they’re turned into defenses against each other. The separate paintings are obscured. Dissonance alternates with a make-believe cogency: Stella is put next to Plagens because their paintings both show acute angles, and both are tannish in very different ways—one never has to go very far for dissonance.

The more one sees, the more one sees vision obstructed; unless one’s vision is naive or collaborative, in which event the show is more acceptable because less visible. I should say: the more the reflexive individual sees, the more he suffers a two-fold alienation; first from works of quality, which are intended as themselves, not as occasions for curatorial thematics; and then from his own experience, the limits to which are set in this show by the self-preservative device of dismissing as trivial what is profound, the perception that art has been arranged here to block perception. The inane, contradictory themes of the curatorial “works” which make up the Annual are not, however, intended simply as the obstacles to perception that they are. They work as distractions from purposes I’ll discuss in Part II of this article, where the focus will shift from presentation to selection—to questions of racial and sex quotas; of other, less publicly acknowledged pressures on the curators; and of the curators’ relationship to the trustees and to bureaucratic values in general.

But there is still more to say about the look of this show. Its arrangement may trivialize experience, but taxonomic functions can be carried out here just as easily as anywhere else—perhaps more easily. Aside from the expected influx of realist painting, photo and other, there are the usual number of works by long established painters. They are put in a separate category with its own history and formal “logic.” It goes from Norman Bluhm to de Kooning; scattered through both floors of the exhibit, it is a tasteful, if hopelessly distorting, “work” on its own.

There is as much soft stain painting as one would expect—it takes up roughly 20% of the show. There is not quite as much geometric painting. But these categories are blurred and expanded by the one new trend to be seen this year: an emergence of texture, as distinct from shape or pattern, in abstract painting. Perhaps more a tendency than a trend, this development has been showing up in galleries and studios since last spring. Its immediate sources can be seen in Robert Ryman and Brice Marden—not included in the show—and Poons. In part it is no more than a calculated extension of the possibilities for the surface inherent in all post-’60s abstraction, “lyrical,” tough, and/or fake-’50s. It is an attempt to get something new from the tired resurgence of painterliness; and it is a way to make a painting more objectlike without engaging the “rigors” of Minimalist theory.

This texturing can be a reduction of geometry—see Jack Whitten’s scraped, ribbed Golden Spaces. It can be roughed-up staining—Edward Scher’s Spectre, which maintains the shapes of stain painting with negative drawing. Texture can be a general notion of abstract painterliness regularized somewhat—David Budd’s Chih Ming. It shows an influence beyond abstraction in Malcolm Morley’s rougher-than-ever New York. The best use of texture is made by Mary Heilmann and Elizabeth Murray, semi-abstractionists whose images arrive (in a minor way) from texture itself, rather than “looking through” texture arbitrarily imposed.

Most of the painters wanting credit for going along with this tendency combine a banal texture with a standard concept of geometry or staining, as with Scher and Whitten. The results of these manipulations are of low quality, naturally enough, for they reflect the generalized formal and historical notions which guided the arrangement of the show. Value is suppressed here temporarily when a good painting is badly placed, permanently when the principles behind bad placement are deciphered in advance and internalized. Where a painter has so thoroughly ingratiated himself into this setting, principles of selection and of presentation become identical. Not all the obstructions here—the false thematics and dissonant connections—can be blamed on the curators. Some of them occur, not between paintings, but within them. They are the responsibility of painters who make themselves the artist’s equivalent of the viewer with collaborative vision.

Further examples: Ernest Frazier and Guy Williams have found ways to combine geometry and texture; Williams’ is a geometric depiction of texture. Blythe Bohnen, Nancy Van Deren, and Howardina Pindell give variously stained-in depictions of texture, Van Deren and Bohnen adding geometrical organization. We return to literal texture with Tony Robbin—who makes it a depiction of Pollock’s dripping and Olitski’s staining. He also includes staining and geometry. Pat Steir is another who combines all three—texture is depicted here, along with a small flower.

Curatorial and artistic collaboration arrives at its sorry extreme in Brad Davis’ Untitled, an amalgam of staining, geometry, texturalized painterliness, depicted texture and Pop demonism, this last in an image taken from Nazi iconography and rendered in manner derived, perhaps, from photo-realism. This painting is monstrous in style and imagery, but it ingratiates itself with its setting in such a bumbling way that it ends up looking harmless. Davis is a monster of harmlessness.

The curatorial touch favors bad artists and obscures good ones. Bill Conlon, for example, could be seen in this show as another style and history manipulator. He runs through most of the current options for abstract painting—and his textures are among the most ingenious on view. However, his painting has enough strength, not to defend itself, but at least to recall his last show quite vividly—and to remind one that he did establish his own terms there. A painting can be lost here because it is in accord with the curators’ values, or because it is independent of them. Low visibility in this show is not a sign of low quality, though it would be in a show arranged coherently—or randomly. And high visibility is not a sign of high quality here. Tom Wesselmann’s Bedroom Painting Number 25 stands out, but at this point it has the impact of a too familiar, too calculatingly designed piece of furniture. Perhaps, as an unevolved representative Pop art, it is intended by the curators to draw on the sense of history a viewer with naive vision might be expected to command.

Carter Ratcliff