Picturing the American Century

As the 1900s slip away, New York’s Whitney Museum recalls the artists and images that made these years uniquely ours

In the spring, a ticket to New York's Whitney Museum of American Art cordially invited the visitor to "Make Some Sense of America." Given the context — a dizzying two-installment extravaganza encompassing more than 1,200 works of art (paintings, sculpture, crafts, photography, film, video, dance, literature, architecture, pop music) — it might have been more helpful to have been told to move slowly and stay calm.

The Whitney's show, "The American Century," embraces the art and culture of our time. The first half of the century was explored in the spring-summer exhibition that carried the "Make Some Sense" slogan; the second phase, open now, will be on display through February 13, 2000. The monster show has something for everyone, even the visitor who might pass up a Dan Flavin fluorescent light work or a Joseph Cornell box for a chance to cozy up to a computer. One room has been devoted to a cluster of PCs equipped with a Website on the exhibition, an amenity provided by the Intel Corporation, the major money behind the show.

The critical response to the Whitney's efforts has ranged from warm, grateful approval to irritation bordering on outrage. Moreover, not every viewer was charmed by a glimpse of Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon or giant images of loose-limbed tap dancers from a 1920s film projected on a gallery wall. But surely no rule demands that viewers appreciate, or even pause, before every element of a multimedia event: just the history of American art ranging across the decades was enough to command attention and gratitude. And attention was paid. Long lines of visitors eager to purchase tickets stretched far along the sidewalk outside the museum.

The first phase, covering 1900-1950, was, among other things, a reminder of how relatively little interest was invested in American art in the time of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the museum's founder. Whitney was a sculptor herself, a woman of taste and means who fervently supported American artists. But in her day, the gentry put its money into European works. So did the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, in 1929, famously refused her collection. The Whitney Museum opened two years later.

Much of its art appears in the show, along with works borrowed from collections everywhere. The walls alternate the familiar with the forgotten. Some of it is engaging art that an older generation first encountered: John Sloan's snowy Greenwich Village backyard with prowling cats; Elie Nadelman's memorable carved-wood sculpture of a couple dancing the tango; George Bellows' muscled prizefighters; Edward Hopper's melancholy urban scenes; Grant Wood's iconic American Gothic. There are surprises — early abstracts by Georgia O'Keeffe, the painter we associate chiefly with giant images of flowers; harsh reminders of the devastation of the Depression and the Second World War — and, inevitably, a parade of names now faded into obscurity.

The second part of "The American Century" heralds an age of glory. The States, long a provincial outpost of European creativity, was suddenly mainstream. While Europe painfully emerged from the ravages of World War II, America was intact and thriving. The political upheavals that precipitated the war also bestowed gifts. Refugee artists and writers who had fled Europe — among them, Fernand Léger, Piet Mondrian, Walter Gropius, Salvador Dalí, André Breton and Marc Chagall — made a major impact on the way American artists worked.

New York was now the home of an avant-garde group of artists labeled the New York School and dominated by Abstract Expressionism, and it wiped out Paris as the capital of the art world. In truth, nonobjective art had already made its mark even before the half-century arrived. The final galleries of the first phase of the Whitney show proclaimed the emergence of a new art with pioneering works by, among others, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, David Smith and Theodore Roszak.

In the new art, size mattered. A Pollock painting might want a wall extending beyond 17 feet. As Rothko saw it, such monumentality allowed the artist to be "very intimate and human"—to be inside his work. Gesture painters labored spontaneously, as the catalogue tells us, "dripping, pouring, slashing." Pollock's work, for example, bore "a trace of a process, a performance, a dance."

Dominant styles seemed to change every five minutes. Figurative painting regained momentum before the 1950s were over, and we had Alex Katz, Larry Rivers and Alice Neel — a woman! The art world finally gave room and respect to female creative talents; along with Neel, connoisseurs welcomed Louise Nevelson, Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler and Louise Bourgeois. In prosperous times, there was money to buy the work of either sex and an astonishing number of places in which to find it. By 1960, New York's 30 respected galleries had ballooned to 300. Contemporary art was big business.

It got even bigger with the arrival of Pop Art, disdained by the critics but embraced by start-up collectors. Its progenitors were Robert Rauschenberg, whose work boldly combined painting and sculpture, and Jasper Johns, who could make a major statement out of a triple image of the American flag — the emblem of the exhibition. Following in their tracks were Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenburg, all of whom made art out of everyday images.

In time, some art became at once transient and memorable. Christo wrapped buildings and landscapes in great sheets of fabric, creating huge outdoor works that were, of course, temporary. Robert Smithson made "Earthworks" in vast empty spaces, using rock, earth and water. This was art seemingly without commercial prospects, "pieces" that could not be shown in a museum or home and sometimes might disappear entirely. The final irony is that they could be crafted only with substantial funds, and patronage became critical.

In the late decades of this century, art has been complicated, unnerving and sometimes simply fun. One of the more recent pieces in the show is a 1997 interactive installation by Bill Viola, the video artist. Titled Tree of Knowledge, it consists of a long enclosed corridor at the end of which the viewer sees a tree. Walk toward it and the leaves fall off. Step back and they return to the branches. In this collaborative process, the viewer — metaphorically at least — joins with the creator to complete a work of art.

We can't set off flurries of flying leaves on the printed page, but these images offer a sampling of the range and variety of paintings and sculpture produced in this country over the past 99 years.

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