Some 50 years ago, when the history of mid-20th-century American Modernism was being forged, Abstract Expressionism quashed all competitors, though from this distance its grand gestures begin to look smaller, its epochal conceits more flimsy. And what about the New York School’s sidelined rival, Indian Space Painting, with which it shared certain aspirations, in particular the urge to tap into primordial currents of feeling? Should Steve Wheeler, the squirreliest of the Indian Space Painters, replace Franz Kline in our museums? Perhaps not. Of the artists associated with the Indian Space group, only Will Barnet made something whole of the mix of Native American art and early Modernism. Mr. Barnet deserves a place in the history books, but the other members of the group-a handful of loosely affiliated artists-are too willful in their borrowings, too literal and corny, to be anything other than marginal.
But it turns out that the Indian Space Painters had, if not a school, then a follower, and his paintings are on display at Richard York Gallery. Ted Faiers (1908-1985): Paintings of the 1950s is what you might expect from an adherent tangential to an already tangential style: blocky, interconnected compositions; distorted, primitivistic figures; cut and cobbled shapes; crisp lines and warm colors. The pictures are made to order; they trade in received ideas.
After studying at the Art Students League under Mr. Barnet, Faiers accepted a teaching position at the Memphis College of Art in 1952. He stayed in Tennessee for the rest of his life. Working apart from the pressurized hubbub of Manhattan deprived him of the community, as well as the competition, that might have prompted greater pictorial invention. (Memphis was not initially hospitable to Faiers’ outré art.) Compared to his Indian Space peers, Faiers is neither as cantankerous as Wheeler or as rambunctious as Peter Busa, and certainly not as magisterial as Mr. Barnet. Faiers’ pictures are free of portent; their primordialism is skin-deep.
Contentment is the main attribute, a sense of taking comfort in things kept close at hand. Even when the paintings broach a traumatic subject, as in The Crucifixion (One) (1956), they’re devoid of drama or emphasis. It’s as if Faiers used painting as a way of diffusing emotion-only the mildest of feelings show through. Happy New Year (1954), a jumpy abstract composition held together by an acidic yellow, benefits from being the least mild of the paintings, though it hasn’t aged particularly well. All the same, for a period piece it’s pretty lively-Franz Kline should be such a hoot.
Ted Faiers (1908-1985): Paintings of the 1950s is at the Richard York Gallery, 21 East 65th Street, until Aug. 29.
The big news about The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United Sates, 1990-2003 , an exhibition that Lawrence Rinder has organized for the Whitney Museum of American Art, is that it isn’t newsworthy-or, at least, not as newsworthy as it wants to be. It aims to show us the mixed and often hostile feelings the United States generates around the world. Fair enough: After 9/11 and especially in the months preceding the war in Iraq, Americans received a crash course in world opinion. We have few illusions left about our inherent likability. Why not learn something from the people doing the disliking?
The problem with The American Effect isn’t that it mostly expresses anti-American sentiments; it’s that those sentiments are reflexive. Almost any argument is worthy of consideration if it has been deliberated upon and given a coherent shape, and the United States isn’t above criticism. But the level of discourse at the Whitney is base and simplistic, suitable for a bumper sticker, or maybe a Post-It. It’s a show full of conversation-stoppers. Only those who believe that statements such as “Everyone today is a target of America” reflect nuanced thinking will enjoy The American Effect . There are few things as satisfying as having your own prejudices confirmed.
As for artistic worth, that’s not the Whitney’s overriding concern anymore. By its very nature, an exhibition like The American Effect slights the aesthetic. Politics is the driving force-and yet the people involved would probably be offended if you told them that there isn’t a single item on display that can make a claim to artistic merit. (It’s true, though. There isn’t .) The artists may hold high art in contempt, but they poach upon its authority and prestige-having a museum show on your résumé looks damn good. This is ironic; it’s also hypocritical. “Political art” need not be an oxymoron, but the platitudinous bunch at the Whitney make it so.
As a curator, Mr. Rinder’s career goal seems to be to help the Whitney become the most dispensable museum in town. He’s already more than halfway home.
The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990-2003 is at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, until Oct. 12.