New York

“Extraordinary Realities”

Whitney Museum of American Art

Sometimes it occurs to me that the Whitney Museum, despite its good intentions, is giving American art a bad name. This sensation was particularly strong while viewing one of its current exhibitions, “Extraordinary Realities,” organized by Robert Doty. Edward Gorey wrote a preface to the catalogue which traces the development of what he calls the “attitude of irrationality” and “defiance of logic and high art” through Dada and Surrealism, Chicago’s Hairy Who, and California Funk to the artists in this exhibition. The last are involved with “a restructuring of the existing world.” According to Gorey, theirs is an attitude which:

explores the relationship between dreams and objective experience, reality and imagination. . . . Although many of its references are private, there is also a tendency to incorporate ubiquitous elements which refer to the banal and sometimes ludicrous aspects of the American scene. . . It is a state of mind which appeals to the artist living outside the center of mainstream art, who cares about the integrity of the relation between art and life, and disregards the facile solutions offered by copying current styles and methods.

All of this prepares one for an exhibition of staunch individualism, of art which is eccentric, personal, mysterious and, given the geographical distribution of the artists (from 24 nonmainstream states), diverse. One of the primary aspects of this exhibition is its homogeneity. The lack of diversity is amazing and suggests that, if there is a mainstream, there is also a very rigid counter-mainstream. Most of the work involves several of the following characteristics: cartoonlike figuration or writing; verbal and visual punning; tight, meticulous painting often extended to patterns of repeating details; flat, often hot color and small scale. None of these characteristics is inherently objectionable, but, in this instance, the work seems uniformly cramped and constricted, niggardly and mean in several senses of the word. These characteristics are also derived entirely from other sources: Walt Disney, M.C. Escher, Magritte, Dali, Peter Blume, William Wiley, to name a few. (There are at least six artists working in a style similar to Wiley’s, who is also in the exhibition.) The lack of formal innovation, the complete familiarity of most of the visual devices employed, results in work which is neither personal nor eccentric, although its sources may be. A painting by Arthur Schade in which Smoky the Bear screws a blond is quite similar in style to John Wesley, except Wesley is always more humorous and humane. Although Schade’s painting is an extreme example, I found a majority of the work consistently sinister in content, and often violent and sexist. The symbolism never really achieves any mystery; if not blatantly obvious it is completely obscure, remaining nasty and ungiving in its obscurity. At the end of his preface Gorey refers to the

need for descriptive images Which make the mysterious credible and conjecture plausible. Artists who choose such a venture are limited only by the scope and integrity of their imagination and spirit. It is their task to remind us that life is both profound and perverse.

These artists are definitely limited; I have never seen such unimaginative, mean-spirited work. The majority of them are young; 33 of 55 are under thirty-five years of age, so perhaps they will work through it. It is also possible that, like Grooms and Westermann, they are represented by poor examples. If they remind us that life is both profound and perverse, it is only because they establish that their art is not. There is no profundity when both style and imagery are thin or derivative. The idea of perversity further suggests a kind of intensity and innovation which is totally lacking here. Such intensity and innovation is attempted and sometimes achieved by artists as diverse as Lucas Samaras, Richard Artschwager, Joe Zucker, Lynda Benglis, Chris Burden, and Jim Roche, and by many other artists working in and out of New York, in styles which are descriptive as well as abstract. The range of their work suggests that perversity is a complicated idea, that it is always one of several other aspects, and that in order to be strong and interesting, it must manifest itself formally, regardless of content.

Roberta Smith