A democratic look at American art

Instead of a narrow, elitist look at what the 20th century has produced, a Whitney exhibition includes everything from music to industrial design, demanding we see art as part of life.

May 09, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

What is American art, and what is it about the art produced in this country in the 20th century that makes it unique?

That is the fascinating question raised by "The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-1950," a landmark survey of art in the United States undertaken by New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. The first half of the show opened last month and runs through Aug. 22. Part II, which continues the story of American art from the 1950s to the present, opens Sept. 26 and runs through Jan. 23, 2000.

"The American Century," which occupies all five floors of the museum, has precipitated wildly diverging opinions on what constitutes American art and what standards it ought to be judged by. Critics say the Whitney has abandoned its responsibility to present only the great works by throwing in everything except the kitchen sink. Yet the public has been undeterred, turning out in record numbers to see the show and seemingly delighted by its glorious hodgepodge of more than 600 objects ranging from painting, sculpture and photography to music, decorative art and industrial design.

"The American Century," a phrase coined by Time magazine founder Henry Luce in 1941, was a grand conception of the United States' responsibility to play a leading role in world affairs. But Luce was referring mainly to America's political and economic leadership. Modernism in painting and sculpture, after all, was primarily a creation of European cultural ferment. It was not until after World War II, with the rise of the abstract expressionists, that New York replaced Paris as the world's artistic center of gravity.

Yet Whitney curator Barbara Haskell has taken Luce's description in its most expansive meaning. Her narrative of the development of American art, broken down thematically by decade from the last flourishes of the Gilded Age to the postwar period, portrays it as part and parcel of the nation's emergence as a 20th-century global superpower.

In such a vision, the course of American art is inextricably entwined with the revolutionary changes in American society -- immigration, industrialization, urbanization and the rise of the consumer economy -- that transformed the country during the first half of the century and defined the cultural Zeitgeist in which art was produced.

"The American Century" reprises all the usual suspects -- George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Ben Shahn, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, Man Ray, Andrew Wyeth, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack, among others.

It includes such justly famous masterpieces as Charles Demuth's "The Figure 5 in Gold" (1928), Grant Wood's "American Gothic" (1930), Joseph Stella's "The Brooklyn Bridge" (1939) and Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" (1942), a haunting paean to urban alienation. There are also lovely but lesser-known pieces by Georgia O'Keeffe, Arshile Gorky, Barnett Newman and Robert Motherwell.

Yet painters and sculptors make up only the foundation for the show; on that is built a magnificent edifice fashioned from the 20th-century arts of mechanical mass reproduction -- photography, the phonograph, movies, posters and prints -- and the products of industrial design and decorative arts. These were the media that gave the era its popular flavor and edge.

So next to a painting by, say, O'Keeffe, you'll find photographs by Lewis Hine, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand; film stills from Charlie Chaplin's films; a movie clip from a Busby Berkeley musical, pottery by Louis Comfort Tiffany; furniture by Greene and Greene; a tall-case clock by Gustav Stickley; and sheet music from Tin Pan Alley.

The way in which American painting and photography, in particular, have continuously informed each other during this century is one of the show's unique revelations. The image formed by camera and lens is as emblematic of modernism in American visual arts as the country's skyscrapers, steel suspension bridges and industrial plants are of modern life.

The Whitney show honors photography's decisive influence on 20th-century American visual arts more forcefully than any previous survey in recent memory. For example, the traditional values celebrated by regionalist painters like Benton and Wood find their spiritual counterpart in the photographs of Farm Security Administration photographers Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee.

Inevitably, such an eclectic approach to American art is bound to draw fire from purists. The late critic Clement Greenberg, who believed the ubiquitous artifacts of popular culture were an invitation to soul-deadening kitsch, would have been appalled by the promiscuous inclusion of so much "low" culture into the "high" art citadel of the museum.

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