New York

“The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000”

Tocqueville was right. He thought that the inherent conflict between liberty and equality was the one big story the US had to tell, and “The American Century,” the two-part survey show on view this year at the Whitney Museum of American Art, inevitably retold that tale, playing a lively set of variations on Tocqueville’s theme. Twentieth-century art emerged as a field in which the dueling ambitions of personal liberty and social parity produced a potent creative ferment, and the fruits of artistic freedom in America are made manifest in the hundreds of paintings, sculptures, objets d’art, films, photographs, videos, ephemera, and cultural artifacts that have been on display at the Whitney since Part I (1900–1950) opened last April. Equality between the show’s halves, however, proved elusive. Indeed, the binary structure all but demanded that viewers prefer one to the other, or at least gave us the liberty to do so. In the mind of this viewer, Part I gobbled up Part II, and contemporary art came off looking like last night’s undigested dinner.

ORGANIZED BY BARBARA HASKELL, the 1900–1950 segment took as its narrative spine one of the century’s greatest love affairs: the mutual infatuation of modern artists and New York, the confidence each gained through faith in the other. It wasn’t specifically labeled a New York show, and not every work depicted the city, nor were they all made there. But everything referred back to the city for meaning, value, and narrative coherence. I can think of no text that more wondrously captures this heroic phase in which New York began to eclipse Europe as the destination for creative people than Paul Rosenfeld’s Port of New York, first published in 1924. Contemplating the great transatlantic liners that once beckoned artistically inclined New Yorkers to head for Europe, Rosenfeld wrote, “It seems that we have taken root. The place has gotten a gravity that holds us. The suction outward has abated. No longer do we yearn to quit New York. . . . We are content to remain in New York. In the very middle of the city, we can feel the fluid of life to be present.”

Part I documented the quarter century leading up to that momentous Atlantic sea shift and the swelling of the city’s allure in the decades after. The Manhattan skyscraper was perhaps the show’s central image. As rendered by Georgia O’Keeffe, Man Ray, Hugh Ferriss, Charles Sheeler, John Storrs, and Berenice Abbott, to name just a few, the tall building becomes of rising verticality. Rosenfeld, commenting on the New York City skyline as it was reshaped in the boom years of the ’20s, wrote, “It seems a misty architectural shape is taking up into itself like individual building stones the skyscrapers, tenements, thoroughfares, and people; and with the mass of them erecting a tower higher than any of them, even the highest, toward the sky.”

Substitute paintings, sculptures, movies, music, graphics, and industrial objects for Rosenfeld’s building stones and you get the commanding impression generated by this show: a three-dimensional panorama of a city giving birth to its own mythology. Immigrants pull into the harbor, see Liberty Enlightening the World, and behind her the Manhattan skyline (that symbol of liberty run amok), file into Ellis Island, are flattened equally into submission, settle into tenements at the base of skyscrapers (inequality made manifest), study, work hard, rise in the world through effort, merit, and luck, and eventually become a symbol of inequality for others in turn. No city on earth has more fully embodied Tocqueville’s conundrum. No show has captured it with greater verve.

PART II (1950–2000), ORGANIZED BY Lisa Phillips, lacked a similarly propulsive narrative engine. In part this reflected the pluralistic fragmentation of art in the past half century. It also mirrored the difference between history and journalism, history’s rough first draft. I do think, however, that, with the possible exception of the most recent work, the critical appraisal of the art surveyed in Part II is ready for a second if not a third draft. And I don’t think that fidelity to pluralism can excuse Phillips’s “something for everyone” jamboree (it’s not altogether impossible, after all, to orchestrate a show that celebrates multiple aesthetic positions and yet retains focus and purpose). And here the Whitney brought out the nasty side to Tocqueville’s old double bind: For equality to reign supreme, extreme authority must level the ground, razing the peaks while raising the valleys. In this case, authority took the form of a heavy curatorial hand.

Part II revealed a flaw inherent in the conception of both shows. “The American Century,” a phrase coined by Time publisher Henry Luce (in a warmongering 1941 editorial), is a journalistic, not a historical or artistic conceit. To shoehorn art and art history into a mold designed for headlines and captions is inevitably to distort them. One result was that many art movements came across as variants of Pop. Minimalism actually looked camp here. You half expected a Feifferesque docent to waft through the room in a loose chemise, sighing over the coolness, the coolness. Chuck Close provided a bit of interest for the wall, John McCracken that essential touch of color.

The Whitney’s two-part structure magnified the problem. The greatest casualty of the chronological arrangement was Abstract Expressionism, a movement that got butchered. The wisdom of Solomon lay in his knowledge that the real mother wouldn’t permit her child to be split down the middle, but evidently there were no real mothers on the premises. The century’s most heroic movement in the arts was cleaved in half, head and torso severed from crotch and legs.

It seems as though the point were to deny the existence of heroes. Thus Jackson Pollock was given a place where his work was almost impossible to see, directly opposite the elevator at the show’s entrance. In this shallow vestibule of a space, predictably packed with people, Pollock’s paintings were arranged as if by an interior decorator. Even if the installation had faithfully reproduced the 1950 installation at the Betty Parsons Gallery (the curators’ loose model) it would have been bad, since the very idea was pure theme park. Perhaps the decision to include the small, stacked panels was a knowing nod to art historian T.J. Clark’s implicit criticism of the hang at MOMA’s recent Pollock retrospective, on the grounds that the juxtaposition of the small canvases with the larger ones was integral to Pollock’s intentions, but the half-hearted re-creation turned art into design, without the wit of a Cecil Beaton to transform the heroic splatters into an amusing backdrop.

This opening display set the tone, at once flat and jazzy, of the show that followed. Here was an exhibition in which Lee Krasner, big, pink, and prominently placed, blossomed across half a wall while Barnett Newman cowered in the corner like a stick at a party. Peter Halley, Day-Glo incarnate, blazed, while Andy Warhol nearly vanished into the Day-Glo of his own wallpaper. Brilliant lighting burned Jay DeFeo permanently into the brain, while Jasper Johns, though displayed in quantity, lurked miserably in the shadows. Space was found for a video of Steve Paxton rolling around on the floor, but none for Agon, George Balanchine’s 1957 masterpiece. Art had never more closely reflected the monoculture, the product of a cultural-tourist industry that grinds people, places, and things into the same processed food for thoughtlessness. This is the only show I can recall where I hesitated to go into a gallery for fear I might encounter a work I actually like. So many of them looked like bugs smashed against the wall.

With all the curatorial flattening, it’s not surprising that the galleries offered so few highs. (William Klein’s photographs never looked better, especially the one of a bratty boy making a face. It helped that Klein’s pictures were tucked away in a dead zone, across from a closet. Looking at the brat was like seeing myself in a mirror. And pooh to you, too, the brat seemed to say. Richard Artschwager’s work also looked good, its neutral tones serving as a kind of moral statement, a refusal to show up.) There were, however, deep, deep lows: the so-called cultural sites, tragic little Dumpsters of books, album covers, periodicals, and other ephemera contemporaneous with the art on view. It sounds like more fun than it was to see Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull lined up with Derrida’s Writing and Difference and the epoch-making first issue of October (Spring 1976). Protected by Plexiglas sheets, and therefore unreadable, these books were the cultural-studies equivalent of the leather-bound volumes with uncut pages that rich illiterates order by the yard. Such materials might deserve a footnote in the catalogue but were irritating to see in an exhibition that couldn’t give the art enough room to breathe. Part I, too, included “contextual” material, but it was integrated with the paintings and sculpture so as to suggest a sense of shading, a contoured cultural landscape in which works in different media each had a place. By contrast, the material in Part II’s cultural sites looked like scraps of undigested history; in terms of display, you’d expect more flair from a sidewalk vendor.

I’d like to think that the show exhibited the defects of Phillips’s virtues. Many of her best exhibitions, like her 1996 “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950–1965,” have been animated by a spirit of generosity. Perhaps that same spirit accounts for Part II’s hyperinclusiveness, its densely packed cultural sites. And the show’s emphasis on context, while overbearing, nonetheless brought to mind the ideal Italo Calvino termed “multiplicity” in Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1987). Calvino wanted the work of art to be like an intersection in a net of meaning that expands until it seems capable of containing the universe.

At the Whitney, unfortunately, the culturally focused display of context actually limited the viewer’s ability to imagine the chains of meaning radiating outward from particular artworks. The museum said, “We’ll choose the meanings for you. We’ll show you the dots, and then we’ll connect them.” You couldn’t create your own constellations. This left the viewer’s imagination with very little work to do.

Furthermore, the show contradicted itself. The anti-heroic, “cultural studies” approach it adopted is supposed to challenge great booming triumphalist conceits like “The American Century,” not celebrate them. This show wanted it both ways. It sought to deconstruct the very idea of itself, but then put the pieces back together again with scarcely a change in received wisdom. The isms remained fundamentally intact.

Tocqueville had interesting things to say about art in a modern democracy. He anticipated that poetry might become more and more like journalism, that it would increasingly rely on sensation in order to elicit the public’s attention, that its rhetoric would become ever more inflated. He worried that the poets of democracy, “not finding the elements of the ideal in what is real and true, [would] abandon them entirely and create monsters.” Could his prophetic worry have been better realized than it has been in the rise of mass-media culture and the turn, within the institutions of High Culture, to the ’60s Pop engendered in the process? The tendency has, of course, remained a dominant artery within contemporary art—think Koons, McCarthy, et al.—and one that is abundantly reflected in this show, particularly in the generous sampling of work from the last two decades. In this six-floor exhibition, the entire second floor was given over to the art of the ’80s and ’90s; if the full range of contemporary alternatives was dutifully reflected, including the multiculti/PC work that made the 1993 Biennial such a cause célèbre, certainly the legacy of Pop (to which this agitprop style is not unrelated) remained well represented, if not ubiquitous, in work from artists like Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Ashley Bickerton, and Cady Noland.

In some sense, art is still a New York story. Artists still gather here to seek attention, from galleries, magazines, and museums, while these institutions also compete with each other for the public eye. Since it moved to Madison Avenue in 1966, the Whitney has been a major protagonist in this story, in the much decried institutionalization of art and the rise of the international art market. Starting with the Marcel Breuer building that houses it, the museum has defined itself as a showcase for monsters. And when it comes right down to it (forgive me, Monsieur de Tocqueville), I like monsters—and I love New York for drawing so many of them together in one place. The Whitney has long played a more than incidental part in all this as the museum closest to the source and fray, the institution that most consistently gave the Warhols and Mapplethorpes of the world a platform. But I left the Whitney show with the unsettling feeling that monsters may be an endangered species. Perhaps the American Century’s grandest achievement has been to so thoroughly degrade its own cause for triumph. There are many free-market choices, but nothing you want; lots of sameness, but a lack of equality. Whether or not the gloomy sensation that fell over me as I wandered the Whitney’s six floors corresponds to the present state of city, nation, or art, I left the museum feeling grateful that the century is about to end.

Herbert Muschamp is the architecture critic of the New York Times and a contributing editor of Artforum.