New York

“American Realities”

Whitney Museum of American Art

Imagine a meagerly endowed center for curatorial studies, with a collection of ten works of art. Let them, for simplicity, be paintings, since we can easily think of these arrayed in a row. The center’s aspiring curators are to construct exhibitions using all ten works. How many such exhibitions can be formed? The daunting number of combinations is 3,628,800. Mounting one exhibition per day, it would take nearly a millennium to exhaust the combinatorial possibilities. If a single painting were added to that collection, the number of combinations would rise to nearly forty million.

We might object that not every combination really constitutes an exhibition, but in fact any combination could, providing a curator sees how. Many arrangements suggest themselves immediately. We could hang the paintings according to size. We could hang them alphabetically by artist, provided no artist is represented by more than one work. We could hang them in an order of decreasingly weak formal affinities. With luck, we could map the set onto the spectral colors, and hang them like the rainbow. With amazing luck, these four exhibitions could be made of the same paintings hung in the same order each time. That is, the same combination of paintings could sustain an indefinitely large number of exhibitions, if we consider an exhibition a combination of art works that support an idea. From this it follows that there is, in fact, no possible way of computing how many exhibitions our original ten paintings could yield, since no limit can be set to curatorial imagination. So the student curators could keep hanging the same paintings in the same order, yet consider them separate exhibitions. This approach, of course, would call for some ingenious wall texts, as well as some thoughtful catalogue essays. For the eye alone would not be able to discriminate between these identical but different shows.

The holdings of museums can, for our purposes, be considered from the perspective of this hypothetical study collection, although exhibitions ordinarily draw upon subsets of these holdings, and not the entire collection. Such shows have become a growing part of museum practice, with sometimes quite spectacular results, such as Jacques Derrida’s exhibit on the theme of blindness, using works from the Louvre. These internal exhibitions celebrate permanent collections and recast familiar works with their novel juxtapositions. Mining the permanent collections is also far less costly than bringing in a traveling exhibition; it is a way for a museum to live within its means. But such shows can also approach the condition of an artwork in their own right, as Fred Wilson demonstrated in “Mining the Museum,” at the Baltimore Historical Society in 1992.

The popularity of this strategy testifies to a transformation in the concept of the curator—indeed to the ascendancy of curators in the hierarchies of the art world. Formerly, acquisition and preservation defined curatorial practice, and gave scant room for anything more exciting than what the concept of care (cura) entails. Today, curators embody ideas in inventive ways (most not originally apparent to the artist), on the assumption that a work is as complex as the number of exhibitions in which it can figure. Artists, when it comes to exhibition, tend to fixate on one-person shows, shows of like-minded peers (movements) and, for the ideologically committed, shows of works that urge similar actions and attitudes. Art historians are interested in chronology, influence, affinity, and style. But curatorial imagination is indeterminately rich, and cannot be predicted.

The Whitney Museum recently invited three heads of European museums to construct exhibitions out of its permanent collections. The thought behind “Views from Abroad” was that Europeans might bring a perspective to American art that is not readily accessible to Americans themselves, might enable us to see our art in revealing, unanticipated ways. The final exhibition, “American Realities,” assembled by Nicholas Serota and Sandy Nairne of the Tate Gallery (previous shows were by Rudi Fuchs of Amsterdam’s Stedelijk and Jean-Christophe Ammann of the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt), was far and away the most successful, in no small part because, as the title suggests, it set out to show something of what American art tells us about what it is like to be an American.

It is no secret that the Whitney, in recent years, has become restive with the restrictions implied by the concept of American art. In the catalogue for “American Realities,” David Ross writes: “Any purported perspective on the nature of a national culture contradicts the now widely held opinion that there is no such thing as an essential national character, and that our attempts to make such characterizations are founded on prejudices.” Ross need not apologize, as this opinion, though perhaps widely held, is entirely wrong. The human material is exceedingly plastic, and just as every child can learn any language, each child will internalize the forms of life that define a national identity. It is no more prejudiced to recognize these identities than to recognize the spirit of different languages—though Ross is right to note that such identities also inevitably imply elements of prejudice against others. In any case, the Whitney’s permanent collection has until now been American by stipulation, and Serota and Nairne selected works intended to raise the concept of Americanness to a level of self-consciousness.

Guest curators had the privilege of bringing works from their own collections to support their concepts: Serota and Nairne brought home Roy Lichtenstein’s 1963 Whaam! as “an icon of postwar critical realism, humorous and political, [which] stands here as linchpin for the many forms of the ‘real’ in the exhibition.” Viewing this painting at the exhibition’s threshold was like being greeted by a brass band brashly trumpeting the show’s Americanness, conceived here as consisting of five “realities,”beginning with “The Subject.” On the left and right, as one rounded the Lichtenstein, were Nan Goldin’s 1991 Siobhan in the Shower and Cindy Sherman’s Untitled no. 109, 1982. The curators felt these portrayals could not easily have come from other visual cultures or from any earlier moment. Each in its way showed something of the American subject, further aspects of which were salient in Alice Neel’s astonishing 1970 portrait of a bare-chested Andy Warhol, his scars in full view; Arshile Gorky’s The Artist and His Mother, 1926-36; Larry Rivers’ double portrait of his mother-in-law; Richard Diebenkorn’s melancholy Girl Looking at Landscape, 1957; and Chuck Close’s monumental portrait of Philip Glass.

The remaining four realities were titled “Metaphysical Landscapes,” “The Modern Scene,” “Glamour and Death,” and “The Object.” But these “realities” were neither exhaustive nor exclusive. Neel’s portrait of Warhol could as easily have been shown under “Glamour and Death”; Goldin’s vulnerable image of Siobhan under “The Modern Scene”; the Diebenkorn under “Metaphysical Landscapes.” This only confirms the way the same works can subtend different exhibitions. Throughout, however, Serota and Nairne followed standard curatorial practice in matching works with one another on the basis of formal affinities, which were largely irrelevant to the realities addressed. Mark di Suvero’s Hankchampion, 1960, felt like a three-dimensional realization of Franz Kline’s Mahoning, 1956; while Eva Hesse’s Untitled (Rope Piece), 1969–70, seemed in that context like a soft version of either. In another direction, there are black and white affinities between Kline and Warhol’s 1984 Rorschach—as if the inkblot were itself a metaphysical landscape. But such juxtapositions, inspired or otherwise, had also been found in the earlier Views from Abroad shows—neither of which ventured beyond art to, well, reality.

If you feel the curatorial impulse, you might imagine which works you would have selected to illustrate each of these categories. Or you might ask yourself whether these rubrics and their implied interconnections were adequately representative. If either of these problems should suggest itself, you would be thinking not just about the art but about yourself—whether as an American, or as a member of some other national culture—as well as about others. National cultures include or involve ideas, often hideous, of what other national cultures are like. Sartre distinguished between the pour-soi (what each of us is for ourselves) and pour-autrui (our “being for others”). Warhol insisted that his inner and outer selves were one: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface.” Neel’s searching portrait is a direct refutation of this denial of subjective life. But it is the incongruities between the two planes of selfhood in Sartre’s scheme that explains the abiding incomprehensions between selves and others—as well as between national cultures if, following Plato, we believe the nation is the individual writ large.

Inevitably, this show left one wondering whether “American Realities” did not in the end say as much about British realities as about our own. By recognizing who and what we are in what we make, it held mirrors up to its viewers—and mirrors up to these mirrors. As such, the exhibition, and others like it, convey meanings of individual works that they are incapable of communicating when considered one at a time. Grouping work this way is a step beyond presenting it on the basis of formal affinities. At the same time, given the mathematics, it’s only one of innumerable other ways.

Arthur C. Danto is Johnsonian Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and art critic for The Nation.