Our Century, Ourselves

Millennial madness is loose in the land. The 20th century is about to become as remote as the 19th. The passing century is one that Henry Luce claimed as American in 1941. Regardless of your view of this presumption, no one country will own the next. Whether it's television and magazine specials or the Y2K panic, the next 240 days are going to be intense.

The Whitney Museum of American Art is already in action, inaugurating a museumwide celebration of its own with "The American Century: Art & Culture 1900–1950." As the title implies, this is only the first installment; part two will follow in September. So this show might more accurately be called "The American Half- Century," or, even more precisely, "The Whitney's American Half-Century." The exhibition seems designed to prop up the museum's outdated version of the American art of its time and, by implication, its importance as a cultural institution.

Filling the entire five-floor Marcel Breuer building, it's a half-century in a box, all wrapped up and going no place. A behemoth, it proceeds roughly at a decade per floor, from the Gilded Age and The Eight to the early years of abstract expressionism. In between are cheek-by-jowl sections covering Precisionism, social realism, the Stieglitz and Arensberg circles (Duchamp's all-important urinal is here), geometric and bimorphic abstraction, Arts and Crafts, and surrealism. Great chunks of American history glide in and out of view: the rise of New York, immigration, the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression, and World War II and its aftermath, full of promise yet ominously divided by race and class.

Mixed media at the Whitney: Grant Wood (second from left), Walter Kuhn, Horst, and Hurrell
Robin Holland
Mixed media at the Whitney: Grant Wood (second from left), Walter Kuhn, Horst, and Hurrell

Details

'The American Century: Art & Culture 1900–1950'
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through August 22

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Is this fun? Not really. The show is alternately exhausting and exhilarating, familiar and surprising; unfortunately, in the end it's not exhilarating and surprising enough. In a time of rampant art-historical revisionism, "The American Century" sticks far too close to the original vision of the Whitney's founders. Perhaps that's because it's been organized by Barbara Haskell, a Whitney curator for 25 years. In many ways, she is cast here in the bittersweet role of a Gorbachev-like figure who sees that change is possible, even inevitable, but who is constantly dragged down by the weight of the institution and its past.

Haskell strives mightily. Her catalogue text is lucid and dramatic. She repeatedly introduces the art of women, nonwhites, and unknowns—as well as various "minor" art forms like craft and design—into the mix. But too often these things are used to spice up a very familiar dish. There are tantalizing pockets of "Culture," including movies, music, illustration, and industrial design. Folk art is represented by one lone genius, Horace Pippin. But the only medium that really makes its presence felt is photography, which Haskell spreads about liberally. Think of photography as continually gaining on the outside track—the exhibition's dark horse, backbone, saving grace, and ultimately its shining star.

The central problem with this exhibition lies in the dominance of painting and sculpture, too much of which seems parochial and derivative. Walk through the show and see how often you find yourself thinking about European precedents. For example, when looking at works by Robert Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, and other artists of the group known as The Eight—founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's first aesthetic love, which takes up much too much space here—you will probably think mostly of Manet. In front of '30s geometric abstraction—Charles Biederman, George L.K. Morris, Burgoyne Diller—you think of Miró, Kandinsky, and Mondrian. With regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry, you won't think about anything because there's nothing much to think about. To double-check, in any given section compare the painting with the photography and again you will see how much more formally inventive and emotionally convincing the photographs often are. Charles Sheeler's photos of industry in motion eclipse his paintings of the same subject. Ben Shahn is a better photographer than he is a painter. And Walker Evans cuts closer to the bone than Edward Hopper, who can be such a pain.

Photographers like Paul Strand, Lewis Hine, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston grasped the possibilities of both their medium and the American spectacle emerging before their eyes. They had a clean shot at a great subject—the birth of the multifaceted American soul—and they nailed it. In this period, American photography can hold its own against any other art form in any other country.

Of course, there are many strong nonphotographic works as well. To name just a few: Elie Nadelman's Tango(1919); a beautiful gathering of the proto-Pop paintings of Gerald Murphy; Marsden Hartley's visionary portrait of the young Abraham Lincoln; Joseph Stella's stunning mosaic of high color and exuberance, Battle of Lights, Coney Island, Mardi Gras(1913–14); and Henry Ossawa Tanner's The Good Shepherd(1902–3), a moonlit landscape composed of weightless massings of delicate lines. Other standouts include works by Rebecca Strand, Alice Trumbull Mason, F. Holland Day, and William H. Johnson, but as in countless other cases, these artists are represented by only one work. They're here and then gone, leaving you wanting more.

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