Tag Archives: George Bellows

Rotating the Collection at the Whitney Museum

The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965; opened June 28; ongoing.

Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s; March 29 – August 28, 2019.

(at The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York)

Five years in, The Whitney has become thoroughly at home in its spacious new digs and primo downtown locale (the right move out from the old guard Upper East Side).  This is the second substantial collection overview-type installation since the new building’s inaugural extravaganza (2015). The rotation and attention to expanded contexts for a few renowned works that have remained on view in shifted juxtapositions is notable.  (I must say, a welcome trend seen in major museums broadly; remember when a small portion of a museum’s holdings remained on view in the same spots seemingly for decades?) The salon-style painting display in a dark blue gallery at the start (facing the 7th floor elevators; above) is effective in setting the mood, scale, and subject range–a mix of urban and rural, portrait, landscape, and genre–in mainstream Depression Era art in America. At the same time, an elite few were busy opening galleries and museums in Manhattan, like the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers, and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose “Whitney Museum of American Art” opened at a downtown location in 1931.  GVW was a committed supporter and promoter of living American artists, not to mention an artist herself aware that her larger mission presented conflicts of interest. Unlike her art-philanthropic peers (for the most part), her interest in the production of her time left a strong collective record of the years between the wars on the American scene through a heavy lens of New York.  A lack of wall labels draws visitors close, partly to look for signatures. Works by renowned American Regionalists like George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton are immediately recognizable, partly due to their early and close identification with the Whitney.  There were several women artists on this wall that I did not know, as well as elsewhere throughout; like Madeline Shiff (aka Wiltz), whose lively portrait of her artist-husband painting a landscape in a windowless studio here (Wiltz at Work, 1932) both reinforces and goes towards filling the lacunae of her own career.    

Several mini-show arrangements, according to the museum’s holdings, stars with Edward Hopper.  One of the great “poignant clown” depictions of many in modernist paintings can be seen in his early Soir Bleu (1914), a post-Impressionist-like Parisian pub scene and last European nod in his oeuvre.  Across the room and several decades the sublimely distilled ordinary New York air of Early Sunday Morning (1930) beckons.  Nearby is Georgia O’Keeffe, whose aesthetic approach and temperament, via the results, are diametrically opposed.  Likewise, a display of selections from Jacob Lawrence’s War Series (c. 1946-47), which is truly experimental in its washy sepia palette and rhythmic forms without loosing humanistic, topical force.  A number of sculptural elements from Alexander Calder’s Circus (1926-1931), a Whitney coup, have been re-installed in an isolated darkened niche featuring a documentational film (1961, transferred to bright video) of the artist performing his kinetic ensemble.  That is, cranking, blowing, twisting his miniaturist mixed media props, caricatures, and animals to tumble, race, jump, and dance in ingeniously low-tech machinations.  If art is play for adults (as some psychoanalytical theories suggest) Calder was deep in and highly convincing. 

Other pre-WWII works are grouped stylistically; such as Cubist-informed “Machine Age” cityscapes paintings by the Charles-es, Demuth and Sheeler and art-deco architectural sculpture by John Storrs, Surrealist-tinged work, which, in the United States, elided in many cases with aspects of Social Realism and even Regionalism, whether or not in conscious intent. A remarkable contribution here is a visionary animated film, as far as later video and other digital art goes by Mary Ellen Bute (Spook Sport, 1939).  Of many additional highlights in the pre-WWII section, you won’t miss a relatively large-scale, quirky painted ode to the end of WWI and her beloved NYC in general by Florine Stettheimer, with fabric folds added to Lady Liberty; and don’t miss Elizabeth Catlett’s quietly uplifting terracotta-as-bronze Head (1947).

The  Abstract Expressionist section is energized by a boldly splotched Ed Clark canvas and a crusty, monumental relief-painting by Jay DeFeo; and Pop Art is dominated by Tom Wesselmann’s ginormous Still Life Number 36 (1964), from his loose kitchen-counter collage-paintings series, which presciently anticipates the Photoshop-based paintings of Jeff Koons and other digital “commodities” artists.  Warhol’s silver-screened Elvis Two Times (1963), however, holds its own despite, or because of the artist’s consistent omnipresence in so many spheres of the contemporary art world.  (Younger viewers probably now recognize “a Warhol” before his once ubiquitous celebrity depictions.)  

The 8th floor show on color as form in painting of the 1960s is a kind of addendum, first and foremost conveying how dominant abstraction had become by then. Kenneth Noland’s dizzying “post-painterly” (a la Clement Greenberg) measured-stripe abstraction at the entrance (New Day,1967) looks thoroughly triumphant.  A now classic stained canvas “bunting” piece by Sam Gilliam stands out against the majority work in geometrically-defined color-blocked experiments, sometimes differentiated only slightly in handling between different artists. And a few representational artists, it is proposed, still focused primarily on color in at least some work of this period, as in good examples by Alex Katz, Bob Thompson, Kay Walkingstick, and Emma Amos.  A thoughtful but not too didactic display. 

With this history under your belt, you’re ready to tackle the Biennial on two floors below (through 9/22/19) — if anything is left in the show by the time you get there (see Biennial) !

Andy Warhol, Elvis Two Times, 1963 (installed in the exhibition, The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 – 1965 (photo: 7/12/19).
Kenneth Noland, New Day, 1967 , installed in the exhibition, Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s at the Whitney Museum (photo: 7/12/19).

Downtown’s the new Uptown; the Whitney’s all In

Since I am all about NY nativism, I should react (here) to the Whitney Museum’s new Rienzo Piano building and inaugural show downtown.  (Needless to say, all the detailed cognoscenti blog posts are long out. Like the overall consensus:) Well, it’s all . . . fine, suitable, functional (seemingly); in that sense, as well as the tier-conceived exterior, there is a strong connection to the neutralism of Marcel Breuer’s mildly Brutalist, inverted ziggurat uptown. No question, it was right to grab a spot in the nabe–a prime one, right in front of the southern entrance/exit to the Highline.  The Mepa district is not turning back in my lifetime, and has possibly outpaced the Upper East Side already as the international upscale epicenter of NYC, soon (it seems) to meld into the high-end gallery universe in Chelsea a few blocks north.  Without knowledge of the duration of the planning/design/construction process and interior details still underway, it appears to have been an efficiently-paced, organized project, with the opening six months after the close of the Breuer with the Jeff Koons shebang.

Outdoor steel decks off several floors are (again) fine.  (As someone with latent vertigo, I found two of them a wee bit narrow.) Some of the scattered sculpture out there didn’t look great, in terms of weight and scale (David Smith; Joel Shapiro, Tony Smith), especially where there had to be “primitive” signs about not sitting or touching, such as that “guarding” Robert Morris’s famous three part “L-beams” (Unititled, 1965/70).  For me, human-scale Minimalist work is usually more powerful in a closed space where viewers’ bodies are more fully involved (and you don’t need distracting signs).   On the other hand, Scott Burton’s furniture-marbles that visitors can use, are naturals for this sort of thing.  And the site-specific installation, Sunset, by Mary Heilmann on a the largest  terrace, which included rainbow-colored block chairs scattered about (for use) and monochrome pink geometric “clouds” panels hovering above on the building facade worked well in more ways than one. From here, the refreshing far vistas on three sides interestingly contrast with the gritty near views of sanitation and meat processing plants remaining nearby below (probably not for much longer).

Given the impossible task of an inaugural re-invention of such a famous collection, I’m not surprised that it all seemed very careful; fine; even “good,” but I’m not left with one installation decision that really wowed.  Okay,  maybe the giant Felix Gonzalez-Torres hanging light-bulb sculpture cascading through a central open stairwell from top to bottom of the building.   There was noticeably more diversity of artist gender, ethnicity, and race, and (related) subject matter among the sections from the first half of the century, then picked up again after the 1970s.  (On that note, can’t wait for the Chicago painter Archibald Motley show, coming in October.)  Yet, Fred Wilson’s brilliant piece, Guarded View (1991; four headless mannequins “of color” suited up in NYC museum guard uniforms) was striking more than two decades after its debut in the midst of the white-bread crowd.  (There’s still a host of issues on this topic; ’nuff said in the immediate context.)

What else did I notice? The great graffiti man, Keith Haring, known for the brightest of colors and intertwined, glyphic-cartoon babies, tv sets, hearts, wings, and out-there penises, was not well-represented here in a dark-on-dark near-abstraction (one of only two Haring paintings in the collection; one overtly topical AIDS-related  work on paper was including in a politically-themed installation area).  Chuck Close’s early monumental airbrush self-portrait seemed out of place in a gallery that featured post-painterly abstraction (okay again – perhaps simultaneous directions, but visually; for example, elsewhere there was the juxtaposition of large portraits by Katz and Warhol; maybe Close’s mug there).  Discoveries: a Vlaminck-like, putty-painted, foam-green-dominated landscape by George Bellows; an early Veja Cemins oil painting of a burning electric space heater in a burnt umber void–some convoluted root of the charcoal-toned, star-studded galaxies and flickering oceans that later brought her art renown.

P.S.: Other museum news:  See NYT, June 3, “Frick Abandons Contested Renovation Plan,” Robin Pogrebin); yeah! (See previous post.)