Tag Archives: Social Realism

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).

Motley mixed Color, Characters, Concerns about Race and Representation

At the Whitney Museum, through January 17:

“Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist” 

Before Robert Colescott (1925-2009) was creating his satirical, caricature-like black folk (especially), white folk, and assorted, imaginary racially-mixed beings,  there was Chicago-based painter, Motley (1891-1981), who took kaleidoscope color to all sorts of literal and metaphorical extremes in paint.  His jaunty Bronzeville and Parisian street scenes, cafes, and billiard halls, which  merge into broader thematic meditations on “modern” social life largely revolving around African American jazz, gain rhythmic momentum en masse.  (Motley commented on occasion, as one label points out, that he didn’t feel his art had much to do with his Chi-town, per se.)  And the ambiguous, much-discussed exaggeration of facial features that pops up across this extended urban subject matter remains emotionally and artistically provocative.  It should be noted also, since Motley’s works generally reproduce well, that the delicate but deliberate facture perceived in a first-hand viewing adds a palpable warmth to much of the oeuvre.

The subtle anatomical distortions, along with a tendency towards slightly soft-edged and animated forms, comprise Motley’s signature brand of blended Regionalism and Social Realism, both prominent in America for the first half of the 20th century.  Like other painters associated with these umbrella terms, his figuration shows consideration of late Cubist and other abstract, as well as Surrealist, directions.  Especially the latter is suggested in a few experimental monochromatic works featuring dreamy pastel-ish environments and evaporating figures.  (See Floor 2 of the permanent collection, which has a newly integrated [in several senses] installation of artists of the era that facilitates insights regarding their overlapping concerns and unique stylistic flourishes; e.g., Thomas Hart Benton, George Bellows, William Henry Johnson, Jacob Lawrence, among others).

Motley’s several portraits of his mother, his (white) wife, and those of a number of other women, emphasize age, class, and skin tone–the latter reiterated in some of their titles, which bear on mainstream (white; official)  nomenclature of race in America into the postwar years.  They can convey both distanced, ethnographic-type visual scrutiny and self-searching, empathetic poignancy.  Two self-portraits done about a decade apart, one with a quirky array of objects and one of his nude paintings adding explicit iconography, are engaging for their carefully plotted presentation that both reveals and conceals something of the inner artist.

A late tour-de-force, the mnemonic, First One Hundred Years (1972) is a sudden, stark indictment of the violent and plodding pace of racial equality in the United States. This nightmarish faux-collage bulletin board of racism and resistance woven through a deep blues environment lingers long after leaving the exhibition and seems to answer lingering questions about Motley’s earlier artistic motives, life experience and intentions.