PRINT March 1973

Institution: Whitney Annual

ART CRITICS AND JOURNALISTS tend to treat the Whitney Annual as an occasion to exert themselves a little. Faced with the potpourri, barometer, cross section, or mishmash as the Annual has been variously called, critics like to take stock of the current scene and write a think piece rather than a straight review. These are almost always perfunctory, shallow, and self-confirming; for instance, James Mellow will reflect on “The Death of the Avant-Garde” or Emily Genauer will dismiss the artists: “File Them Under Junk.” In general, critical reaction has been dutiful if not enthusiastic, but with an intensification of interest in 1966 when the new building on Madison Avenue opened. Now the Annual has been turned into a Biennial or rather back into a Biennial, which is what the exhibition was called for the first four years of its existence. This detail suggests that the continuity of the Whitney exhibitions may be more significant than their changes, which could be why writers, accustomed to celebrating or reviling the new, have not managed to write very well about it: it stays the same. What I want to do, first, is to consider the survey shows (hereafter to be called Annuals for convenience) as an institution and to look for recurrent rather than new features.

In 1932, ’34, and ’36, the Whitney arranged “Biennial Exhibitions of Contemporary American Painting” and in 1933 and ’35, “Biennial Exhibitions of Contemporary American Sculpture, Watercolors, and Prints.” This amounted to an annual survey show but with biennial media differentiation. In 1937 this form was changed to two annual shows a year, with sculpture usually in the spring and painting in late fall. In 1940 the first “Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Art” combined all the media. Thereafter, the format of the Annuals varied for a year or so, with the last combined show being held in 1943–44. After this time the Annuals alternated between painting and sculpture until this year, in which the exhibition became an all-media Biennial. These changes in procedure do not represent goal changes; they are simply a coping mechanism of a daily sort.

Juliana Force wrote in the first catalogue: “In presenting the first Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, the Whitney Museum of American Art is following a precedent established by almost every important art museum in the United States of holding annually large and important exhibitions of American art.” It was to be a “comprehensive-type of exhibition in which the recent work of American artists may be seen.”1 The same criteria of comprehensiveness and recency are maintained by John I. H. Baur’s statement of 1970: “The purpose of the Annuals has always been to survey the current state of American art. Hence only recent works are shown.”2 These matching statements, 38 years apart, are a clear sign of the stability of the institution and suggest also one reason for the Annual’s present crisis. If we consider the Whitney Museum as an organization, it has an output, a product, in the form of exhibitions and publications. The stable output, however, is inserted into an environment that has changed a great deal. I view the museum’s survey shows as a case of output failure, unresponsive to the present level of information and to the interests of its audience.

The immediate model for the Whitney shows, as Ms. Force acknowledges implicitly, are such exhibitions as The Art Institute of Chicago’s’Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity’, which started in the 1890s, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Painting,” which started in 1907. In one of the catalogues the latter is defined as “an exhibition of oil paintings by living Americans which accurately reflects the trends of contemporary painting in this country.”3 Despite the Gallery’s claim to be “broad and truly representative” the work shown was consistently conservative, but this does not reduce the basic notion of art as a democratic sample upon which the show was based. The fundamental model for all these shows is the large annual exhibition which started in the 18th century (the Salon in 1737, the Royal Academy in 1768) but proliferated beyond membership requirements and royal patronage in the 19th century. As exhibiting societies prospered, world exhibitions, such as the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, included art among the gargantuan compilations of objects. By the end of the century, big recurrent shows in Munich and Venice applied the logistics of trade exhibitions to works of art. It is out of this view of art as an object and culture as a domain of public access that the Whitney Annual/Biennials, and comparable shows, all derive.

Big annual and biennial exhibitions came into existence to distribute the increased quantity of personally initiated new art and, only secondarily, to show to a larger audience the possessions of wealthy collectors. They provided the only way to see new art, but since their inception other ways of showing and distributing art have been developed. The commercial art gallery system has expanded and the permanent holdings of museums today include art with very little time lag, in addition to the secondary services of books, journals, catalogues, and slides. (The catalogues of the Annuals have been persistently dim, whereas the catalogues of the University of Illinois’“Exhibitions of Contemporary American Painting,” arranged by the College of Fine and Applied Arts, expanded to keep pace with improved publication standards. This show began in 1948 as an annual event and went biennial in 1953, but starting as early as 1950 the catalogues printed artists’ statements in response to the greater verbalization of American postwar artists.) The large sample of art from a single moment of time, with no rationale beyond contemporaneity, has lost much of its point. Our level of information about current art is sufficiently high for general surveys to be predictable before we see them. When we see such shows, the pleasures of comparison, the recognition of emerging trends, the change in somebody’s style, are all preknown, never experienced freshly in the context of the Annuals. Thus the chief service function of the big annual or biennial show has been corroded by the operation of other channels of communication. It is not that there is deliberate inter-media competition, such as occurs between newspapers and television. It is simply that the multiplication of sources of information concerning art has reduced the usefulness of big, loose compilations of objects. It is hard to determine the optimum assortment without fundamental inspection of the problem and there is no sign that this has been undertaken by the staff of the Whitney Museum.

The methods of selection of the Annual are worth recounting. From 1932–39 choice was in two steps: the museum selected the artists, but each artist selected the work by which he wanted to be represented. Hermon More revealed a change in this situation when he wrote in 1950: “For the last ten years the works themselves have been selected by members of the staff.”4 Thus after the first decade there was an increased level of curatorial control which has been maintained, despite the recent increase of artists installing their own works by making them on the spot. The number doing this is not sufficient to mitigate curatorial command and, in any case, it does not mean that the art is not predictable as to type and predetermined size. As the artists contributed less to the forming of the exhibition, there was, of course, a corresponding climb in the Museum’s obligations elsewhere: “The Whitney Museum of Art wishes to make grateful acknowledgment of the cooperation and assistance of the following art galleries, and to express its thanks to the private collectors who have generously made loans to the exhibitions.”5 (In this year, 1943, there were 22 galleries and six collectors.) As the museum reduced its use of the artists, that is to say, other parts of the art world increased in influence. Here, in the first half of the ’40s, is a clear case of the overlapping of different elements of the art system. The public role of the museum and the commercial role of the gallery interpenetrate. Robert Doty, curator of the Whitney, admitted last year: “We rely very heavily on dealers and galleries in New York for the artists we select.”6 It is obvious that such dependencies will arise when museums show new art and there is no reason that it should not, provided curators lead the dealers and not the other way around. It is a misfortune of the Whitney, however, that the overlap of channels occurred just at a time that other media were beginning to raise doubts about the effectiveness of big exhibitions.7

Examples of channels that provide information sooner and in more usable form than that of a big mixed show are catalogues, magazines, and other exhibitions with a more compact structure and more topical themes. Magazines influenced or written by artists, such as The Tiger’s Eye (1947–49), It Is (1958–60), and Scrap (1960–61) offered prompt first-person commentary on new art by the artists. The series of exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, signaled in 1946 with “14 Americans” (including Gorky and Motherwell), had in 1952, ’56, and ’59, with “15 Americans” (Pollock, Rothko, Still, and Tomlin), “12 Americans” (Guston and Kline), and “16 Americans” (Johns, Kelly, Rauschenberg, and Stella) an exceptional impact. The series demonstrated an authority, in both American art and in the institution, which the broad-based, atomistic Annuals could not rival. The Annuals maintained a democratic openness but without convincing the audience that the different styles shown were rigorously selected. It implied a policy of laissez faire at a time of great change in New York art, when a stronger intervention on the side of emerging abstract art would have been just and rational. It seems to me in retrospect that the range of the Annuals may have rested as much on indifference as on a conviction of diversity. Instead of pluralism viewed in terms of cultural and stylistic mobility as a range of different alternatives, there seems to have been an assumption that all styles are homogeneous under a mild idealistic conception of Art. The Whitney, by maintaining the Annual in its established form, despite the informational and social changes in the art world from which the exhibitions are drawn, perpetuated the original patriotic and topical form past its usefulness without formulating an alternative exhibition form. It must be said that intra-museum interests, such as the pattern of work, dominate extra-museum influences (such as awareness of cultural change). The museum’s recourse to a biennial form at this time is a clear example of search bias: “When a problem arises, search for a new solution is concentrated near the old solution.”8 The shows will be bigger but less frequent, which can hardly be considered a recipe for change.

Selection of the Corcoran Biennials was originally done by a five-man jury “invited by the Gallery to select to install and to make ‘The W. A. Clark Prize Awards.’”9 It was a juried exhibition, therefore, but open to all artists who cared to submit work, though it had a discreet invitational section. Control by invitation was implemented increasingly from 1951 by a new director, Herman W. Williams, and in this respect James Harithas, director of the 31st Corcoran Biennial in 1969, and Walter Hopps, director of the 33rd, continued Williams’ policy. The fact that their tastes differ seems less important from our point of view than the fact that all three directors were in command of the process of selection. Harithas showed fewer artists (22), each represented by several pieces rather than by a single work, and Hopps selected 11 artists, each of whom nominated another artist (Lobdell chose Still, Pearlstein chose Katz). As the level of information about contemporary art continued to rise, one of the difficulties of big shows has been the atomistic effect of the one artist-one work principle. In addition, as the fame and security of American artists rose, their willingness to show single works declined. Harithas’ intention, then, was to satisfy the artists and to provide the art public with more specialized information than a collection of singles by known and partly known artists. The Art Institute of Chicago’s Chicago and Vicinity show operated on the basis of submissions to a jury until, in 1949, there was an abrupt switch to invitational form. This was done, as the catalogue admitted with exceptional frankness,10 to overcome the “sameness” of past shows which was set both by habitual participants and by regular abstainers. Vicinity was defined in the 1949 catalogue as meaning “a radius of 100 miles around Chicago.” In fact, the sampling of regional styles and tendencies is the remaining legitimate area for big recurrent shows. There is a shortage of information here, unlike the situation in New York or in Los Angeles (where the Los Angeles County Annual was dropped in 1961). The “out-of-town” art so patchily and irresponsibly sampled in the Whitney Annuals (see the statistics assembled by Leon Golub) can still support large indigenous shows because magazines and galleries have not exhaustively surveyed the resources.

One effect of the rigidity of the Annuals is to make the museum vulnerable to sudden pressure, whereas it would certainly be better if selection did not have to be optimized by violent means. In the fall of 1970 a mixed group demonstrated at the Whitney Museum demanding that 50 per cent of the Annual be devoted to women artists. This or any other quota system was rightly rejected by the museum as it would have surrendered esthetic judgments to permanent political manipulation. However, the ratio of women to men in the Annuals subsequently changed: in 1968, it was 1 to 13 and in 1969 it was 1 to 18; in 1971 it was 1 to 5 and in 1972, it was 1 to 3. Since the purpose of the Annuals is to survey the current scene it is clear that the curators had not evaluated a present risk correctly, though they made a hasty correction. Their predictive failure was followed by gross adjustment, but why, if the curators were doing their job, should they have misjudged the situation so badly?

The taste of the curators is part of the general support system behind new art, which includes dealers, art critics, and collectors. The 1972 Annual was based on an informed canon of taste, derived in good part from the same information that is available to interested visitors to the museum (magazine articles and dealers’ promotion). Taste is not inherent; our preferences are learned. The problem of selecting the Annuals has been compounded by the decline of the prestige of modernist esthetics. That theory of art stressed visual judgment in isolation from other factors and assumed such judgment to be the operation of a special highly trained sensibility. Its exhaustion is partly internal—diminishing returns after generations of use (Clement Greenberg can hardly be said to have advanced Roger Fry’s discussion of the position), and partly external—competing esthetic theories and stylistic diversity. As the theory weakens, one of the assumptions of disinterested good taste, such as curators relied on, is removed.

Art, like any field of human activity subject to extensive intercommunication, is a complex situation in which the phases of discovery, modification, and revision overlap. It is a situation in which “simultaneous discoveries” (L.L. Whyte’s phrase) turn originality into repetition and in which revival styles suddenly lose touch with their origins. The position of the curator within this network is difficult, especially if the learned ideas which constitute the basis of this taste are comparatively unsophisticated. The fact is the art world, for all its claims to avant-garde breakthroughs, actually runs on a fairly easy set of ideas. Among the assumptions that used to seem self-evident and now appear ideologically determined are such esthetic criteria as 1) originality, 2) art history as progress, combined with the logic of trends, and 3) professionalism.

The criterion of originality has deteriorated as historical knowledge of art has increased. The historical and cultural context within which an artist works is now far more visible than it used to be, with the result that the topic of originality is less convincing than formerly. A web of precedents and parallels situates even the innovating artist with similar others. However, the topic retains a function: it has become a mode of welcome to new artists; it is new talent’s happiest salute. As such, it is a useful mask for concealing, for retarding the recognition of, contextual meanings and obligations. Originality has become a dealer’s term, signifying merely the entrance of a new artist or a known artist’s new period. Breakthrough, the independent artist’s great moment, has become as commonplace as, say, the paragone in the 16th century. To the extent that a curator accepts originality, the breathless history of priorities and firsts, as a standard of judgment, he is accepting market values rather than critical standards. Thus, neither the beauty of the end product (formalism) nor the uniqueness of the initiating invention (originality) continue to offer reliable rules.

Another source of authority which has also weakened is the belief in history as progress, which has provided the rationale for a good deal of American art. This view, the result of diffused Marxism, assumes that it is possible to recognize your position in history while you are occupying it and act according to the pattern discerned. The art of a painter and the history of painting are posited in a simultaneous feedback. For instance, in his lecture notes, Stella, discussing problems and problem-solving, records that “I had to do something about relational painting, i.e. the balancing of the various parts with and against each other.”11 He doesn’t say why he had to, but the reason canonly have been his awareness of a historical imperative. Art produced with this conviction is a crystallization of historical orientation; it is an emblem of the artist’s reading of his bearings in time. The act of painting becomes problem-solving witnessed by all those who share the same predisposing view of history.

The extensive criticism12 that has accompanied the artists working in this way emphasizes historical correctness as a criterion of “modernism.” For such an artist, meaning no longer functions as a unique property of individual works; it resides in being historically right, not in expressing something. This view received some of its support from the authority of the artists painting on this basis, but once Stella and Noland regressed to complex (i.e., “relational”) formats, the notion of the historical confirmation of present art was fatally weakened. The popularity of Greenberg-supported artists with museums and galleries shows the attraction of instant historical justification. Thus the collapse of this idea as a reliable criterion of relevant art is another loss for those who have to sort out the art of the present while it is being made. It provided a kind of evolutionary support for the idea of quality (the survival of the best). The battle for esthetic domination approved and justified one narrow group of artists whose historical lineage was supported by a streamlined view of past art which was given an illusory momentum toward an arbitrary destination in the present. Related to this view of deterministic art history is an idea of the logic of groups, by which it is possible to conjure up a sense of the emergence of trends. The relations of Pop art and post-Pop, of Minimalism and post-Minimalism, are of this kind. Group manifestations are given a dubious centrality of reference by multiplying their modifiers.

Another critical assumption that seems unquestioned by the curators of the Whitney Museum concerns professionalism. There are several aspects of this problem that need to be mentioned, including that of the orthodoxy of abstract painting. An orthodoxy is a concentration of people in command of a subject up to the present level of information. It is the professional group that sets standards in its field, whether it has to do with the use of acrylic paints or electronics. An orthodoxy is not an academy, though it can become one, and it is not provincial, until it loses priority in the field to other specialists. Later American abstract painters demonstrated exactly the expertise and toughness, on the one hand, and the sobriety and conservatism, on the other, that identify a group as a flexible orthodoxy. It provided, therefore, an ideal source for curatorial pickings in the ’60s in a way that it does not now, both because of internal incoherence and because of the greater visibility of stylistic alternatives. Technically, orthodoxy in art represents a sound standard of operational lore, producing reliable facture by means of a rational mastery of procedures. This esthetic of the handsome product has been weakened in several ways, none of which has yet been adequately represented in the Annuals: Happenings and performances, Conceptual art, Earthworks, and Process art’ (though the latter was shown early at the Whitney, in 1969, in the best exhibition that Associate Curators Marcia Tucker and James Monte have done, “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials”).

In addition, the unanticipated upsurge from “outside” or “below” the narrowly defined professional art world has raised doubts about the absoluteness of the identification of art with the educated. Such a view is now assumed to be an ideological weapon against black and Puerto Rican artists. It is true not in the sense of a conspiracy but as a social fact: the taste of curators is obviously going to be limited by the education that made their appointments possible. These limits are also skills and there are many forms of exhibition in which they are the source of insight and knowledge. My doubt is that big mixed shows should any longer be filtered by curatorial taste at a time when extra-museum change far exceeds intramuseum responsiveness to change. Neither the structure of the institution nor the ideology of the curators promises an improvement. As the statistics assembled by Leon Golub reveal, it makes no difference who the incumbents are in the museum, the structure of the Annuals is unvaried. Among the causes of organizational dysfunction given by Robert Merton13 is narrowly trained personnel incapable of adjusting easily to change. There seems to be neither “span of foresight” nor “degree of flexibility”4 in the theory and practice of running the Annual. Originally when American art lacked a support system of the present scope, the exhibition contributed to the art world as a device for lowering uncertainty concerning the quality of homemade art. Like a department store the Whitney Annual confirmed the excellence of the goods shown in it and added “reputation” to the artists. However, this is an empty function in a period in which reputation conferral is spread among numerous channels.

Since the Annuals’ informational level is low and since the curators’ determinants of search are so conventional, the change to biennial form does not offer the prospect of change. What are the possibilities for future action? Either to abolish the show or to separate it from the present curators. If the latter course were followed, it would not be a matter of getting guest curators of the traditional type to do it because they would be more of the same. The Annual-Biennial should be handed over to minority groups, some of whom are professional artists, some of whom are lay artists. (By lay artists, I mean artists whose work in naive forms of Realism, Expressionism, and abstract design, leads to art by its liberation from difficult procedures by both the practice of artists and by the art education of the past 30 years.) Among the special interest groups obviously are black artists, Puerto Rican artists, women artists, and black women artists, who would probably want to show on their own without black brothers or white sisters. Exhibitions of the art of these militant groups would not weaken the rest of the museum’s program, on which the usual curators would work as usual. On the contrary, it would extend and strengthen the cultural representation of the museum. It would not be giving in to lobbying (though what if it were?) to sponsor such shows, because the demand for them is historically rooted and widely shared. It would reveal an understanding of the change in American culture to open up the Annuals in this way. I anticipate institutional suspicion of the idea of working with nonbureaucratic groups and certainly liaison procedures and contractual obligations would have to be worked out to satisfy both parties. However a major example of hospitable institution and an invited organizing group exists, the “Women Choose Women” exhibition, arranged by Women In the Arts, at The New York Cultural Center. April Kingsley points out that only eight months elapsed between initial contact and the opening of the show, a much shorter lead-time than in the case of the majority of regular museum exhibitions.

To some extent a precedent exists for such a relinquishing of curatorial responsibility in the actions of curators themselves. For years artists have been acting increasingly as their own curators, doing their best to control not only the production but the consumption of their art. It is both logical and respectful to assume that the artist knows best, but results suggest this is not always the case. The production of art is one kind of activity, its interpretation is another, and the artist cannot expect to maintain limiting conditions on the reading of his work once it is in the public domain. However,artists now often run their own museum shows, from selection to hanging (reportedly James Rosenquist was responsible for the awful installation of Marcia Tucker’s exhibition at the Whitney last year, for example). Catalogue texts (like monographs) on living artists tend to be distorted by the artists’ requirements: they decide which influences can be mentioned, which early works should be excised quietly from the canon, change the dates, and overemphasize the showing of their latest work. What is the reaction of the curators to the artists’ contempt for their role? It is gratitude. Typical is this quotation from Tucker’s catalogue: “my warmest thanks to those who graciously lent their works to the show, and to Jim Rosenquist for his patience, enthusiasm, and energetic help.”15 Why thank a man for permitting you to act in his own interest? When I arranged the exhibition of Barnett New-man’s ”Stations of the Cross" at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966 I didn’t thank him because I assumed we were, so to speak, in it together. I thanked the bibliographer, my secretary, the registrar, and the catalogue editor. It is the custom now, however, for the curator to thank the consenting artist above all, a clear sign of the decline of curatorial control and confidence. Under the circumstances, what would be the harm of relinquishing control here, especially as all three curators concerned with the Biennial are known to have expressed anxiety and fatigue concerning their roles in it?

They would have the satisfaction of knowing that their disengagement would spare them allegiance to a moribund institution they have been instrumental in maintaining. Without their participation a broader spectrum of artists could be admitted to the museum. It is an inconceivable program for either The Museum of Modern Art or the Guggenheim Museum, but it is one that The Whitney Museum of American Art, if it were to take its name seriously, could fulfill.

This article incorporates passages from an article published in The Nation, March 13, 1972.



1. Juliana Force, 1st Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Paintings, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1932.

2. John I.H. Baur, 49th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Sculpture, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1970.

3. 14th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Painting, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1935.

4. Hermon More, 26th Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1950.

5. American Exhibition of Contemporary American Art: Sculpture, Paintings, Watercolors, and Drawings, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1943.

6. Robert Doty, in Newsletter, Friends of the Whitney Museum, February, 1972.

7. See the author’s The Venice Biennale, New York, 1968, for discussion of similar pressures on big international exhibitions.

8. Richard M. Cyert and lames G. March, paraphrased in D.S. Pugh, D.J. Hickson, and C.R. Hinings, Writers on Organizations, Harmondsworth, England, 1971, p. 84.

9. 14th Biennial Exhibition, Corcoran Gallery, 1935.

10. The Art Institute of Chicago, 53rd Artists of Chicago and Vicinity Exhibition, 1949.

11. Robert Rosenblum, Frank Stella, Harmondsworth, England, 1971, p. 57.

12. The best guide to the material is Artforum 1962–68, a cumulative index to the first six volumes, ed. Lawrence McGilvery, La Jolla, California, 1970.

13. Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, Glencoe, Illinois, 1949. See My “Network:The Art World Described as a System,” Artforum, September, 1972, pp. 28–32 for further discussion of dysfunctions in the art world.

14. Terms from M.P. Schultzenberger, “A Tentative Classification of Goal-Seeking Behavior,” in F.E. Emery, ed., Systems Thinking, Harmondsworth, England, 1969, pp. 247–248.