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Issue Date:  August 11, 2006

The story of America

The Whitney Museum's 'Full House' puts the nation on view


Founded in 1931 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art this summer celebrates its 75th anniversary with a selection of work from its permanent collection of more than 16,000 pieces in various media by more than 2,450 artists. Its show, “Full House,” is very much of the moment, disavowing any claim to be definitive and offering instead simply a view of the collection. It is also comprehensive, focusing on key moments in American art from the 1940s to the 1980s in dialogue with both earlier and later work. It is thus more thematic than strictly chronological. A delightful overture is provided by Alexander Calder in the lobby gallery and a grand finale by Edward Hopper on the museum’s fifth floor. Walking across the bridge into Marcel Breuer’s landmark 1966 building, soon to be expanded by the omnipresent architect Renzo Piano, I remembered John Ruskin’s remark that “every civilization records its history in three books: those of its words, of its deeds and of its art; and that of these three, the last is the truest.” What story, I wondered, would the Whitney’s book tell?

Even today, early in the 21st century, after Vietnam and during Iraq, America still shows traces of the youthful innocence that once more deeply characterized our national life. Its playfulness is certainly evident in the “Circus” that Alexander Calder (1898-1976) began to assemble in Paris in 1926 and carried back and forth to New York over the next five years in suitcases. Made of wire, small pieces of cloth and other odd materials (tiny earrings can serve for a woman’s breasts), the dozens of movable figures and props included Fanny the Belly Dancer, Rigoulot the Strong Man, a husband and wife trapeze act and a trainer with his wild animals. A video from 1961 shows the burly artist with barely suppressed glee leading a performance before a cheering French crowd. Seldom seen so entirely, the “Circus” is a delight for children and adults alike, pervaded by an inventive freedom that soon took a decisive step forward when Calder, after visiting Piet Mondrian’s studio in 1930, began to make his first mobiles.

The fifth floor of work by Edward Hopper (1882-1967) could not be a greater contrast. Here the mood is one of insistent nostalgia, though for what it is hard to say. Whether in landscape or city scenes, Hopper’s is an anxious, lonely world. Single figures typically seem somehow abandoned; if there are several figures, they rarely interact. At his best, in iconic canvases such as the 1914 “Soir Bleu” or the 1930 “Early Sunday Morning,” the artist evokes a haunting transience. His work, in Alain de Botton’s words, can indeed carry us “back to some important place in ourselves, a place of stillness and sadness, of seriousness and authenticity: It can help us to remember ourselves.”

The particular strength of the current presentation is to show Hopper’s major paintings together with preparatory drawings. (The Whitney holds more than 2,500 paintings, watercolors, drawings, prints and illustrated journals from the artist’s estate.) Some will find that the drawings recall Hopper’s original training as an illustrator and his fairly indifferent skills as a draftsman. Gifted as he was in handling light and establishing mood, his figures are often awkwardly drawn and uncomfortable, even in paintings as well known as “New York Interior,” dated circa 1921, or the 1960 “Second Story Sunlight” -- here given an entire wall by itself.

The body of the show comprises three chapters of the 20th-century American story centered, respectively, on abstraction, pop art and minimalism. There is much to be learned here even for those familiar with much of the work (some of which is less often shown). Stepping off the elevator on the second floor, which is dedicated to abstract expressionism, its forerunners and later influence, one feels again the thrill of those heady years in the late 1940s and 1950s when New York became the new center of the art world. Donna De Salvo and her fellow curators offer a tasting feast of the great names: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Philip Guston, along with their second generation compatriots such as Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell. (Mitchell’s 1956 “Hemlock” is as strong a painting as the museum is currently showing.)

The gallery fairly rings with a sense of the elemental sublime, transcendence and untrammeled aspiration. Some of these artists were born in the United States, others immigrated here. After the war, they threw themselves and their paint into soaring gestures of free expression. It was as if, familiar with surrealism and the Freudian subconscious, they were seeking the visual archeology of a new American dream. Wassily Kandinsky -- along with Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian the great pioneer of modern abstraction -- had written in 1912 that the world was moving toward “an epoch of great spirituality.” Newman, the most erudite and articulate of the New York School, was similarly optimistic about art’s capacity to transform life for the better. “The self, terrible and constant,” he wrote, “is for me the subject matter of painting.”

But it was difficult to sustain such high aspirations. Louise Bourgeois, a contemporary of the great generation, cunningly makes this evident in sculpture that intimates bodily self-images and fears. The younger Paul McCarthy makes it jarringly evident in a violent and abusive video that shows him flailing wildly about his studio with a paint-smeared tarpaulin or using his own body to drag paint across a floor.

The heroic aspirations of largely abstract expression yield, on the Whitney’s third floor, to the more ordinary stuff of American life, and indeed to some of its most troubling aspects: its vulgarity, consumerism and mounting militarism. (The chapter is wittily called “The Pure Products of America Go Crazy” in words taken from William Carlos Williams and used as the title of a frantic mini-video by Paul Pfeiffer, a looped clip of Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.”) It was above all Robert Rauschenberg who let the world back into art in the late 1950s, but here Jasper Johns’ “Three Flags” and Andy Warhol’s “Before and After,” a huge gray and white illustration of a nose job, take the lead. (In today’s America, the former suggests an almost absurd chauvinism and the latter a pitiable narcissism.) Earlier in the century, commercial imagery had been used to wonderful effect in the colonial cubism of Stuart Davis. Now, with the help of photographic silk-screening, Ben Day dots and comic enlargement, it is enlisted to elevate comic strips (Roy Lichtenstein) and household appliances (Claes Oldenburg) to the canon.

The dehumanizing influence of a consumer culture becomes almost oppressive in these galleries. The verisimilitude of Duane Hanson’s startlingly lifelike sculpture “Woman with Dog” first amuses, then saddens. Not far away a canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat in his heyday unmistakably excoriates American racism.

For our immediate situation as a people, a small corner on this floor may be the timeliest. Introduced by one of Ben Shahn’s realist scenes from his Sacco-Vanzetti series, it includes a fine little piece by Chris Burden on “America’s Darker Moments” that ironically uses children’s lead figure toys to mourn Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the assassination of JFK, Vietnam and the Kent State shootings. Then there are 11 panels from Jacob Lawrence’s “War Series” that one would like to install in the current White House’s Cabinet Room, most especially the last, “Victory,” in which a lone black soldier in full battle gear slumps over his rifle in a foxhole -- somewhere. I thought of the young man again when, on the floor above, I stood before Lee Bontecou’s forbidding “Untitled, 1961,” a great militaristic mask that comes close to portraying the face and horror of war as effectively as Goya did.

Bontecou’s piece (not wholly successfully) is part of the final chapter in this telling of our story, centered on a core group of minimalist works from the 1960s and 1970s. Reacting to the grand gestures and high drama of ab ex (much as we might now react to the culture lionized by pop), the minimalists pared down to essentials, reducing if not wholly eliminating content and emotion and emphasizing the inherent qualities of ordinary (often industrial) materials. In paintings by Frank Stella and, especially, the sculpture of Donald Judd and Tony Smith, “what you see is what you see,” as Stella said of his austere striped black paintings from 1959-60.

The Whitney does well showing how the new trend had been anticipated by the futurism of Joseph Stella, by Charles Sheeler and other American precisionists, and most immediately by Ad Reinhardt’s “black paintings.” Near Smith’s brooding, silent “Die” (a six-foot high black steel cube) and two mesmerizing pieces by Judd, one comes upon later efforts that show the movement’s influence, from the comic (Jeff Koons’ hilariously elegant vitrine of four Hoover vacuum cleaners) to the ridiculous (Barry Le Va’s chance scattering of torn felt and broken glass on the floor) to the confrontational (Adrian Piper’s quietly powerful installation exploring race in America, easily one of the most memorable pieces in the whole show). But the discontinuity between minimalism in any strict sense and the work that came after it reveals that its search for the essential risked being narrow and dogmatic.

Aspiration, a search for the essential, aversion to the self-satisfaction of an overly aggressive culture -- these could all be said to be part of the religious instinct, and one might well ask where the still broadly religious character of the American people appears in the Whitney’s “Full House.” Are we still, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “a nation with the soul of a church”?

Apparently not. Apart from occasional traces of the religious -- Jacob Lawrence’s panel of soldiers praying, the staged sacramental background of Cady Noland’s photographs, Kirk Douglas as a trumpeter playing snatches of “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen” in Christian Marclay’s engaging “Video Quartet,” or the little church nestled in a corner of Mike Kelley’s wooden model of an “Educational Complex” -- the business of America here is business, or domination in one of several forms: racial, sexual, military.

The one notable exception, and it is notable indeed, is Christian Jankowski’s 16-and-a-half minute video “The Holy Artwork.” Here the young German (born 1968) artist is invited by televangelist Peter Spencer of the Harvest Fellowship Church in San Antonio to come forward with his camera to help the congregation understand “the miracle of art.” On reaching the side of the beaming, congenial pastor in his dapper gray jacket, black T-shirt and slacks, Christian falls unaccountably to the floor and remains there for some 15 minutes. The pastor continues his rambling remarks, which touch on creation, creativity, the tripartite constitution of human nature (body, soul, spirit), the Trinity and the importance of audience participation (otherwise there is no “creativity”). Clips are shown of a Passion play and of adorable children dressed as angels. The Harvest Fellowship Church choir fills the stage and sings earnestly over poor prone Christian. Pastor Spencer concludes by pointing out that what the audience-congregation has just experienced is art “because it’s never been seen before” and then thanks the Lord “for creating video, this holy art.” The wall label outside muses that the piece “suggests comparison with the metaphysical quest of the abstract expressionists.” (It’s shown on their floor.) As they say, you have to see it to believe it.

But one should perhaps not simply bemoan the absence of faith, or even its trivialization, in the Whitney’s current view of our culture. Karl Rahner’s great thesis still holds true: Everything said about the human implies something to say also about God. If there were heroic, searching, self-confident moments at mid-century but now rather scattered, disjointed and sometimes crass accounts of who we are as a people, we still have artists reminding us of the pitfalls of nationalism and consumerism and of the false gods of racial and sexual superiority. And we have young people and old rediscovering Sandy Calder’s “Circus.” Any show that offers his playfulness, Joan Mitchell’s American lyricism, Jacob Lawrence’s sad warnings of war and Adrian Piper’s scorching questions about our real identity, any such show leaves ample room for the wonder that arises in many of us as to what Holy Mystery this whole perplexing story may point to.

So yes, yet again, good reason, full and overflowing, to congratulate the Whitney on its anniversary and to be grateful to Mrs. Whitney for having founded it -- even if her languid, glamorous portrait by Robert Henri, now hanging awkwardly in the lobby, looks rather more self-satisfied than the world around her warrants.

Jesuit Fr. Leo O’Donovan is the former president of Georgetown University. He writes frequently on art for NCR.

More information
"Full House" remains on view at the Whitney through Sept. 3, with several sections remaining further into the fall. For more information, visit

National Catholic Reporter, August 11, 2006

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