PRINT November 2006


the Whitney Museum and Tate Modern Collections

WE LIVE IN an art-historical moment in which the canon has been deconstructed, destroyed, blown to bits; and yet, at the same time, the canon has been expanded to infinity, to include anything and everything, to let every comer in. Either way, the canon becomes a nonsense, its categories baseless, while the exercise of aesthetic judgment has been ruled a thing of the past and/or a matter of indefensible personal taste without any common cultural basis. These attitudes are found nowhere more so than in that beast called contemporary art, which has from the start taken canon-busting as one of its main briefs.

As if to perform this questioning of the canon, museums of modern and contemporary art keep reinstalling themselves. None does so more repeatedly and restlessly—or to more contentious response—than New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But recently, two other museums devoted to modern and contemporary art on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean have offered new installations of their collections: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in its exhibition “Full House: Views of the Whitney’s Collection at 75” (the Whitney opened in 1931) and, in London, Tate Modern’s reinstallation, organized just six years after the museum’s opening. With national collections of modern art and brilliant modern buildings to live up to, the museums structured their exhibitions in very similar manners. They expressly tried to cut across chronology and break with the movement categories inscribed in their collections, making several pasts resonate with several presents and vice versa. But for all they share, one installation is dead-on and the other is all off. One is a qualified success, and the other is a mess, albeit a thought-provoking one.

I confess: I didn’t want to like the Whitney exhibition. The Whitney Biennials have gotten increasingly worse, spelling out the endgame that so much contemporary art has become. I didn’t go to this year’s Biennial (I was rather uselessly boycotting it), but all reviews suggest its utter bankruptcy of artistic discourse. However, I have to admit, “Full House”—organized by chief curator Donna De Salvo and a team of her colleagues—was compelling, complex, and thoughtful. It held together, showcasing the Whitney’s New York–based modern and contemporary art, with both local and world-class significance. In “Full House” the modern and the contemporary addressed each other meaningfully. The Whitney divided its collection three ways, with a floor devoted to each section: “Content Is a Glimpse” (centered around an AbEx core); “The Pure Products of America Go Crazy” (centered on Pop); and “What You See Is What You See” (Minimalism). The top and bottom floors were consigned to single artists with important places in the museum’s collection, Edward Hopper (“Holiday in Reality,” the one section still on view now) and Alexander Calder (“I Think Best in Wire”), respectively. You could begin at the bottom with the Calder floor and toil up the Whitney’s inversely stepped architecture, or you could begin, as I did, at the top with the Hopper floor and move down. Either direction worked across time and topic, and undercut linear chronology to a purpose. I started at the top, and my experience of “Full House” was thus inflected throughout by the Hopper floor. Intentionally or unintentionally, a dualist picture of American modern art emerged that had everything to do with a very American bifurcation that I felt within Hopper’s work.

The selection of works by Hopper included what for me was a surprise: the revelation of his earliest paintings, made in the first decade of the twentieth century in Paris—that modern-art mecca to which Americans, Britons, and European Continentals flocked and from which they exported various offshoot brands of its modernism. Here Hopper created his own version of the brightly lit, plein-air Impressionist landscape. The most stunning aspect of these works is the solid facticity of their paintedness, minus the familiar anecdotal attentions of the artist’s later work. Hopper’s oeuvre is known for two signature traits: its solitary, slatted light, and its melancholic film-noir scenarios—overblown, yellow-haired women in bare rooms, lonely folks in deserted late-night city bars and barbershops, and the like. In these early paintings the first trait is separated from the second, enabling us to see just how materially present his oblongs of vivid green or blue or brick red are, and then later on, when the two traits keep company with each other, how much those slabs of bright pigment steal the show from his awkwardly rendered men and women in their modern American clothes. And thus a tension arises between one kind of literalism and another, between the plain fact of matter—the matter of paint and the material substances (brick, wood) represented—and the “just the facts, ma’am” manner of the pulp fiction–style illustration.

Both forms of literalism are very American in their Protestantism, redolent of the long-standing American distrust of the metaphors, allegories, and highfalutin artifices of art, as is the tension between them: It is that same tension, we might say, that animates Clement Greenberg’s famously American take on the antiliterary, medium-specificity of modernist painting and on the modernist split between lowbrow kitsch and highbrow avant-gardism. This tension resonated through the rest of “Full House,” running as it does, floor by floor, between content and object, Pop and Minimalism, one kind of facticity and another, literalism of the material kind and literalism of the anecdotal kind. And thanks to the decision to eschew chronology and strict categories, the display of these tendencies in twentieth-century American art refused to reduce itself to the familiar linear parade of movements succeeding one another. Instead the exhibition performed a “reading” of the Whitney collection that held it together, let more in than would otherwise be the case, worked with the strengths of the collection, and spoke to its Americanness, all at once.

It is fair to say that the Whitney had a much easier task than Tate Modern. The Whitney’s collection is an established, pedigreed one; it is limited to American art—this makes sense in the environment of New York, which in the latter half of the twentieth century replaced Paris as the capital of modern art; and it does not have to strain to make connections between the Europe-based impulses of the first, modernist half of the twentieth century and the Manhattan-based impulses of the second, contemporary half. Thus, it could successfully blend the canonical and postcanonical attitudes of twentieth-century art, and its categories had some meaning, while not enforcing too rigid a respect for them.

Tate Modern, by contrast, belongs to a city come late to modern and contemporary art, though it is now an important contender in the increasingly decentered global network of the current art world. Split off from Tate Britain (London’s museum of its own nation’s art), the Modern arranged its initial installation according to categories of subject matter only to receive strongly negative reviews. It must contend anew, a few short years after its original opening, with Britain’s heretofore marginalized position in the modern canon, and with its history of philistinism vis-à-vis the modern visual arts. The rehang is an attempt to cement the museum’s membership, together with that of British academe, in the advance guard of the “new art history.” Thus, it goes to great lengths to establish novel and different links between the early and later and current parts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; to enter British artists into the fray wherever possible; and to push against American hegemony in twentieth-century art.

Led by director Vicente Todoli and head of displays Frances Morris, Tate Modern has divided its collection four ways, two to a floor (with side trips into its photography holdings and its recent acquisitions): “States of Flux” (with a hub of Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism); “Idea and Object” (Minimalism); “Material Gestures” (postwar painting and sculpture—which is to say, AbEx); and “Poetry and Dream” (Surrealism). These categories, however, are simultaneously so loose as to be almost meaningless and so conventionally movement-specific that the visitor then puzzles over the random-seeming inclusion of artists temporally or otherwise eccentric to the movements named. Each of the four divisions begins with an opening room that puts a “historical” and contemporary work together, and then proceeds to another room that goes back in time either to the moment of the section title or to its historical antecedents. Every division has an installation devoted to a recent artist.

These devices are inconsistent in their success but consistent in causing bafflement. For instance, I liked the way the “Idea and Object” section moves backward from a juxtaposition of an American Minimalist object (Carl Andre’s Venus Forge, 1980) and a contemporary British light installation (Martin Creed’s Work No. 232: The Whole World + the Work = the Whole World, 2000): The yellow-brick-road pathway of Andre’s metal floor tiles leads to a Naum Gabo construction of the early decades of the twentieth century and a miscellany of abstract painting and sculpture. But I was mystified as to what exactly we were supposed to learn about the relationship between the earlier work and Minimalism—except that I personally preferred the eager utopianism and rough-and-ready materialism, the hopefulness and the complexity, of the first-round works to the sophisticated reductions and knowingness of the second- and third-round objects. On another floor, I was unconvinced by the juxtaposition of the Barnett Newman (Adam, 1951–52) and the Anish Kapoor (Ishi’s Light, 2003) at the opening of the “Material Gestures” section, but compelled by the emphasis on European art brut over American Expressionism in the next room. The Jackson Pollock (Summertime: Number 9A, 1948) that was hung in a later room devoted to the relation between Monet’s late work and Abstract Expressionism was not a very good Pollock, but the Mark Rothko red room, early on transferred from its originally intended New York setting—the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building—to Tate Modern, is splendid and understandably coherent.

The two sections that are most incoherent in their inclusions are “States of Flux” and “Poetry and Dream”—the jumble of the latter, at least, could be seen as consistent with its Surrealist content. Here my main worry concerned the dearth of photographs (overall, I found the relegation of photography to the sidelines problematic), but I liked the minor Surrealist experiments hung all together in a vitrine: Their randomness and off-the-cuff smallness are to the Surrealist point. The Surrealist section culminates with what I feel is the rehang’s key installation: a darkened room containing Susan Hiller’s From the Freud Museum, 1991–96. Its cabinet of pseudo-Freudian curiosities is charming to look at, the randomness of its numbering and ordering of objects is deliberate, dreamlike, and pertinent to the Freudian exploration of the unconscious that motivated Surrealism (and continues to motivate current theory and production), and the artist is up-to-date, a woman, and lives and works in Britain.

The Chinese-encyclopedia presentation of Hiller’s work speaks meaningfully to the dilemma of the rest of Tate Modern’s reinstallation, as the artist invites each audience member to make his or her own sense of the installation. The museum’s catchphrase is “Opening up art,” and the result is hopelessly open. But here, then, is the main positive: The onus is on the audience to make all the aesthetic, structural, and historical judgments—not to forego those judgments, but to make them. In the end, it is the very failures of late-coming Tate Modern that force the interested viewer to think hard for him or herself in ways that the very success of the Whitney exhibition perhaps precluded.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art and archaeology and Doris Stevens Professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton University.