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
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