Those who have seen “MADE IN THE U.S.A.,” a traveling exhibition organized by the University Art Museum, Berkeley, agree that what makes the show especially worthwhile are the disparate individual works, many of them great and nearly every one provocative. The first gallery alone, under the rubric “American Icons,” is enough to credit the curatorial skills of Sidra Stich, the show's organizer. At the near end (in the Berkeley installation, at least), four “Flags” done by Jasper Johns between 1955 and 1965, each differently handled, gave off multiple sensations of grandeur and emblematic regret; yet even these registered as mere adumbrations of emergency once you confronted the panoramic glints and twists of another Johns, his grisaille Map, 1962, like a disaster in the flesh. Then, opposite, you saw a wall buttressed by two important paintings by Robert Rauschenberg—Lincoln, 1958, and Retroactive I, 1964—and a hefty Tom Wesselmann still life from 1963, with working black-and-white TV. The room was symphonic. There were polite, oddball trills (by Richard Artschwager, Phillip Hefferton, and Jake Berthot) and robust, though small-size, choruses of funkadelia (by Robert Arneson, Claes Oldenburg, Edward Kienholz, and George Herms), and the final wall lifted to a surprise solo allegro (ma non troppo) taken by Larry Rivers’ George Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1953, of which the variously harsh and milky whites and moss and slime greens and “You Are There” epic postures never looked more flamboyant or chilling (like dry ice—and only partly because the picture hardly ever emerges from its deep-freeze confines in the vaults of the Museum of Modern Art). This is a show that needs no malleable or otherwise weak works–and there are remarkably few—to prove its point (nor has its impact been significantly diminished in its later versions at Kansas City and Richmond by some deletions, such as Johns’ Map, and the substitution of a different version of the Rivers).

As polyvalent as the best of the works are, you never for a moment forget that they have been advanced as hard facts to serve a curatorial idea. “MADE IN U.S.A.” is heavily programmed, with topic headings that run upward and onward from “American Icons” through “Cities, Suburbs, and Highways—The New American Landscape,” “American Food and Marketing,” “American Mass Media,” and “The American Dream/The American Dilemma.” The basic idea is a good one. Stated simply, during the ’50s and ’60s American artists discovered new and indigenous ways to show and reflect upon modern reality, and these ways were implicit in how modernity itself had been absorbed by a specifically American context (the Empire of Signs, so to speak, was hot and on the move). In her catalogue introduction, Stich argues that our critical awareness of this “telling shift” has been dulled by routine attention to the styles of artworks at the expense of seeing the works’ relevance to the immediate culture, including the cultural inside track experienced as everyday life. Stich's remedial approach is a pointedly unformalist, by-the-numbers sorting of themes and sub themes to “explore the character and historical dimensions of preeminently American images”—in other words, she wants us to look harder at the images' temporal content, their public soul.

Certainly Stich is onto something—practically every object in the show clinches the fact that she is. But the specifics of her presentation are hedged around by a backlog of notions received from official histories, of both art and culture, which could use a lot more revising than either the show or its catalogue, jam-packed as they are, could take on. Such recycled notions appear in the language, by turns cautionary and lugubrious, the regularly spaced wall texts that seem to chase the paintings and sculptures around the galleries like so many civics instructors concerned with imparting a balanced view. Thus, the show is prefaced by what can't help but sound like a preliminary health warning: “Compositions expose the lineaments of American culture without idealizing, proselytizing, or condemning them. Artists, moreover, do not follow the utopianism, universalist precepts of modernism . . . ” Likewise, the glosses on individual works are stunning in their preemptive decodings: the text panel alongside Red Grooms’ depiction of apocalyptic gridlock, One Way, 1964, tells of “a lively world where . . . people busily participate in a thriving economy,” while, in the Berkeley installation, another urged us to understand Johns' Map in light of a “blurring of local boundaries in the postwar period.”

As orderly as Stich's conception is, the show gives a beautiful sense of exactly how tangled—how polymorphous and perverse—were the circuits of human awareness that distinguished the climate it seeks to define. It does this partly because the examples more than adequately back up the thesis. They manifest “Americanization” to the hilt, at its most fluent and matter-of-fact, in some cases at its most insidious, frenetic, and hair-raising, and, though less often, at its most preternaturally sad. Besides the clusters of works by Johns, Wesselmann, Oldenburg Rauschenberg, and Rivers, the show includes superb early and/or mid-career pieces by Artschwager, Willem de Kooning, James Rosenquist, Vija Celmins, Andy Warhol, Llyn Foulkes, Wayne Thiebaud, Roy Lichtenstein, Edward Ruscha, H.C. Westermann, Bruce Conner, and Jess. In one way or another, they all involve a syntactical fit of found design and familiar mid-century subject matter, which often amount to the same thing: a kind of obviousness to be enlarged upon or battered so that esthetic immediacy—the feeling that someone’s home in the work—seeps through.

These works exemplify art as a mode of applied looking, set anew (though with a methodology that has long been typically American) in the flow of recognitions that commercial design means to regulate. As a form of visual management, a Warhol or a Ruscha graphic spread, or an Oldenburg rendering of junk food in the vernacular of squooshy household furnishing, locates the ubiquitous motif within a recognizable, but outsize, “second nature” of design. The sizable mutation brings home an intangible image in a suspension of meanings. It shows the haphazard process of recognition at face value.

The ’50s and early ’60s harbored what may have been art’s last fling at being genuinely silly and beautiful and pertinent, all in the same breath. But when the artists of that time removed the rapture from distress, they brought distress into focus as part of the furniture. Schooled in the discrepancies of modern life, these new realists elevated a hard-bitten, native irony to primacy among all of art’s modes; they gave irony the ring and compelling scale of plausible truth. With a shrewdness that has long since compounded itself, their art alleviated shame by declaring an exquisite disposability, reserving contempt for the regularity with which images that posit our second-guessed desires keep coming, washed in on tides across the encrypted void.

“MADE IN U.S.A.” trucks through the moment at which “visual culture” developed beyond the pale of any palpably earthbound existence. The glee mixed with horror that accompanied one through the museum galleries had to do partly with the sense of having entered a bulging commonplace book documenting the rush of a culture mobilized upward to the point of lift-off, a mingled message of aimlessly airborne imagery and virtually lost horizons. The scheme of the show may be pointedly mundane, but most of the pictures in it, with their glamorous up-from-under perspectives, reveal hardly a trace of solid ground. One exception, the greenish-dun postcard ridge in Llyn Foulkes’ Death Valley U.S.A., 1963, glowers head-on like a bald-faced Medusa, mirror of the destiny our daydreams claim to have displaced.

Bill Berkson

The author saw “MADE IN U.S.A.” at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, where it originated; it was there from April 4 to June 21, 1987. In slightly different form, it traveled to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri, where it could he seen from July 25 to September 6, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, where it opens October 7 and will remain on view until December 7.