There are times when one has to travel a certain distance to acquire some perspective on the recent history of the New York art scene. It’s not that travel is likely to alter our judgment of artists whose work is already well known to us. That-in my experience, anyway-rarely occurs. The true believers remain secure in their faith; the skeptics remain skeptical. Yet a change of venue-and the kind of changes in the conversation about art that is its inevitable accompaniment-often does give us a vivid sense of how such work is perceived when it comes to rest in collections far from the milieu of its initial reception. In other words, when the work ceases to be contemporary and becomes historical. Or, as we say now, when it enters the canon of established taste.
I have been thinking about this experience since returning earlier this month from Seattle-a city I had not visited since the 1980’s-where I had gone to attend the opening of the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection of Modern Art exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. While I was delighted to see Seattle again, it was mainly to artistic developments and shifts of taste in New York over the last 50 years that the exhibition of the Wright collection turned my attention.
Among the earliest works in the show are Willem de Kooning’s Woman (1943), Arshile Gorky’s How My Mother’s Embroidered Apron Unfolds in My Life (1944), David Smith’s Royal Incubator (1949) and Mark Rothko’s Number 10 (1952). Among the most recent are Anselm Kiefer’s The Wave (1990) and Katharina Fritsch’s Man and Mouse (1991-92), which are also among the largest works in the show. Thus, the course that has been traversed on the New York scene from the heyday of the New York School in the 1940’s and 50’s to the German incursions of the 80’s and 90’s is well documented in this exhibition, and so are all the best-known intervening developments-hard-edge abstraction, color-field painting, Pop Art, Minimalism, Neo-Expressionism and sundry escapades claiming to be postmodern.
Opening at the same time as the show at the Seattle Art Museum, which numbers about 100 works, was a new public exhibition space in the city devoted to other works in the Wright Collection. Although smaller in scale than the museum show-a mere 22 items-the artistic and historical mix was similar, ranging from de Kooning’s Warehouse Mannequins (1949) to Tony Cragg’s Eroded Landscape (1998). Taken together, then, both shows had the effect of confronting the visitor with the problems that are inherent in current thinking about the canon of modernist art.
Only the other day, it seems, many of the artists represented in the Wright collection exhibitions were still looked upon as contemporary-meaning, among much else, that their artistic importance was still in contention. Yet in these exhibitions they are presented to the public as exemplars of modern art-which, if it means anything in a period more and more eager to be seen as postmodern, means that the artists in question are believed to occupy a place in a tradition deriving from Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miró, Kandinsky, Brancusi and certain other modern masters. That, however, is a very stiff standard for most of yesterday’s contemporaries to meet, and in my view very few of them do in fact even come close to meeting it.
Yet I believe the Wrights are correct in calling theirs a collection of modern art, for every work in these two exhibitions derives its esthetic sanction from one or another aspect of the modernist movement. If inspiration is drawn from Duchamp rather than from Mondrian, that is certainly no reason to regard the result as postmodern, for it is only within the boundaries of a modernist sensibility that Duchamp’s ready-mades have any meaning at all. The whole notion of postmodernism is little more than a critical fiction, a strategy designed to escape the standards and strictures of modernism itself when it is not simply a polemical ploy designed to discredit the ideas of Clement Greenberg.
What is nowadays advertised as postmodernism would more accurately be described, I think, as late modernism or even low modernism-modernism engaged in a fierce polemic with itself. Polemics of that kind have been a constituent strain of the modernist movement from the outset, however, and it doesn’t advance our understanding of anything that has occurred in the art of the 1980’s and 90’s to call it something else. As we are all, perforce, the creatures of a modernity we cannot escape, so is our art of every persuasion a modernist art of one variety or another.
It is indeed the primary interest of the Wright collection that it embraces that variety without attempting to resolve its many conflicts and contradictions. The story of how the collection was assembled is recounted by Bagley Wright in a wonderful essay for the catalogue of the museum show called “Our Lives as Collectors.” In the early 1950’s, Jinny Wright, fresh from studying art history at Barnard, was working at the Sidney Janis Gallery. Bagley Wright, just out of Princeton, where he had majored in English, was working on the night shift of the New York Mirror , a long defunct tabloid he describes as “the last of the spit-on-the-floor dailies.”
“What a marvelous time it was to be a collector,” he writes, “when only a few collected and the best paintings being done anywhere in the world were available for a few hundred or at the most a few thousand dollars. From this period came the de Kooning, Guston, Rothko, and Pollock that formed the foundation of our collection.” About acquiring the Rothko, he tells the following story: “The first really important large painting Jinny acquired was Mark Rothko’s Number 10 , but she got it only after a protracted negotiation. The problem wasn’t the price ($1,200), it was Jinny. Was she worthy, in Rothko’s judgment, to own one of his masterpieces? His dealer at that time, Betty Parsons, arranged a meeting. Rothko was charmed by Jinny. With certain restrictions-no exhibitions, no photos-she was allowed to have it. I doubt that Rothko had sold more than a dozen paintings in his life, but like all the Abstract Expressionists, he had a high opinion of himself and his calling.”
In this memoir, Mr. Wright also gives us a shrewd and affectionate account of Clement Greenberg and pays tribute, too, to the dealer Dick Bellamy, both of whom he acknowledges as important influences on the collection. Especially in his evocation of the New York art world in the 1950’s and early 60’s, he has a very engaging story to tell, and he tells it well. He doesn’t hesitate to recount the kind of resistance the Wrights’ efforts on behalf of some of their favorite artists have sometimes met with, either. When the Virginia Wright Fund commissioned a Mark di Suvero sculpture for the campus of Western Washington University, it was assumed it would be a great hit. Instead, however, “They denounced his unpainted steel construction as the detritus of a military-industrial society. Only after it was painted red did they grudgingly accept it as art.”
It was even worse with a Richard Serra commission. Failing to find an admiring public, Mr. Wright writes, “It has become a maintenance problem, the target of graffiti and scurrilous pamphlets plastered on its surface.” All of which is a reminder that not all the criticism that is directed at the varieties of modernist art in the Wright Collection is what is written in the papers.
The Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection of Modern Art exhibition remains on view at the Seattle Art Museum through May 9.