New York

Human Concern, Personal Torment

Curator Robert Doty’s mass demonstration—subtitled “The Grotesque in American Art,” an act of presumption in keeping with the ineptitudes of the exhibition—is a disaster. If a death wish were made manifest then Doty’s puerile powers of selectivity, desultory catalog and insensitive installation would generously satisfy this compulsion. I can scarcely recall, at least not at the Whitney, when so much work of quality was dragged down by such mounds of cloacal glut. Not that the ideas or sentiments which inspired most of the work in this exhibition are trivial—but noble conceptions executed by trivial hands inevitably leads to trivial art. At first one is merely embarrassed and then outraged that Diane Arbus, Willem de Kooning, Sidney Goodman, Edward Kienholz, Lucas Samaras, Peter Saul, David Smith, Paul Thek, H. C. Westermann and others, should have been exploited to such paltry ends. Apparently Doty regards as their peers the sycophantic progeny they have spawned. (I am pleased for Leon Golub, a chef de file, so to speak, of this tendency, that he was somehow overlooked in the selection.)

Doty simply did not know where he was going. To legitimize his confusion he parsed the Whitney reserves and hung up what he imagined to be the support of such disparate “precursors” as George Bellows, Eugene Berman, Paul Cadmus, Federico Castellon, George Grosz and Thomas Nast (an 1874 illustration represents corrupt policemen as swine who neglect their duties during illicit beer traffic), which only confuses the irrational proceedings even further.

In a certain light Doty’s ambitions are fully understandable and possibly desirable. There can be no doubt that many artists, particularly the young and the Black, have expressed a desire for an alternative to the abstract modernism which has dominated high art for the past quarter century. Certainly, despair over Vietnam and American racial hypocrisy have intensified the possibility of a return toward figuration, a feeling to which Doty may have, in fact, been responding.

But, instead, several pernicious issues receive sustenance from Doty’s exhibition. 1) Anti-verbal, anti-critical and anti-historical artists may be attracted by the bonhomie generated by this farrago. 2) Social reformers and militant artists may once again place illustrative polemics above the physical priorities of the media they work in. 3) The vulgar and erroneous imputation that abstract artists are disengaged from “mocking the complacency, coarseness and banality” of American society is promoted. That Doty should contend, in his sophomoric catalog essay, that the kind of art shown at the present exhibition has cornered Humanity and Morality is a lie and a museological blunder. It presents no insights into “The Grotesque in American Art” but instead opens Doty’s senior curatorial rank to question.

Robert Pincus-Witten