Pablum Picasso

Moving beyond its current Picasso exhibit, a new vision for the Whitney

All four of the big New York art museums have their go-to modernist movements and guys (it's always guys, but that's another story)—an ism or artist that brings in the crowds, pads the coffers, and keeps trustees happy. It's easy to discern which museums have which sugar daddies. Since the art-going public has never seen an impressionist it didn't like, the Met has impressionism. The Guggenheim's main man has traditionally been Kandinsky. MOMA, of course, has its Mantle and Mays, the twin peaks of modernism: Picasso and Matisse, the ravenous and the ravishing, the truculent and the succulent, Dr. Rupture and Mr. Rapture.

The Whitney's beloved has always been Edward Hopper. At the moment, however, the Whitney is trying to upset the balance of museum power by muscling in on the Modern's territory with a third-rate mishmash called "Picasso and American Art." Of course the show has masterpieces. The problem is this simplistic pastiche sets out to prove what virtually everyone already knows: Picasso influenced American artists. Thus, we get works by Hartley, Davis, Gorky, de Kooning, Pollock, and Johns hung near similar-looking Picassos. Never mind that the show is as haphazard as a storage bin; all you get are resemblances and echoes.

At no point are you given a hint of the struggle that actually unfolded: The suicidal desperation of American artists who felt so hopelessly out of art history that they willfully digested lethal doses of another person's style (Picasso's), then after years of stalemate, transmuted this aesthetic matter into something new.

Detail of Seated Woman With Wrist Watch, 1932
photo: Estate of Pablo Picasso/ARS
Detail of Seated Woman With Wrist Watch, 1932

Details

Picasso and American Art
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
Through January 28

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Instead, we're given academic art history. It would have been more instructive to do an exhibition called "Stuart Davis and American Art." Davis was the first artist to translate Picasso into an original proto-Pop American idiom. Or a show centered around Marsden Hartley, who in the teens arrived at his own homoerotic visionary cubism. Gorky's flipped-out adulatory relationship with Picasso might make for a boring exhibition but it's still an amazing story: Rather than going around the Spanish supernova—as others tried—Gorky went directly through the cloud itself and in the 1930s miraculously emerged on the other side with an original style that led directly to abstract expressionism. The show could have gotten really juicy by demonstrating that while de Kooning was influenced by Picasso, the ravenous Spaniard, ever on the prowl for fresh meat, pillaged him in the 1950s and produced some of the wildest work of his career.

None of that is here. "Picasso and American Art" fosters a totally misleading, absolutely antiquated one-guy-one-God theory of art history. Everyone knows that Picasso influenced everything, but Picasso didn't act alone. He was influenced by everyone as well. Modernism wasn't a two-way street; it was a 10,000-way street.

For a smart, hungry institution to do this show at this moment is especially backwards now that it's clear that New York's big museums are in trouble. MOMA's new building is lovely but far too small, and the place is stuck with a masterpieces-only classic-rock distortion of history; the Guggenheim, run by a kind of dictator who could have done anything, is sadly more intent on building elsewhere than here. The Met is like the Kremlin and we don't know yet what the New Museum's still-incomplete clean new building on the Bowery will be—although I fear that this great renegade institution may try too hard to be a "good little museum" rather than the wild card it should be. That leaves the Whitney.

As luck would have it, the Whitney is now being presented with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something extraordinary—something so sweeping, thrilling, and bold that it would change the face of American culture overnight and help bring about the aesthetic revolution that must take place soon within American art institutions. After five desultory years under other leadership, the Whitney cleaned house in 2003, hiring new director Adam Weinberg, who brought on a number of excellent people, including associate director Donna De Salvo from Tate Modern. Things were improving. Then last summer another of the Whitney's plans for an addition to its Madison Avenue flagship was vetoed by another civic agency. This brings us to a crossroads.

The Whitney could at this moment electrify everyone by changing the game entirely. It should take a page from London's enormous, and enormously fantastic-for-art, Tate Modern. Rather than continuing its uphill battle of trying to build an uptown addition that will be outdated the day it opens, the Whitney should rethink its paradigm and reinvent itself.

The Whitney's Madison Avenue building should be devoted to American art only up to 1960. The museum should then take the fabulously audacious and adventurous step of finding and renovating a gigantic old building on the far West Side of Manhattan, somewhere between Tribeca and 57th Street. There, in what one hopes would be hundreds of thousands of square feet, the museum could create a huge five- or six-story horizontal Whitney Modern devoted to art since 1960, with emphasis on recent and contemporary art. This would simultaneously serve art, the art world, and the public. It would also risk failing flamboyantly. But museum culture in New York is in such dire straits that there is in fact little to lose.

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