New York

“Nine Artists/Coenties Slip,” “Frank O’Hara: Poet Among the Painters”

The Whitney Museum

Since about 1967, the Whitney Museum has developed a rather good Independent Study Program for graduates and undergraduates in art and art history. This year two groups of the art history students have each organized an exhibition, one at the Museum proper, the other at its Downtown Branch at 55 Water Street, near South Ferry. 

The downtown exhibition is “Nine Artists/Coenties Slip,” consisting of work by artists who lived in lofts on the two-block slip between 1954 and 1967. The names are more familiar than not: Charles Hinman, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Fred Mitchell, James Rosenquist, Lenore Tawney, Ann Wilson, and Jack Youngerman. This is a fairly arbitrary premise for a group show, but probably as good as several. Kelly, Youngerman, and Rosenquist dominate the show. The small, rough oils by Youngerman and two really fine Rosenquists, all from the late ’50s and early ’60s, were particularly important to see. Ann Wilson’s Moby Dick (1957), a painting on a quilt, was completely new information for me. A group of photographs of the artists, their studios and the neighborhood at various stages provided the core to the exhibition. (Here again, Kelly dominates, his studio crammed with bold, simple paintings every time.) The show establishes a sense of the city’s continuing attraction for artists, as well as its changing architecture and unreliable hospitality—all emphasized by the knowledge that one block of the slip was razed to construct 55 Water Street. 

A different sense of loss pervades the uptown exhibition “Frank O’ Hara: Poet Among the Painters” which includes paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures by about 25 artists who knew this poet-critic-museum curator killed in 1966. The exhibition was drawn almost entirely from the Whitney’s collection, and suffers on that account. Only the works by Johns, Motherwell, Frankenthaler, David Smith, Kline, Cornell, and De Kooning sustained prolonged viewing. Still, it was one of the best installations I’ve seen at the Whitney. Excerpts of O’Hara’s poetry were stenciled on the wall. A second gallery, devoted to the photographs and collaborations between painters and poets, was painted orange, in keeping with references in O’Hara’s poem “Why I am not a Painter” stenciled in its entirety on the wall. I’m not well versed in poetry, but the use of O’Hara’s in the exhibition made me inclined to read him. Once again photographs provide the core of the exhibition, elaborated by O’Hara’s writing, which is personal, casual, and often about his friends and their art. Most moving is the sense of O’Hara’s friendships and of his involvement with art (his and others’), all conveyed through the photographs and the poetry. 

The scarcity of really good art is not a critical issue in either exhibition—they are not so much about art as they are about the unquestioned commitment to it. If anything the art reveals that such a commitment in itself stands for something, regardless of the work produced. The decision in favor of art is personal and individual. The exhibitions reveal, above all, the strange, inevitable ways such a decision brings people together, to New York, to establish a social and private space conducive to work. And it is this sense of the city and of a committed art population within it by which both shows transcend nostalgia. It seems particularly fitting that the Whitney’s Program, which has facilitated the decision in favor of art for any number of people by now, has produced these two exhibitions.

Roberta Smith