Even Artists Are Saying Whitney Show’s a Stinker

It will be recalled that when the first installment of The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000 opened at the Whitney Museum in April, both the exhibition and its oversize, overdesigned catalogue met with-how shall I put it?-a critical response that fell short of universal acclaim. My own verdict in The Observer of May 3 was only one of a number of reviews that ventured to suggest that this ill-conceived attempt to retrofit 50 years of American art, 1900 to 1950, to conform to the demands of a politically correct 1990’s social documentary was an intellectual shambles. Five months later, these mostly negative assessments of The American Century, Part I are still weighing in. The September issue of Art in America , for example, features three critical essays that provide the most detailed account of The American Century, Part I that has so far appeared.

The early adverse judgments on the show were no botheration to the folks at the Whitney who are primarily concerned to count box-office receipts. For in that respect, The American Century, Part I , nicely timed to coincide with the peak tourist season in New York, was a smashing success. But the criticism was a vexation for Barbara Haskell, the principal curator of the show and the principal author of its catalogue. She therefore arranged to be interviewed on the subject in The Wall Street Journal in an article that appeared on May 24 and used the occasion to strike back at her critics-primarily, as it turned out, Peter Schjeldahl, who now writes for The New Yorker , and myself.

I have to confess that it was a piquant experience to find myself bracketed on this occasion with Mr. Schjeldahl, with whose judgments on art-or, for that matter, anything else-I have seldom, if ever, been in agreement. I don’t imagine this bizarre linkage gave Mr. Schjeldahl much comfort, either. For the fact is, our criticisms of The American Century, Part I were very different. My principal complaint about this mammoth exhibition was, as I wrote, that it was “only marginally concerned to concentrate on high artistic achievement.” It was Mr. Schjeldahl’s view, however, that in the period under review in the exhibition there was scarcely any achievement by American artists worth the fuss. There were certainly more than a few rooms in The American Century, Part I to support such a mistaken view, but that was precisely one of the things that made the exhibition such a shambles-its refusal to apply a coherent standard of quality. In lieu of such a standard, Ms. Haskell instead adopted the procedures appropriate to a social documentary, in which standards of esthetic quality no longer apply.

In her Wall Street Journal interview, Ms. Haskell more or less conceded the point by acknowledging, “Early on, I rejected doing an exhibition about art history,” which, as she also said, “seemed a dry way of approaching the material.” If her statement means anything, it means that she was to some degree in agreement with Mr. Schjeldahl about the paucity of American achievement in this period. Ms. Haskell’s blather about art being “more than just abstract form and color relationships”-an obvious dig at art critic Clement Greenberg-was simply contemptible. So was her contention that “it’s as if somehow we’re still in 1910 and European art is still the symbol of quality.” For no one knows better than Ms. Haskell that for many of the finest talents in American art in the first half of the 20th century European art was in fact not the “symbol” but the standard of quality they set out to meet in their own work. That she chose to ignore this fundamental datum of art history in order to produce a crowd-pleasing entertainment that would have what she calls a “cinematic flow” is only another measure of the exhibition’s failure to do justice to the real achievements of American art. For what does creating “cinematic flow” mean in this context if not pandering to an audience’s abridged attention span?

One of the best critical accounts of The American Century, Part I has come from a surprising quarter: the Art Students League of New York. In the summer issue of the League’s journal, Linea , Ronnie Landfield has written an essay on the exhibition that speaks for the way many artists-painters and sculptors, that is-feel about this debacle. This is one of the key passages: “At first view the exhibition seems complete and it takes a while to realize that the Whitney Museum continues its long-term policy of undermining American painting and sculpture in subtle ways and in some not so subtle ways. This is about slick, sociological chicanery and not about great art. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing this exhibition pretends to be about art while it undermines American painting and sculpture. The works in this exhibition depend upon literal content not quality. Mass culture, glam, kitsch, commercial art, and Hollywood are glorified and revered, photography is exalted, and with a few exceptions, American painters and sculptors are showcased in a poor light. Dozens of important American painters and sculptors, some still living and some dead, are left out. Marcel Duchamp is represented by two facsimile pieces from 1964, in spite of his spending most of his professional career in Europe and not in America while Albert Pinkham Ryder, Hans Hofmann, and Milton Avery are left out altogether. The seeds of Pop and Conceptual Art have been carefully sown in part one. The thoughtful viewer’s logical conclusions about what is to come in The American Century, Part II would be the new academy, cool art, the new salon of Post-Dada, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Pop, Video, and Post-Modern kitsch.”

With the second installment of The American Century , with Lisa Phillips as principal curator, opening on Sept. 26, we shall soon see if this is an accurate prediction of what awaits us. My own guess is that, with Ms. Phillips in charge, Mr. Landfield’s prediction may be unduly optimistic.