Tag Archives: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

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).

Hipster Paintings for Posterity

“Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s”; Whitney Museum; through May 14.

Reganomics; mainstreaming of hip hop, hipsters, supermodels; gender and body politics, from the Pop-post-feminism of Madonna to the onslaught of AIDs.  Insert art world: the disco art show; Wolf-of-Wall-Street collectors; out-sized art stars (bringing Pollock’s posthumous persona to its ironically macho [after Warhol] conclusion) and the (reciprocal) PR-savvy mega-dealer (read Queen Mary and Gogo); reverse-chic tiny salons; (props Gracie Mansion); graffiti brought in from the cold (not to mention, scaled to the sofa), with Keith Haring (gay white artist) and Jean Michel Basquiat (of African descent; i.e., black in America) leading the way.

The socio-economic and cultural climate not only ushered the definitive infiltration of photography into the galleries in the 1980s, but also a barrage of refractive, hand-hewn painting.  (That’s even if the hand was hired by the artist of record, a la Mark Kostabi–one bold-face name in the era missing from the Whitney’s collection.  Hmmm.  Certainly his early style was appropriated, overall, as seminal “East Village”; but I digress.)

For one thing, paintings long have been assimilated in the West as trophies of wealth and (thus) taste, and, in tandem, are far more easily commodified (conceptually and physically) than sculptural and new media modes that gained traction in the upper art echelons through the 1970s.  This revival of sorts in the US (centralized in NY out of art schools all over) was bolstered and burdened by a similar burst in Europe, especially Germany, where some incarnations were deemed by some cognoscenti “reactionary”–dangerously or just redundantly so–in their gestural equivocations of unbridled virility.

Yet, in the end, despite numerous claims to the contrary, painting  hardly died and still thrives in the digital age.  Through the 1980s, the eternal appeal and joie de peintre for those on both sides of the picture plane was outed, unabashedly–for what it’s worth in itself (everything–a fundamental experience of visual artifice haunted by the painter-magician, to lift from a more complex Walter Benjamin metaphor).  In particular, figurative painting of any ilk could seem transgressive (an aesthetic buzzword of the era) in its structural (literal and semiotic) “decadence,” compared to the purposefully esoteric continuum of inventive forms aka “the historical avant-garde” (see Donald Kuspit, The Dialectic of Decadence, 1993).

If you weren’t there, well, the Whitney’s got most of it–pretty much to a tee; if you were, I think you’ll enjoy/agree.  Of course, the museum also constructed “it”–not least, via its ongoing Biennials of “best new work,” which accrue caché for emerging artists and have served as feeders for the collection at the same time.  (Just saying.  It’s all part of  the culture industry.)  Along that vein, it may be fun (to oversimplify) for some to identifying the dealers most in on the action here.

What is here is a cache of exciting paintings on the surface, variously deeply psychological, politically explicit, or purposefully left at accessible sea level, as far as content.  The entrance screen wall has been painted with Haring’s mural design from his (unprecedented, commercial) Pop Shop, onto which is hung a Haring edge-to-edge sprawl on faux animal hide that binds his inextricably child-like and sophisticated art primitivism; and examples by fellow graffiti-istes Basquiat and Kenny Scharf.  It’s a cold-hearted viewer who, at this point, can resist Haring’s autonomous mazes of intertwined, loving stick figures; like-wise, Basquiat’s raw and poignant word and image play, and Scharf’s Surrealism-meets-the-Jetsons cosmos.

The hit room (for me, of course) includes a dark, expressionist Julian Schnabel featuring a male hero/savior; a prurient tourist beach scene by Eric Fischl; a terrifying Leon Golub from his blood-red-grounded mercenary series: an antidotal (to all that drama), splashy and parodic self portrait by Robert Colescott (he’s done in by three  Graces); and an almost-Realist slice  of landscape by Louisa Chase.  Beyond their own merits, each indicates directions of many peers not represented here.

Other works recalled vividly:  Walter Robinson’s dime-store paperback novel cover image over printed fabric work, which brought to mind earlier Sigmar Polke and later Richard Prince; of few abstractions, Ross Bleckner’s and Terry Winter’s biology-evoking images with diametrically opposite painterly  sensibilities; and piece-meal painted montage puzzles that anticipate Photoshop by Julie Wachtel and David Salle.

Caveats:  the Schnabel is not one of his broken plate paintings that really made his mark.  The Whitney’s example is concurrently on view on another floor in “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection” (through April 2); likewise, among the most compelling Basquiat paintings in existence, Hollywood Africans (1983).  There is much other brilliant work in this (ostensible) portrait show (not limited to painting), including a personal favorite, Gary Simmons’s sculptural installation, Lineup (1993; first featured in Thelma Golden’s landmark, Black Male, 1994-95); and some engaging odd ducks, e.g., Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s carved stone female Buddha type, Chinoise (1914).  However, the theme and organization is catch-all and amorphous.  Yes, expanding preconceptions and boundaries of genres and (other) categorizations with highly subjective takes can be interesting to a point but here the term “portrait” looses meaning in a way too simplistic to say, simply,  that this was the point.

Gary Simmons, Lineup, 1993 (detail; mixed media installation); at the Whitney Museum (1/31/17)