New York

Whitney Annual

The Whitney Annual’s 165 item supermarket (commonly known as its biennial show of contemporary American painting) opened with a mixed bag of both very good and appallingly inferior works, representing everything from hard edge geometric and minimal, “Op,” “ Pop,” and shaped canvases, to kinetics and rock bottom traditional easel painting. Nevertheless, there is enough to make it a worthwhile visit. A Ford Foundation grant enabled the Museum’s directors and curators to travel throughout the country surveying and selecting paintings. If this permitted, on the one hand, the procuring of some first rate works by artists who are already known for paintings that are of the highest quality—Newman, Frankenthaler, Stella, Noland, Poons, Olitski, Youngerman, et al., it also encouraged on the other hand, the collection of the most embarrassingly amateurish mediocrity from provincial area s. These selections seem to have been guided by the criteria that because they came from regions outside of the main art centers on the two coasts, they deserved exposure.

Wandering through the galleries, or glancing at the roster of artists included (and there are, admittedly, many young painters who have not been shown extensively before), one still wonders why so many fine, but as yet unrecognized painters from New York or L.A., for instance, were left out for the sake of including the most crass and vulgar specimens from Podunk, This is not to suggest that time was wasted in seeking out promising artists away from the capitals—but it does imply that if the regional art movements are of dubious quality, as most of them tend to be, they should be bypassed, rather than selected for their sheer novelty value. The Annual proved, and certainly to the Museum’s detriment, that at the same time the Whitney is trying to be “with it,” to democratically feature as many new artists as it reasonably can, its traditionally conservative streak continues to favor some steady old guys who would be better served by oblivion. Any new manifestations of that most sickeningly typical American “buckeye surrealism” which has plagued our art’s history from early genre (where at least it had a redeemingly ingenuous folksiness) through American Scene, Magic Realism, and Andrew Wyeth, has been eagerly seized upon. One would almost think it constituted major art, from all the space this trend has been given. The Chicago “rotgut Dada” group called “The Hairy Whos,” represented by Karl Wirsum, the “Neo-Surrealists” of New Orleans, such as Robert Gordy, or the vulgar billboardese version of Roy Schnackenberg, also from Chicago, are only a few of these reigning horrors.

Responses to the exhibit run the gamut from specific nausea, and vague boredom, to delight, excitement, and surprise. Some of the older artists disappoint—the achievements of Philip Evergood, Georgia O’Keeffe, Willem de Kooning, or Larry Rivers would have been left intact, had these examples been excluded. As it is, we have to witness the sad decline of significant talents. Others, such as Barnett Newman, are still immensely relevant and fresh, while the paintings of one time Abstract Expressionists like Stamos, Tworkov, John Ferren, or Esteban Vicente indicate how these artists are trying to keep abreast by tightening up and simplifying formerly loose styles.

The installation was sometimes brilliant, and as with the works chosen, sometimes ludicrous. Kenneth Noland’s faintly glittering and exquisite stripe painting hung opposite the largest daylight portal, so that it caught and reflected light within its bands. Frank Stella’s Darabjerd Ill and Jules Olitski’s Pink Tinge dazzled as you entered the top galleries, but dwarfed Al Held’s Circle and Two Squares, a fine but less brilliantly colored work. Likewise, Nicholas Krushenick’s boldly cartoonish Tiger I to Tiger II made Jane Wilson’s otherwise solid and pleasing realistic rendition of the Southampton R.R. Station look feeble in comparison. The brash and the introvertedly subtle were freely juxtaposed (imagine George Tooker and Andy Warhol as wall-mates), but this often pointed out the original and inventive solutions, as opposed to the derivative and old hat.

Frankenthaler’s lush flood of mauve, amber, cobalt and green is of overwhelming beauty. Larry Poons shows a significant departure from his rigidly mapped out grid/ellipse system in a reticent but memorable olive lime field smattered with a flow of one-foot long loaves, some only partially brushed in magenta or lavender. While one would marvel in disbelief at the very poorest of Jack Levine’s, Raphael Soyer’s, or Ben Shahn’s works, there were often some absorbing and new disclosures, which counterbalanced these “Steady Eddies,” as one critic has called them. Neil Williams’s Brimming Water combines the soak and stain methods of Morris Louis with the shaped canvas mode, in an equivocal, yet fascinating manner, while Ron Cooper’s glass wall box, filmed with layers of iridescent flesh/blue tissue lies attractively somewhere between Larry Bell and light art. Peter Young’s constellation of pastel stippling, and James Sullivan’s Tri-Flume, a trio of blackened vertical painted bars, glowing along their edges in blue, purple and scarlet, were also engaging discoveries amid the raft of provincial regressiveness. One can only wish next year’s travels better luck, and a more discerning selectivity.

Emily Wasserman