John Haber
in New York City

The Ronald and Evelyn Lauder Galleries

Andrew Wyeth's Unknown Terrain and Arthur Dove

The Whitney Museum of American Art has a problem. I mean its name: it is stuck with all this American art. How provincial!

Right now, the Whitney does not seem to mind a bit. In fact, it wallows in provincialism, or at least the original provinces. This spring it showed Arthur Dove, an early modernist who left for New England as if to hide from Cubism. And now its summer extravaganza features Andrew Wyeth's landscapes, along with a rehanging of the permanent collection so conservative that even Wyeth might like it. Arthur Dove's Rain or Snow (Phillips Collection, 1943)

Has American art no way out of the back woods? Maybe, I shall argue, the Whitney can use a better sense of time and place. I might as well start with the present: what could be tricky about showcasing American art?

Bunkering down

America definitely does not face a shortage of artists. Try to support yourself painting, assuming you can find affordable studio space even in Brooklyn. New York has not lost its global influence either. Minimalism and Pop Art sell better abroad, and the Guggenheim Museum has paved over more of the world than Dow Chemical during the Vietnam War. Besides, Postmodernism really makes creative sense only as the perpetual death knoll of good old American Modernism and the American century.

Nothing fails like success, though, including American culture. It walks like world art and talks like world art, so maybe it is a duck, and the embarrassing rubber kind, too. That leaves the Whitney with a tough choice.

It can ignore England, Europe, and beyond. But then what makes its selection other than arbitrary, as in the 1997 Biennial? It can bring in European curators to hang its great collection. But then what gives the Whitney its vision? Or it can give special pride of place to America's old hatred of experiment from abroad. But the moment modern art cuts itself off from the present, it dies. Remember the Guggenheim's recent history of abstraction?

The Whitney tried the first two approaches in 1997, and no one cared. No one seemed to notice the last Biennial, and I cannot bear to think what Europe's top museum directors made of David Salle even long after Salle's early paintings. So this year the Whitney goes provincial. Before I look for some real alternatives, however, what has happened? This year's museum remodeling makes a good place to find out.

I said remodeling, not architecture. It suggests the Whitney's newfound modesty. When other museums expand frighteningly, or open their back rooms, they create new wings, deconstructed facades, and global empires. Not here, and that is half the point. If the Marcel Breuer exterior looks like a bunker, the curators have settled in for the final assault. I hope Eva Braun stays away this time, much as one artist wants to remember her.

Like the facade, the galleries after renovation look familiar, too. The permanent collection merely takes over the fifth floor, quite in line with Breuer's old plans. The offices there disappear into the house next door, next to (yes) another gift shop. My favorite bookstore, which shared that brownstone, decided it could not make it in New York and closed. Maybe it died from the block's lack of intellectual challenge.

Gift shops and other places

A gift shop will have to do, then. Thumbing the latest issue of October there on my way out, I found myself reading about changes just a mile away, at the Museum of Modern Art. Hal Foster was talking about herotopias and other fine things. If academics all spoke Greek, I could translate this as "many places." In English, he means one site, with nostalgia for its past, but opening onto many places in a gloriously, agonizingly mixed-up world.

And Foster is right. The Whitney, like any modern museum, contains many places, but right now it has something else in mind. With respect, affection, and disappointment, I might call the Whitney the same old place. It insists on America's distaste for Europe, like a sly return to its very first days.

The fifth floor, now ostensibly the Lauder Galleries (although the Leonard A. Lauder collection will go to the Met), carries much the same message, like a politician's call for traditional values. Selections from the permanent collection all but quit with 1950. A room of Hoppers, stuck way at the back, fills up with enough middling works to dampen the artist's drama. Otherwise, the sequence sits uneasily between chronology and subject matter. The hanging, in short, defines modern art as genre painting. Everyone gets to be a realist, and American realism gets to mean a cliché.

The curators mean to place old standards in refreshing contexts, and Modernism really did attempt a breathtaking realism. That, artists said, is painting. As America surged into a century, art took its cue from a changing landscape and a dynamic New York City. Decades after the first urban realists, Village bars and the reality of oil paint still energized a great generation of abstract art. All well and good, but in practice the Whitney creates a poor cousin of the Met's "Origins of Impressionism." I feel the same deadening of innovations, the same refusal even to imagine what happened when painters left the Village and art entered the museum.

Stuart Davis can look as funky as Pop Art before its time, but not dropped here and there like garments left over in the cloakroom. Arshile Gorky, among others, fares no better. At his most Abstract Expressionist he slips unnoticed into Surrealism, and two rooms later a wall of portraits does in his most haunting picture. Flat and unfinished, making no contact with the painter's gaze, Gorky stands as a child stands beside a forbidding dream of his mother. The harder the work aims to fit in as family portraiture, the sillier it looks for trying.

Even without the paintings, these rooms would look lost. Too large for intimate works, they could be competing foolishly with small, dark alcoves set aside for works on paper. Some deceptive stairs seem like a way out, but they lead to a cramped mezzanine and Calder's Circus. I might just as soon hide Calder myself, but not like this. The dead end could stand for more than his mobiles.

Lame indeed

Like the Whitney's renovation, its big summer show sounds the keynotes of a provincial shopping mall. What could have wider sentimental appeal than landscapes—and who more than Andrew Wyeth? Come to think of it, Komar and Melamid took a poll this past year to construct the ideal American painting. How come they never thought to add his signature—along, perhaps, with Childe Hassam's American flags?

Like most critics, I long had the good fortune to dismiss him much too quickly to examine his work, so I approached a show of his landscapes freshly. I did not admire it exactly, much less enjoy it, but I was fascinated at his stubborn, dispiriting temper.

The public thinks of Wyeth as a brilliant realist, a draftsman with perfect control of detail, as opposed to Charles Burchfield and his mix of observation and visions. Something is wrong with this picture, however—with quite a few pictures, actually—and this century's most popular painting makes a good place to discover what. Yes, Christina's World is on loan from the Modern, like it or not. Contrast the legend of a lame girl with those Hoppers up on the fifth floor.

Wyeth tilts the ground plane so that one cannot find one's point of view. So much for the overwhelming distance Christina faces. The sky holds none of its own light. Amid the repeated, slapdash brushstrokes, the jagged grass loses solidity, color, and texture. In contrast, Hopper's intense color has an exactitude near to abstract composition, but only by first capturing a uniquely American light and place.

Wyeth buries Christina's pose in the grass, as if to duck an understanding of anatomy. For all I know, she might be crawling backward. Similarly, Wyeth pushes emotional buttons marked "deserted landscape" far too fast, not unlike the Hopper-inspired portraits by Wayne Thiebaud. In contrast, Hopper insists on motivation. He knows the blank space of a city night or the stifling intimacy of men and women. His eye demands precision, and his emptiness, like the heart, always has its reasons. He startles the viewer with a viewpoint that one might have but cannot possibly deserve.

Nothing in Christina's World shows her unable to reach the house, and nothing suggests why she might enjoy reaching it. I know of her lameness, but only because I fill in the story with a prepared message. In contrast, when I decipher Hopper's scenes, I can neither complete the story nor give up trying. Hopper, in short, is modern, with the self-conscious, troubling authority of a painter's point of view. Wyeth's emotions are ultimately carefree.

Realism with a shotgun

Like everyone else, I like Christina's World anyway. Its devices make no sense, but they do lend it an emblematic loneliness.

I just wish that they did not pretend to reality, not when the texture of peeled bark looks more plausible in reproductions. Each shadowed surface, from trees to rocks, approaches the flat texturing of gift paper. In watercolors, spurts of bright color have no rationale at all. Where are John Marin and Winslow Homer when I need them?

Worse, Wyeth uses the same devices in painting after painting, in tempera and watercolor, as if human love could stand outside of time. After sixty years, they no longer spell sadness: they deliver a punishing dryness. Perhaps that severity also underlies horrified reactions to his Helga paintings a few years ago.

Critics have been unkind to Wyeth, and they are wrong: the old guy was up to something after all. I am just not sure I could stand to be around it. Forget the talented realist pandering to sentiment. I came instead to think of painting's J. D. Salinger in retirement, confronting any signs of life with a shotgun. Maybe that is where all the people in these landscapes have gone.

After Wyeth, want more dried nature? Try the installation on the second floor. Eiko and Koma, as they style themselves, have a performance running continually, lying nude, half buried in leaves. The thick layer of foliage flows from wall to wall. The Japanese-born artists, or so the Whitney says, wish to evoke our collective memory of Earth's places. To the contrary, I liked it because it seemed so undeniably unreal.

The leaves are dead; nothing belongs. I cannot even promise that I saw a naked body in the darkness. I certainly cannot tell you where the artists go for coffee or other necessities, but it might be worth hanging out to see.

Color me abstract

Arthur G. Dove looked back too, but in a different way from Wyeth's. He respected Modernism and abstraction as early as 1911, but he had no interest in taking on the world. Was American art provincial? Dove loved his local insights. Fittingly, his retrospective occupied the smallest of the museum's main galleries, the second floor. There one could focus attention on each painting, just as Dove wanted to focus one's inner eye on experience.

Abstraction has an official history, as a product of the European avant-garde. One easily forgets how often Americans reinvented it. My favorite, Patrick Henry Bruce, had the sharp light, formal precision, and conscious metaphysical play of Cubism, but with a very American plainness. He painted geometric forms, as if to look beyond nature, but he treated each object like a still life, flaunting the surfaces of things.

Dove disliked surfaces. Like Oscar Bluemner, another artist exhibited by Alfred Stieglitz, he loved color, and he associated colors with feelings as if he owned a hidden key to the world. He did not have much in the way of ideology to explain it all, just joy in his favorite musical themes. Think of an American Kandinsky, with abstraction again the road to greater power in nature. If Surrealism turned nature's eye on inner experience, Dove sought comfort the other way around.

As a young painter, Dove came to terms with Cubism's fragmentation of the obvious. His soft, heavily shadowed edges hide brushstrokes, but he played with materials, from tempera to oil and encaustic, on support from canvas to metal. He knew how photography surprises nature, and he saw machines replacing traditional work habits and subject matter. Like a contemporary, Joseph Stella, Dove with his concentric curves even reminds me of art deco. Otherwise, he got away from modern life fast as he could.

Dove's style evolved in lock step with his changes in residence, and yet one can hardly tell what northeastern scene inspired a work. One never knows where reality stops and abstraction begins. One nice work, a rare collage, presses bare branches between glass and paint, as if nature somehow had mediated between vision and art.

I can understand why later generations found him quaint and repetitive, and so do I. Dove never confronted modern art and urban realities head on. Only the muted tones and small scale allow a release from his insistent, almost New Age optimism. His driving image, a circle, guided him through space like a third eye. Everyone should have one.

A blender without walls

Dove treated colors like characters in a novel. He wants me to identify with his emotions before each shade. Starting with Abstract Expressionism, art disrupted that tidy inner world. It learned to scatter the self across a map the size of a museum wall. Dove wanted only to leave an X on his small corner of the map.

Like Dove, America turns its back on the world from time to time, but only after adopting whatever it can. The country soaks up ideas and immigrants while hating every minute of it. Like art after World War II, its economy transforms things without simply absorbing them, spews them out as the new global standard, and then wonders where the center has moved.

Popular accounts pretend to explain American art in terms of its landscape or its westward expansion, its belief in possible futures or its touch with God. They worry that room has run out, and so something has died. Alfred Kazin said it in On Native Grounds, back in 1942, the last time this country hoped to take itself halfway seriously: "Even the most progressive minds in America have always been the victims of the liberations they have brought." By the time the message gets down to Robert Hughes, Kazin's brilliance and depth of history have soured.

Paradoxically, in politics or art, provincialism has no sense of place, just as the Whitney's fifth floor has no sense of time. It seeks a world that never existed, whether Wyeth's vision of the past or Dove's inner vision. It recovers art for America by burying its history. The Whitney now looks so familiar, in fact, that one easily forgets a key part of its structure. The walls, of course, shift for each exhibition.

Traditionalists describe America as a melting pot. Multiculturalists picture some sort of yuppie food processor, carefully retaining each exotic flavor, along with an upbeat description of the ingredients. I instead picture a high-speed blender with a busted container—perhaps those shifting walls. Things get churned out all over the place long before the mix can assimilate them. From almost the moment they enter, the chaos alters things for good, and racism leaves other bits stuck in the machinery. Every moment of chaos has a place, a price, and a history.

Foster is right about heterotopias. There ought to be a way to take the word provincial seriously, as an ongoing conflict between place and the world. I wonder where that could lead.

BACK to John's arts home page

The Ronald and Evelyn Lauder galleries opened April 1998 at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Their first exhibition of the museum's permanent collection ends March 1999. "Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth" ran through August 30, 1998. The retrospective of Arthur Dove ran through April 12, 1998.


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