12.11.17 — The Way Home

It has taken a few years, but the Whitney has found its way home. Maybe it never could find its way back to Madison Avenue, obliging the Met Breuer to pick up the pieces—at the cost of a balanced budget and a director’s career. Maybe it felt a bit lost in the Meatpacking District, reopening in Renzo Piano architecture with “America Is Hard to See.”

Now, though, after a stormy Whitney Biennial, it has taken a liking to what it sees. It even calls a rehanging of the permanent collection through roughly 1960 “Where We Are“—Johns's Three Flags (Whitney Museum of American Art, 1958)and what better way to enjoy tourist season in New York than with a return visit? This being a museum of American art, naturally it has to assess who we are as well.

The show alludes early and often to a poem in the darkness of a world at war, and it opens with paintings about a previous war. Yet it has space for the comforts of home, including two different paintings of room heated by a stove. It has no room for Stuart Davis and American Cubism, some of the leading lights of the Ashcan School and Abstract Expressionism, or the showpieces of Pop Art, but repeat appearances by Edward Hopper and a renewed emphasis on race and gender. Who we are, then, is changing, but not all at once, which is only reasonable. It is less out to change the face of American art than to change how one sees it. In other words, it is even now looking for home.

It takes its title from an exile in America, W. H. Auden, but the British poet opens “September 1, 1939” with a chilling specificity of time and place:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.

It has become something of a cliché to say that this or that warning hits home in age of Donald J. Trump, but Auden’s does. As curators, though, David Breslin with Jennie Goldstein and Margaret Kross are at least cautiously optimistic about home ground. Their five rooms borrow further from the poem, for familiar themes of American aspirations—”No One Exists Alone” for family and community, “The Furniture of Home” for domesticity, “The Strength of Collective Man” for labor and industry, “Of Eros and Dust” for the greater longings of postwar art, and “In a Euphoric Dream” for American icons. In this company, a near abstract riff by Larry Rivers on Washington Crossing the Delaware looks less like a shriek of pain than the sheer pleasure of painting.

Auden would have had his doubts, to judge by the context of a quote: “but who can live for long / in an euphoric dream.” You are entitled to your doubts, too. Museums rehang their collections all the time, as the Whitney did for its seventh-fifth birthday—and I have not even bothered to write up work from the 1980s on another floor or at MoMA. The wall text, too, can sound phony, in comparing “the rural Kansas of his youth” for John Steuart Curry to “the mother he lost” for Arshile Gorky. The double portrait of Gorky and his mother, who died in the Armenian genocide, has a monumental blankness that Curry’s regionalism could never attain.

Within, though, Curry’s Baptism in Kansas hangs next to an equally ecstatic religious community bathed in a blue light from Archibald Motley, the black artist in Chicago. A trite history has given way to diversity and feeling. The same comes in the room for “collective man,” where linoleum cuts by Elizabeth Cattlet pronounce I Am the Negro Woman. Right off the elevator lies another recent acquisition of African American art, the war series by Jacob Lawrence. It puts on equal terms the pain of soldiers in World War I and of families learning of their death at home. Look off to the side, to a parade in Washington Square by William Glackens, and its sentiments look a lot more suspect but its dabs of color more modern.

Women appear again to the other side, where as unfamiliar a name as Agnes Pelton under the influence of theosophy leads to a glowing abstraction Georgia O’Keeffe. A pair of eyes by Jay DeFeo hangs next to a Veil by Morris Louis, as if looking behind the curtain. Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French supply another kind of diversity, in collaborative photos of gay identity as PaJaMa. White males can add surprises, too, like Andreas Feininger. His photo of a house brought in one piece to suburbia seems torn between assertions of rootlessness and home. Speaking of home, I had forgotten that Edward Hopper also painted East River apartments.

Icons like Hopper and Jasper Johns still have their place. In fact, Early Sunday Morning and Three Flags have a wall to themselves, just in case you had never noticed that the first has its own red, white, and blue—in the shape of a barber’s pole. So does an abstraction by Ellsworth Kelley. A black painting by Frank Stella appears with scenes of white working class America by Charles Demuth, Elsie Driggs, Margaret Bourke-White, and Dorothea Lange because, among other reasons, Stella applied house paint. But picking winners gets old quickly when it comes to the permanent collection. Even Auden ends his poem with an “affirming flame.”

Read more, now in a feature-length article on this site.

1 Comment »

  1. Great article. History is always changing.

    Comment by Sam Marroquin — 12.13.17

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