About the not-so-eagerly awaited Part 2 of The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, let it be said straightaway that it offers few surprises in the installations devoted to works of art-or, for that matter, works best described as sub-art or failed art-for anyone who has been in frequent attendance at the Whitney in recent years. All of the usual suspects have been assembled in what looks like a massive reunion of Whitney alumni. As is often the case with class reunions, what we are likely to be especially struck by is how badly so many of the participants have aged since our first acquaintance with them.
Certainly, there are many sections of this mammoth survey of the past 50 years of American art and culture that are devoted to revisiting earlier Whitney exhibitions. If you saw the exhibition called Blam!: The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism and Performance, 1958-1964 , which Barbara Haskell organized at the Whitney in 1984, you can expect to see much more of the same in the current show. Similarly, if you saw the exhibition called Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965 , which Lisa Phillips organized at the Whitney in 1995, you will be wearied by much of the same material in Part 2 of The American Century . Which is not surprising, since Ms. Phillips is the principal curator of Part 2 of The American Century , and Ms. Haskell was the principal curator of Part 1.
Then, too, there are the reprises of certain other Whitney shows-the retrospectives devoted to Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, and the recent succession of repulsive Whitney Biennial exhibitions. Thus, while the Whitney claims-as we read in the introductory wall text of the current show-that Part 2 of The American Century “explores the evolution of America’s identity over the past 50 years as seen through the eyes of its artists,” what this exhibition is really about is the recent evolution of the Whitney itself as seen through the eyes of its curators, who have looked back on their own handiwork and found it to be just wonderful and well worth recycling on a larger scale than ever before.
Another of the claims made by the Whitney for Part 2 of The American Century is: “If a single thread can be said to unite these five decades, it is the impulse to bring art into closer proximity with life.” This isn’t exactly true, either. What, after all, does Minimalism have to do with bringing “art into closer proximity with life”? Nothing. It is precisely because Minimalist painting and sculpture offer us a neutered escape from life that they exert such an enormous appeal in certain quarters. In a world that is often messy, violent and beyond our control, Minimalism evokes an illusion of perfect order. Its principal function is to bring art into closer proximity to certain ideas about art. That is a perfectly legitimate function for art, but it is not to be confused with the kind of art that really does have something to tell us about life.
As for the kind of art that is specifically intended to be about life, everything depends upon the quality of its execution. As social commentary, a painting like Eric Fischl’s Birthday Boy (1983) in the current exhibition doesn’t really bring art into “closer proximity to life” than, say, certain paintings by John Sloan and William Glackens in the early years of the 20th century. The great difference is that Sloan and Glackens were far better painters than Mr. Fischl, though I wouldn’t expect Ms. Phillips to appreciate such a difference. It is the sexual content of the Fischl painting that matters to Ms. Phillips, who is an esthetic illiterate when it comes to the art of painting. Which is, I suppose, why serious painting is marginalized in the current show.
And does anyone really believe that Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box brings art into “closer proximity with life”? It only brings art into closer proximity with advertising and product design. What Ms. Phillips really goes for, in any case, is the kind of art that is designed to degrade life. It is in that direction that the lion’s share of attention is won in the sections of the show devoted to the last two decades of the century. In these sections of the show, competition for the most disgusting work is pretty stiff, but I suspect that many visitors to Part 2 of The American Century will nominate Kiki Smith’s Tale (1992) for this dishonorable distinction. (Given the uproar over the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, it may be worth pointing out that Ms. Smith’s work is on loan from the collection of Jeffrey Deitch, the art “consultant” who is credited with supplying the name of the original Sensation show in London.) Tale is a sculpture that depicts a naked female figure crouching on all fours while defecating a long, snakelike turd onto the floor. “In the 90’s,” writes Ms. Phillips in the catalogue of the show, Ms. Smith’s “growing material inventiveness and lyricism were matched by an increasingly intense subject matter.” By which, of course, our curator means shit.
In this regard, one of the best descriptions of much of what we see in Part 2 of The American Century may be the title of a Julian Schnabel painting called Circum-navigating the Sea of Shit (1979). With that title in mind and with Ms. Smith’s “inventiveness and lyricism” as a further spur to memory, I suddenly recalled a review I had read some years ago of Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings . It was written by the late Anthony Burgess and recounted the following story. While Burgess was living in New York some years earlier, he had an encounter with Mr. Mailer, who ended their conversation with a not-uncharacteristic utterance: “Burgess,” he said, “you’re full of shit.” Burgess naturally assumed at the time that he was being insulted. It wasn’t until he read Ancient Evenings , as Burgess wrote in his review, that it dawned upon him that Mr. Mailer’s remark had been a statement of praise-for shit, of course, is an exalted subject in Ancient Evenings . Ms. Phillips may want to incorporate this tale, too, in some future version of the current show.
Oh, well. The Whitney remains the Whitney. Art has become more of a pretext than a genuine interest at this museum. Social documentary is now entrenched as its dominant focus. Works of art are used alongside other cultural materials as mere illustrations of historical events and political myths, most of them derived from the mass media. Pop culture is indeed the base line here, while high art is either demeaned or ignored or otherwise condescended to. The current debacle, complete with its odious Cultural Sites and tendentious wall texts, remains on view now through Feb. 13. If you want to know why so many artists now hate this museum, this is the show to see.