New Man at the Whitney: An End to Freak Shows?

As readers of this column have ample reason to know, I am not an optimist by nature. About the current state of the New York art world, moreover, I am especially gloomy. And foremost among the causes of that gloom in recent years has been the appalling record of the Whitney Museum of American Art, an institution that has lately been so intent upon rendering itself irrelevant to the life of art that for many people-artists as well as ordinary museumgoers-it had ceased to be a place worth visiting. The one New York museum that had been specifically founded to advance the development of American art had become captive to the deconstructionist race-class-sex agenda of postmodern politics.

Except for occasional bows to the box office-e.g., this summer’s Andrew Wyeth sop-ideology remained the top priority.

Now, with the appointment of Maxwell Anderson as the Whitney’s new director, there may be reason to hope that the museum’s board of trustees has at long last awakened to the debacle it complaisantly presided over these many years and is setting about the difficult task of returning this institution to the mainstream traditions of American art. I take it as a welcome augury, anyway, that the Whitney board has sought out a scholar rather than a publicist or master-of-ceremonies type or political playboy to fill the vacancy left by the unlamented departure of David Ross from the museum’s directorship.

That the new director is not a specialist in American art-his principal academic training has been in the field of Greek and Roman art-is not to be regretted, either. Some of the things that have lately passed for scholarship in the field of American art have been so bizarre-so completely hostage to mystifications of post-structuralist theory-that it is actually something of a relief to know that the Whitney’s new director is in a position to bring a larger historical perspective to his new duties. The history of American art is not, after all, an esoteric or hermetic subject. There are no doubt some discoveries still to be made, and there are certainly some critical revaluations to be effected, but intellectual decisions of that sort are part of the normal business of any serious art museum. It would herald a bright new era at the Whitney if such decisions were now to be made on the basis of sound scholarship and equally sound esthetic standards and not simply from a menu of currently fashionable social ideologies.

The task of rehabilitating the Whitney will not be an easy one, however. It will require, for one thing, a drastic overhaul of the museum’s curatorial staff, and indeed of its curatorial structure. It is not that the Whitney has been entirely lacking in gifted curators in recent years, but it has been woefully lacking in both curatorial leadership and curatorial independence.

It says much about the intellectual demoralization of the current curatorial staff that two of the best exhibitions lately to be seen at the Whitney-the retrospectives devoted to the works of Richard Diebenkorn and Arthur Dove-were organized outside the museum, the one by a guest curator and the other by the Phillips Collection in Washington. As for shows lately organized by the Whitney itself, the current exhibitions devoted to Richard Pousette-Dart and Louise Nevelson are models of how not to treat the work of significant artists.

For another thing, the whole conception of the Whitney’s Biennial exhibitions of contemporary art is in urgent need of radical revision. It is ridiculous for the Whitney to go on pretending that the principal function of its Biennial is to give the public an account of whatever is construed to be “avant-garde” when everyone knows that there is no avant-garde today worthy of the name, and it doesn’t change anything to call such work “cutting-edge” instead of “avant-garde.”

What the Whitney’s desperate search for a “cutting-edge” Biennial has mainly produced in recent years has been a dismal combination of freak shows and political circuses. The only justification for continuing to mount these Biennial exhibitions isn’t novelty but quality. If it isn’t possible for the Whitney to organize Biennial exhibitions devoted to the highest achievements in contemporary American art, then there is no point in doing such exhibitions. But for the museum to concentrate on quality, rather than novelty or outrage, it will need the kind of changes in its curatorial staff I have already indicated. For many years now, most of what is best on the contemporary art scene-and I mean by artists young and old and of many different esthetic persuasions-has been totally ignored by the organizers of the Biennials.

Another thing the Whitney is in desperate need of is a first-rate curator of 19th-century American art. Failing such an appointment, the museum ought simply to get out of the business of showing 19th-century American art. Similarly, if the Whitney is to be taken seriously as a museum that encompasses the achievements of American photography, it also needs a first-rate curator who can bring the necessary scholarship and connoisseurship to the task. In neither of these fields has the Whitney ever taken anything but a token interest.

Finally, there is the problem of dealing with the Whitney’s permanent collection. The new galleries that have been specifically designed for this purpose are excellent exhibition spaces-quite the best, I think, in the entire building-but the initial installation is as much a muddle, as much an attempt to satisfy an agenda of extra-artistic interests and ideologies, as almost everything else at the Whitney has lately been. Again, the permanent collection, too, needs a first-rate curator whose sole criterion will be one of artistic quality.

The task of rehabilitating the Whitney will indeed be a daunting one. I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Anderson is equal to the challenge, but whether the Whitney’s board of trustees can be trusted to allow that challenge to be met remains a question. Its appointment of Mr. Anderson is a promising first step, but its own past history of grave intellectual delinquencies reminds us that for the moment the question remains unanswered.

New Man at the Whitney: An End to Freak Shows?