Playing It Straight

Alas, the Whitney now looks almost as conservative and canonical as the Modern

"Full House" is the Whitney Museum's smartly speculative, occasionally revelatory, but ultimately predictable attempt to pry itself open and represent the story of American art. The highs in this building-filling experiment are tantalizing enough to make you wish the institution had been more willing to lay its cards on the table, raise the stakes, and really go for it. "Full House" actually has a much stronger, more interesting hand of art and artists than it chooses to play. Rather than trying to break the game open by venturing beyond the orthodoxy, "Full House" hedges its bet and plays it straight, sticking too close to the conventional story of American art history.

That said, there is one marvelous wild card in play. Because of the maverick feel that Donna De Salvo, chief curator and associate director for programs, has for space and for juxtaposing works of art, attentive viewers will get a fresh, even electric understanding not only of some of the art in the Whitney's collection but even the Whitney itself. As she (and co-curator Linda Norden) did so spectacularly in the innovative, open cone-shaped installation they devised for last season's Edward Ruscha show, De Salvo and a team of capable curators have opened up, unbridled, and unfurled Marcel Breuer's 1966 building, allowing you to grasp that space handled sensitively means deeper perception.

"Full House" proceeds in floor-by-floor themes like popular culture and appropriation, the transcendent and the spiritual, and materiality and conceptualism. Edward Hopper, often called "the Whitney's Picasso," gets the fifth floor to himself. "Full House" is an attempt to split the difference between the Tate Modern's overly literal thematic installation and MOMA's almost lockstep march through modernism. De Salvo, previously a curator at the Tate Modern, deftly avoids the Tate's oversimplified installation. Despite her efforts, "Full House" is still mostly art history by the book, the Whitney now looks almost as conservative and canonical as the Modern. This is too bad because the game was wide open.

A roomful of Judds and Kellys
photo: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art
A roomful of Judds and Kellys


Full House: Views of the Whitney's Collection at 75
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through September 30

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  • Nevertheless, several juxtapositions sizzle. My favorite is the kinky combo of the hard oversize bed of Claes Oldenburg across from the vulval void of Lee Bontecou, which is next to Barry Le Va's s/m installation of shattered glass and strewn felt. There's also the corner with Mary Kelly's pregnant belly as a Sol LeWitt–like grid with implications of the birth canal delivered via Nauman's nearby narrow-corridor video; and the abject-meets-the-Apollonian alcove of Louise Bourgeois, Sue Williams, Carroll Dunham, and Paul McCarthy. Yet, despite these inspired groupings, the Whitney blinked.

    The 130 Hoppers on the fifth floor are proof. The overrating of Hopper's greatness is confirmed here. Except for one riveting room of alternately sun-drenched and overcast scenes of the Seine that positively radiate light and solidity—and establish that except for several iconic later works Hopper was far stronger early on—the show is prosaic. The famous brooding scenes of people alone with one another or by themselves, and the depictions of solitary city streets and parks, are emotionally wooden, ultimately formulaic ersatz existentialism for an almost exclusively American audience.

    Whitney ticket buyers expect the museum to exhibit its most known and loved works. But "most known and loved" doesn't mean best. "Full House" was a chance to place some long-shot bets and reshuffle the cards. Then again, perhaps De Salvo and co. slyly overstacked the deck in order to prove once and for all that Hopper is not the "Whitney's Picasso"; he is the people's Picasso.

    The Whitney's—and maybe America's—real pre-war Picasso is a less crowd-pleasing, more difficult, visually jarring, intellectually edgy artist: Stuart Davis. Davis the modern; Hopper the anti-modern. If not Davis, even a few Alex Katzs would have established that American solitude has a bleached-out cinematic side. Charles Burchfield would have shown this solitude turn visionary. Diane Arbus, Maya Deren, Henry Darger, Peter Saul, H.C. Westermann, Rube Goldberg, Ivan Albright, Ed Paschke, William Copley, Louis Eilshemius, or Jim Nutt—none of whom are included—would have shown the schizophrenia and pleasure in this separateness. A Whistler would show it in a dandy light; a Homer would indicate some of its origins; Frank Lloyd Wright's anti-modern modernism could have demonstrated what happens when solitariness becomes individualism.

    But perhaps the greatest ommission, the Artist Most Missing in "Full House" is the most intense, mystically physical, magically structured painter America ever produced, a man who looked like a seagull and who was so high-strung that he never lived in one place for more than a few years, the inimitably strange and great Marsden Hartley.

    Still and all, "Full House's" brilliant installation reveals something about Hopper that I had never gotten before: Not only is he a wellspring for artists like Robert Bechtle and flatfooted 1970s photorealism, he is a founding father of American photography. On the captivating mezzanine you'll see that Philip-Lorca diCorcia, William Eggleston, Merry Alpern, Laurie Simmons, and Larry Sultan, among others, flow directly from Hopper's introspection, skepticism, yearning, and ambivalence. "Full House" extends this melancholy line to Nan Goldin's masterpiece The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Revelations like these make you wish that "Full House" would have really upped the ante and gone for broke.

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