No Norman Rockwell, Please: Galleries 1, Museums 0

Given the current contretemps over the ethics of museums that charge commissions for works of art sold out of their exhibitions and the even more sensational uproar over a criminal investigation into a possible conspiracy to price-fix commissions and other charges at the Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses, the timing of The Art Show this year at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue could hardly have been more felicitous.

The Art Show is the annual production of the Art Dealers Association of America, and this year the A.D.A.A. was one of the few institutional entities in the professional art world that wasn’t under a cloud of suspicion or investigation. You didn’t have to be an art dealer, either, to experience a wee bit of Schadenfreude at the spectacle of the auction houses’ current ordeal. It’s almost enough to make one believe in a just universe.

That this year’s Art Show gave the public a lot of very fine things to look at was an additional bonus for those of us-the majority-who go to art fairs to look rather than to buy. The Art Show was thus also another salutary reminder that, despite the quantities of faddish nonsense and bad taste that one often encounters in dealers’ shows, the commercial art galleries continue to play a major role in contemporary cultural life. They often recall us to artistic accomplishments the museums have neglected, and in some cases their standards of quality are actually higher and more scrupulous than those prevailing in museums that specialize in contemporary art-the Whitney, for example.

In my own generation, moreover, the galleries have been as much a part of our art education as the museums. And, except on occasions like The Art Show , which is organized as a charity benefit, the dealers’ galleries are free to anyone who has the curiosity to seek them out. They are indeed second only to our public libraries in offering us free public access to an essential feature of our civilization. That the dealers also contrive to make a profit from this public benefaction may still be troubling to people who regard capitalism as a very bad thing, but in the year 2000 these benighted souls are more deserving of our pity than our contempt. Life today-and not only in the art world-must be very difficult for them.

At this year’s Art Show , which ran for five days in February, some 70 art galleries were represented. It was a rather more elegant show than some I can recall, and while there was inevitably a fair number of objects one would be glad never to see again, they seemed to be in shorter supply than usual. In a show this size, nobody can be absolutely certain of having seen everything, but I did take a certain pleasure in the fact that I didn’t encounter a single painting by Norman Rockwell. Given current museum trends, that too must be counted as a contribution to civilization.

As for the exhibits that remain a special pleasure to recall from this year’s Art Show , two installations devoted to works by a single artist were especially noteworthy: the extraordinary collection of prints by the German Renaissance master Albrecht Dürer, mounted by David Tunick Inc.; and the very beautiful series of recent Minimalist paintings, each one foot square, by the American painter Agnes Martin, mounted by Pace Wildenstein. Both were indeed of museum quality, and the Agnes Martin series ought to go straight into a museum as a permanent installation.

Elsewhere, too, there were pleasurable surprises. In the Zabriskie Gallery’s booth there was an exceptionally beautiful sculpture by Alexander Archipenko, a Female Torso (1948), made of cast and polished terra cotta that might easily be mistaken for marble. This represents a phase of Archipenko’s work that few of us are familiar with, and in the spring (April 18 to June 2) Zabriskie will devote an entire exhibition to these polished terra cotta sculptures from the years 1935-48. Both this Female Torso from 1948 and the earlier Archipenko figures from 1910-16, exhibited in The Art Show by Rachel Adler Fine Art, left one wondering if the time may not be ripe for an Archipenko retrospective. It would have to be carefully selected, to be sure, for Archipenko was a very uneven artist. Yet at his best, some of which can be seen at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge-a gift from the late Lois Orswell-Archipenko was in the top rank of 20th-century sculptors, yet he remains virtually unknown to many museumgoers today.

Finally, there were three extraordinary items in the Achim Moeller Fine Art booth: a still-life watercolor, Tulips (circa 1920), by Charles Demuth, that is one of the artist’s finest pictures; a drawing by George Grosz called Pandemonium (dated August 1914, but probably created between 1915 and 1916), that is one of this artist’s finest works in any medium; and Saul Steinberg’s poignant Self-Portrait drawing from 1946.

Meanwhile, among current exhibitions in the galleries one that is not to be missed, at least by admirers of the paintings of Marsden Hartley, is an unusual show of the artist’s drawings at the Kraushaar Galleries-a show that will later travel to the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, N.Y. I don’t think there has ever before been a show of Hartley’s drawings in New York. This one ranges in its dates from 1908 to the very year of the artist’s death in 1943. Of particular interest are several silverpoints that give us a glimpse of the more delicate aspects of Hartley’s draftsmanship, but the star of the show is the late drawing of Three Men Standing Behind Two Seated Women With Aprons (circa 1943), on loan here from the Bates College Museum of Art. Marsden Hartley: Drawings remains on view at the Kraushaar Galleries, 724 Fifth Avenue at 57th Street, through March 11, and will then be seen at the Heckscher Museum from March 21 to May 28.

More on the New MoMA

In his letter to The New York Observer last week, Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry takes exception to some of the questions I have raised about the new “narratives” he proposed for the future of MoMA in the talk he gave at the museum on the evening of Jan. 25. In his letter dated Feb. 14, however, I was glad to see that the evangelical tone of Mr. Lowry’s January talk has been somewhat purged of its incendiary rhetoric in favor of museological alternatives that can be reasonably debated. Still, certain issues remain to be clarified, and foremost among them is the use of a cant term like “narrative,” which in today’s parlance is virtually a synonym for fiction, as a substitute for the discipline of history. Why an institution like the Museum of Modern Art should now be scornful of the “H” word-history-does indeed call for some clarification.

Unlike the traditional discipline of history, which requires factual verification as well as interpretation based on solid evidence, a “narrative” is a species of invention-in the present instance, a curatorial invention. Such narratives, or inventions, tend to be based more on the thematic content of works of art-as Mr. Lowry’s reference to “thematically organized displays” tacitly acknowledges, than on their formal or esthetic character. There is thus an antiformal, extra-esthetic bias built into such narratives from the outset. The history of an esthetic idea, say, geometrical abstraction, gets chopped up into discrete little subject-matter narratives that make hash of the esthetic continuities which governed the conception of the art in the course of its creation. This, alas, was the fate of almost every variety of abstract painting in MoMA’s Modern Starts exhibition, which, notwithstanding its many merits, did indeed represent the triumph of subject-matter narratives over the history of pictorial thought. The history of abstract art in the first decade of its existence was thus a casualty of a narrative that couldn’t accommodate it. What we are talking about, then, is a Procrustes’ Bed school of museology.

Directly related to this Procrustes’ Bed approach to the history of modern art is Mr. Lowry’s somewhat confused and confusing remarks about Alfred Barr. On the one hand, Barr’s historical view of modern art, which was indeed based on “identifying key works of art and tracing the development of critical schools and movements, and important artistic relationships,” is said by Mr. Lowry to have “oversimplified a great deal and left much unaccounted for.” On the other hand, Barr is also said to have believed that nothing that he worked so hard to accomplish in formulating a connoisseur’s history of modern art was meant to be anything but a temporary museological expedient. The clear implication is that Barr’s pioneering historical labors in this field constituted little more than a subjective narrative that has now been superseded by more up-to-date but equally expedient narratives. To believe that, however, would be tantamount to dismissing the discipline of history as an exercise in solipsism, if not indeed an intellectual solecism.

No doubt certain artistic developments were “unaccounted for” in Barr’s historical approach to modern art. He was, after all, traversing an intellectual terrain that had not yet been comprehensively explored, yet with his few significant predecessors-among them, Julius Meier-Graefe, Leo Stein, Duncan Phillips, Roger Fry and Albert C. Barnes-he was in essential agreement, and he extended the study of history of modern art a lot further than they had. In the variety of exhibitions that were organized at MoMA in Barr’s time, moreover, many aspects of 20th-century art-and even 19th-century art-that didn’t fit neatly into his basic reading of the period were also included. The Mexican muralists, for example. The charge that he “oversimplified a great deal” is itself an unwarranted simplification of his accomplishments and his methods.

As a trained historian, Barr understood that in every period of human endeavor there are developments that are central to determining its achievements and others that are less so, and that it is the vocation of the historian not only to distinguish between them but to illuminate their relation to each other and to their immediate posterity. As an art historian, he also understood that the best way to chart the course of these developments and relationships was to try to see them as the major artists of the period saw them-and, of course, to be able to identify who the major artists might be. Barr had the great advantage, to be sure, of coming to this task in a period when many of the greatest masters of modern art were still at work. His successors at MoMA have not, for the most part, been as fortunate. Barr was in a position to look to Matisse and Picasso for his standard of quality. His successors have had to settle for Andy Warhol, Frank Stella and Cy Twombly for their standard. You would have to be a museum curator or an academic-or both-to believe that this doesn’t represent a significant decline. Yet it is upon the faulty premise that ours, too, is a period of high achievement in art that MoMA’s current plans for a huge expansion of its galleries and programs devoted to contemporary art appears to be based. And it is upon this faulty premise, too, that the new narratives at MoMA are likely to give us those “stories about modern art” designed to “privilege” (as we say now) the very different work of the contemporary artists the museum now favors.

History, alas, has never been an equal-opportunity enterprise as far as the arts are concerned. (Is this, perhaps, the reason why the top brass at MoMA is now so determined to jettison the historical approach to modern art?) Great periods in art are often followed by some swift decline: Think of what happened to English painting in the immediate aftermath of Turner and Constable. That we may be living in a comparable aftermath today is something that our museums ignore at their peril-the peril of turning modernism itself into yet another academy. But this is what Mr. Lowry’s new narratives appear to be guaranteeing for MoMA’s future. Let’s face it: The age of the avant-garde is long gone, and there isn’t a museum narrative in all the world that can reverse that historical reality. What the discipline of history can do, however, is give us a broader and deeper understanding of the many ways the age of the avant-garde continues to shape the world in which we live today. If this entails a sense of loss, then that, too, should be faced up to-and not disguised under some “narrative” rubric.