By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection|
The Whitney Museum, however, is trying to turn back the clock once again. "The American Century: Art & Culture 19502000," a staggeringly overcrowded exhibition that jams some 700 works by 220 artists into the museum's modestly sized galleries, is so stunningly New Yorkcentric that one Manhattan artist described it to me as being "xenophobic." The problem with such a curatorial slant is not simply that it's "unfair," but that its regional bias ends up creating a distorted view of recent art history.
If that were the only problem with "The American Century," the Whitney would be doing well. But this cluttered smorgasbord of a show, which features exhibits crammed into the stairwells, the lobby and even the bathrooms, leaves one not so much with a feeling of indigestion as with a curious sensation of having been undernourished. Because while it may be logistically ambitious, the concept behind it is anything but.
When the first half of "The American Century" opened last spring, chronicling the years 19001950, the underlying premise was widely mocked in the art press. In a pointed and stinging attack, New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl argued that the very notion of an "American Century" was itself un-American, as one of this country's salient characteristics is its lack of a precise national identity. As if responding to that rebuke, the second installment's chief curator, Lisa Phillips, now suggests that the title may be ironic: Rather than evoke the messianic vision of an "American Century" proposed by publishing magnate Henry Luce in 1941, the Whitney show aims to reveal the remarkable diversity of artistic responses to the changing social landscape at a time when American art assumed a "leadership role" on the global stage.
That last idea, of course, is nothing but wishful thinking: The products of Hollywood, not SoHo, have been the only American cultural export with a dominating international presence. While New York arguably "stole" the
title of world art capital from Paris in the 1940s, thanks to an influx of artists fleeing the war in Europe as well as the rise to prominence of Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, the notion of America's "leadership role" falls down in the face of the international nature of the postwar art scene. Even the Pop Art explosion of the 1960s -- perhaps the one decade when American art really did occupy a dominant position -- was partly anticipated by the earlier work of England's Independent Group, whose own aesthetic, in turn, was inspired by 1950s American pop culture.
That said, the range of American art in the 1960s is truly dizzying, and the area devoted to this period at the Whitney provides the exhibition's strongest moments (though Ed Ruscha's photo books, a wry forerunner of West Coast conceptualism, are inexplicably absent). On a single floor, one moves from the cool ironies of Andy Warhol's electric-chair silk-screens to the macabre jokiness of Claes Oldenburg's Soft Toilet, a sagging vinyl creation that conjures geriatric nightmares; from the machine-made geometries of monumental Minimalist sculpture to the language-based, idea-oriented works of Conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner; and one also finds here Diane Arbus' intimately personal portraits of freaks and misfits, the scabrous social commentary of Edward Kienholz's grisly tableau Illegal Operation, which depicts the horrific aftermath of a backroom abortion, and a film of Carolee Schneeman's notorious Meat Joy performance, which plays on one of nine monitors in a room devoted to footage of live art events.
Yet even if the Whitney's show were more modestly (and accurately) labeled "The American Decade," a work like Schneeman's points up the absurdity of nationalist pretensions in art. A latter-day bacchanal featuring scantily clad men and women groping each other while covered with gooey fluids or having fun with bits of meat and poultry, Meat Joy looks back not only to the avant-garde antics of French artist Yves Klein but also to the mid-1950s Gutai Group in Japan. Long before mud wrestling was a feature of cheesy California bars, Gutai member Kazuo Shiraga was making abstract artworks by writhing around in vats of the stuff.
In one of those back-and-forth dynamics that make isolationism as implausible in art history as it is in politics, all of these vanguard theatrics grew out of Pollock's paint slinging. By dancing on and around his canvas while splattering it from various angles, Pollock unwittingly introduced the idea of the artistic process as an event. And there's still another transatlantic twist to the story: Pollock's technique was itself inspired by the "automatic" drawing pioneered by various European Surrealists.