America's art century

Review: Suddenly, our nation changed the art world.

October 12, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the second half of the 20th century, New York replaced Paris as the center of the art world, and American artists suddenly became preeminent for the first time in the nation's history.

The emergence of America as a world political, economic and cultural leader after World War II is one of the most fascinating developments of this tumultuous century. In the Whitney Museum of American Art's epic exhibition, "The American Century: Art & Culture 1950-2000," it also is a story heroically told.

In 1941, Life magazine publisher Henry Luce wrote that Americans should embrace a "vision of America as a world power which will guide us to the authentic creation of the 20th Century -- our Century."

Luce thought his "American century" would result from U.S. intervention in world affairs to promote American political and economic values. But he never seems to have anticipated America's enormous cultural impact on the rest of the world.

The Whitney show starts with the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s and early 1950s as the first American painting that European artists had to take seriously. The deeply agitated paintings of the New York School, led by such artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, boldly announced America's artistic independence from the Old World.

Abstract Expressionist paintings emphasized the spontaneous process by which they were created and their dramatic increase in scale over traditional easel painting. Baby boomers who recall growing up with the angst-ridden swirls of Pollock or de Kooning's brutal abstractions probably will be surprised at how decorative and tame the revolutionaries of 50 years ago look today.

Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Rothko, Pollock and de Kooning evoke memories of '50s suburban ennui almost as much as the frosty iconoclasm of the Beat Generation.

Outwardly, the 1950s were a decade of conformity and Cold War politics. But just below the surface, change was stirring. The civil rights movement had begun; rock and roll signaled a new youth culture; television had insinuated itself into millions of homes.

One of the strengths of the Whitney show is the way it leavens the era's artistic developments with the social and political context in which they occurred.

The museum came in for criticism over the now-closed first half of the show, which gave nearly as much attention to the popular arts -- photography, movies, advertising and industrial design -- as to painting and sculpture. Yet the approach worked, because these commonplace cultural objects gave viewers an almost tactile sense of what it was like to live through those times.

So in the current show, space is given to album covers, book dust jackets, movie posters and other '50s memorabilia that help re-create the ambience of the period.

The times are also evoked in the work of such photographers as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Lisette Model, Helen Levitt and Weegee, all of whom brought a new realism and honesty to the documentary and news photograph.

In the 1960s, Pop art turned people's ideas about art upside down. In contrast to the serious Ab-Exers, Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol made art fun again, even as they pushed the envelope that defined what art was. Pop artists drew on the popular culture of comic books, advertisements, movies and television for their imagery. Lichtenstein's huge blowups of comic strip panels and Warhol's endlessly repeated rows of Campbell's soup cans both celebrated and lamented the commercial culture that had come to dominate Americans' lives.

The show makes mention of Minimalism and the artists associated with it. The movement sought to strip art of inessentials, presumably to increase its impact. Artists such as Donald Judd, Frank Stella and David Smith created sparely constructed works that inspired the Conceptualist movement which, for all practical purposes, dispenses with the artwork altogether.

Perhaps because we are still too close to it, the Whitney's narrative of American art after the 1970s seems less convincing than that of earlier periods. Still, this is an ambitious and challenging exhibition whose abundant riches can at times seem overwhelming.

Paradoxically, some of the most notorious works of the last 20 years, such as Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs and Andres Serrano's photo of a crucifix in urine, have attracted almost no attention, though they are prominently displayed in a section of the show about the "culture wars" of the 1990s.

Perhaps that is a hopeful sign that works originally created primarily to shock gradually do lose their power to disturb as well as their unmerited fame.

`The American Century'

Where: The Whitney Museum of America Art, 945 Madison Ave. at 75th Street, New York When: Through Feb. 13

Call: 212-570-3676

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