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The New York Century 

It's no sensation

Wednesday, Oct 13 1999
The Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection
NEW YORKERS ARE RENOWNED FOR BEING A PROFOUNDLY provincial group, dedicated to a pre-Copernican world-view that the cultural universe revolves around Manhattan. It's an attitude that finds its most extreme form in the local art world, whose members often define themselves in opposition to the mass entertainment produced in Los Angeles. But in the 1980s and 1990s, when much of the most interesting art in this country was being made west of the Mississippi, and when "high" and "low" were no longer tenable cultural distinctions, New York critics and curators gradually started revising their hidebound regionalism.

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.

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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.

Obviously, none of these lines of international cross-pollination are charted by "The American Century"; indeed, the show fails to draw connections even between American art movements, organizing its exhibits into arbitrary categories ("Eccentric Abstraction," "Expanding the Canon"), with each floor devoted to a different decade. Thus a few examples of early feminist art are quarantined in the corner of a single gallery on the 1970s level, leaving viewers with no sense of its immense importance for artists in the 1980s and 1990s who revived not only its social concerns, but also its involvement with personal issues of daily life and its documentary aesthetic.

WHILE ANY SENSE OF A LARGER HISTORICAL VISION IS glaringly absent from the Whitney's presentation, "The American Century" inadvertently makes the case that art in the U.S. has gradually become less daring and confident over the past 50 years. Which does not necessarily mean that it has become any less significant, but the Whitney show might convince you otherwise as it fizzles out with a generally dreary selection of work from the 1980s and 1990s, squeezed onto a single floor. Indeed, one of this show's most egregious failures is its refusal to re-evaluate the overhyped New York artists of the 1980s -- whether the bombastically banal work of Julian Schnabel and David Salle or the lightweight Day-Glo cartoons of Kenny Scharf.

At the same time, many of the L.A.-based artists who helped make this city -- along with London -- the most exciting art spot of the 1990s are nowhere to be seen, or are grossly underrepresented. Even more inexplicable, however, is the absence of a pioneer like James Turrell, whose ethereal light-and-space installations have, since the 1960s, significantly expanded the vocabulary of 20th-century art.

But perhaps Turrell should count himself lucky. The encyclopedic ambitions of "The American Century," coupled with its conceptual fuzziness, have produced a cluttered and incoherent exhibition in which few works of art appear to their best advantage. The experience it offers is ultimately less an aesthetic encounter than the 3-D equivalent of scanning a blandly didactic art-history primer. The show's muddled academicism manifests itself most pathetically in a series of "culture site" exhibits, scattered throughout the museum, which lamely attempt to provide a larger context for understanding the art on display by showcasing examples of the music, literature and pop culture of a given period.

Playing Bob Dylan songs in a roomful of lava lamps and protest posters, however, is hardly going to inspire penetrating insights into the remarkable creative burst engineered by American artists in the 1960s. Nor is "The American Century" likely to enhance our understanding of the past 50 years of visual culture outside New York. But at a moment when contemporary art is undeniably an international phenomenon, the exhibit's narrow regionalism and cynical stars-'n'-stripes packaging may eventually stand as a landmark in misguided museum promotions.

THE AMERICAN CENTURY: ART & CULTURE 1950­2000 At the WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, New York l Through February 13

  • It's no sensation

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