No Direction Known: Exhibit at Whitney Missing a Landscape

It was not to be expected that an exhibition called Landscape at the Whitney Museum of American Art would have much, if anything, to do with, well, landscape, which my dictionary defines as “A view or vista of scenery on land …. A painting, photograph, or the like depicting such a scene.” After all, landscape painting is sort of conventional, isn’t it? It certainly doesn’t qualify as avant-garde, and this apparently constitutes a problem for the Whitney, which nowadays desperately endeavors to be avant-garde.

Donna De Salvo, the curator of the show, has solved this problem, so to speak, by broadening the concept of landscape. According to the museum’s “fact sheet,” which serves in lieu of a catalog, “The exhibition looks at the variety of ways artists establish or imagine places—though not necessarily specific locations.” Thus, what is said to be on view are “worlds both natural and artificial, and states from the physical to the mental.” In other words, there’s hardly a landscape to be seen in the Whitney’s Landscape show, which makes this farrago of an exhibition very avant-garde indeed, if only in the minds of the geniuses at the Whitney who dream up such things.

The fact is that the show is nothing more than a random selection of objects from the museum’s permanent collection. Thus, the first painting we encounter is a large abstract painting by Jackson Pollock entitled Number 27, 1950. It’s a very fine example of Pollock in his prime, and the Whitney has every reason to exhibit it as often as possible. But Number 27, 1950 is not a landscape, and it violates everything we know about Pollock’s aesthetic to present it as such.

The next painting in the show is Mark Rothko’s Four Darks in Red (1958), another fine example of New York School Abstract Expressionism that is not a landscape. Rothko would certainly have been appalled at the thought that this painting might be mistaken for a landscape: Metaphysics and poetic tragedy were of far greater interest to him in his work than any “view or vista of scenery on land.” And Ms. De Salvo is simply hallucinating if she believes that Dan Flavin’s construction of pink, yellow and red fluorescent light tubes—another work selected for the show—really qualifies as an example of landscape.

This whole nutty idea gets really weird with the single largest work in the show: a collage-construction on wood panels, measuring 240 inches wide, that looks like nothing so much as a picture of a mammoth necklace. It’s title, Gravity’s Rainbow (Large) (1999), no doubt refers to the well-known novel of the same name. Without doubt, too, it’s the single largest collage I’ve ever seen, and as each of its myriad images has been cut from the pages of a glossy magazine, it’s almost horrifying to think of the labor that the artist, Fred Tomaselli, has invested in the work. But it doesn’t belong in an exhibition called Landscape.

Why does the Whitney persist in mounting exhibitions that are so poorly conceived? Is it simply because it’s easier—and, of course, cheaper—to make a selection of works from the museum’s permanent collection than to organize solo exhibitions of individual artists? After all, there’s no shortage of highly accomplished American artists, living and dead, whose work has never been given a solo exhibition at the Whitney. For that matter, why doesn’t the Whitney give us a show of American landscape that’s really about landscape and not all this other stuff? I suppose that would be too conventional for a museum that wants to think of itself as avant-garde.

Meanwhile, the show that falsely claims the title of Landscape remains on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, through Sept. 18. No Direction Known: Exhibit at Whitney Missing a Landscape