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Art: In-Your-Face American Century
In the "good old days," art was art and was
recognized as such. It was a drawing or painting, a sculpture, or
even a photograph. Invariably, the artist was a white male.
All that ended about 50 years ago. Oh, it didn’t happen right away,
on the first day of 1950, when Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning
were very much the art world names to contend with. But "the times
they were a changin’." Before long, other names — and other
kinds of artists, and art — came to the fore. And that is what
"The American Century, Part II: Art and Culture, 1950-2000,"
at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, is all about. Occupying
four stories-plus, the show which continues to February 13, focuses
on the time when American art came into its own. Curated by Lisa
(Barbara Haskell curated Part I), and with a few new ways of doing
things, the show is touted as an improvement over the first half.
It depends on what you think art is, or should be — what you want
memorialized and treated as representative of the American visual
art scene. Should it be familiar, beautiful, uplifting, inspirational?
Or something altogether different — jarring, mysterious,
frightful? Or all of these? Or does it depend? Your opinion of what
makes an artist — technical skills, ambition, angst, political
correctness, or incorrectness — also plays into the equation.
This exhibition forces you to reconsider the basic question, "What
is art?" Based on your answer, you will be turned on — or
put off — by what you see here.
Very broadly, what happened to American art in the second half of
this century is that it stopped being imitative; it stopped deferring
to the academic or to European models. In tandem with non-traditional
social and political events taking place in the nation — movements
against war and for civil rights, equal rights, gay rights —
people began to make art work that served purposes other than esthetic
pleasure. Sometimes viewers knew this was art only because its makers
said so. The work was shown, bought and sold, and exhibited in
Often this art was bizarre, confrontational, distasteful, ugly. How
else could you describe "Mile-Long Drawing" (1968; since
two parallel chalk lines in the Mohave Desert by Walter de Maria;
or Nan Goldin’s "Ballad of Sexual Dependency" (1976-92), 690
slides, with audiotape, computer disk, and titles — a series
of debasement? How about "Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)"
by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, from 1991, a pyramid of multicolored candies
wrapped in cellophane? Or performances of vagina painting (1965) or
with hair dye (1992), or "Shoot" (1971), a photograph of an
artist with a bullet wound in his arm, or Kiki Smith’s "Tale"
(1992), a sculpture of a crawling human figure trailing yards of
Obviously, what American artists have been up to in the second half
of the 20th century is not "the same old, same old."
And in a way, this challenging, in-your-face art was
not as new as all that. The century began with Marcel Duchamp’s take
on that icon of tradition, the Mona Lisa — with the addition of
a mustache and goatee (Take that, bourgeois art!), and with his
"ready-mades" such as the white porcelain urinal he called
"Fountain." These were treated as art because Duchamp said
they were art, titled them as art, and submitted them to art
Outrageous then, he grew into America’s grand old man of outre art,
smilingly accepted and assumed to have been a harbinger, far ahead
of his time. And now, we are seeing the century end very much as it
began, with an exhaustively publicized flap about the
show at the Brooklyn Museum, which has served as a red flag to no
less than New York City’s Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (as the French would
say, "Le plus ca change . . .")
Starting on the Whitney’s fifth floor with "America Takes Command:
1950s into the 1960s," and working downwards (a physical direction
that to traditionalists will seem apt), the Whitney displays the
-isms, and -ists marking that decade, from Abstract Expressionism
through early performance and assemblage art to color field painting,
so-called "figurative expressionism," and avant-garde film.
Concurrent cultural and historical milestones are grouped together
in small rooms and virtual alleyways, rather than integrated with
the fine art, as they had been in Part I. This "improvement"
never fails to cause traffic jams and back-to-back people unsure of
which way to move except into one another.
With "America at the Crossroads: 1960s into the 1970s," on
the fourth floor, works by Andy Warhol (whose Elvis images serve as
icons of the exhibition) and Roy Lichtenstein epitomize the reign
of pop culture. Counterculture and protest art become entities,
and post-minimalism take their turns, video art is born, and
dance and performance are also documented.
"The Rise of Alternatives: 1970s into the 1980s" on the third
floor, amply illustrates how this pluralist decade challenged the
cult of the "white male genius." Body art, street culture,
and graffiti art were ascendant, while racial and sexual liberation
movements arising in the ’50s and ’60s slowly entered the mainstream.
Works on view range from photographs of Robert Smithson’s earthwork,
"Spiral Jetty" and Nan Goldin’s "Cookie at Tin Pan
to Robert Mapplethorpe’s "Man in Polyester Suit."
By the second floor’s "Approaching the Millennium: 1980s into
the 1990s," pluralism is in full flower — a mixed bouquet.
Well before reaching Kiki Smith’s gross "Tale" (the crawling
figure with excrement), it’s all too clear that what we’re seeing
is the deliberate antithesis of that elusive white male genius. But
many of these works also prompt the wish for the triumphant return
of same. There’s Jeff Koons’s stainless steel "Rabbit" that
looks like a silver balloon; Jenny Holzer’s "Laments"
on granite sarcophagi with LED electronic signs; and Jack Pierson’s
mixed-media "Desire, Despair." In the nearby historical
our own Mercer County comes in for dubious distinction, as the place
where a Republican Club forced the county library to move "Heather
Has Two Mommies," a book about lesbian parents, from the
area to the parenting section.
"The American Century, Part I" featured the music of such
contemporaneous artists as George Gershwin in the stairwells between
floors. In Part II, stairwell sounds include excerpts from Terry Fox’s
"The Labyrinth Scored for the Purrs of 11 Cats." It’s
In fact, even the visitors to "The American
seemed atypical. Did this exhibition, ending so fulsomely on a theme
of diversity and in-your-face art, also sound some kind of fanfare
for the common man? Many of those shuffling through the show,
silent except for occasional giggles and sideways glances, could have
been prototypes of hyper-realist sculptor Duane Hanson’s "man
or woman in the street." If viewers weren’t silent and almost
dazed as they passed through the show, they seemed unusually dependent
on their exhibit guide earphones, moving determinedly along as if
with the right of way.
All right, much in this half of "The American Century" could
not be called "classic" or even "traditional," and
certainly not "establishment." And, perhaps reluctantly, we
have come to realize that "esthetically pleasing" no longer
applies. Challenge, not comfort, is what these late 20th-century
offer, with viewers left to decide only whether to accept it. However
Part II may strike you, though, don’t shoot the messenger, as I felt
metaphorically inclined to do through much of the show, until I was
forced to think more about it — and realized that the museum is
simply reflecting the times.
Yet you have to wonder which of these works will endure for a century
or more. And what kind of art — more of the same, some completely
different tangents, or perhaps a return to tradition — might be
featured in a major exhibition of 2050. For now, the debate generated
by this show may be the best proof of just how stimulating this art
— Pat Summers
Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York,
Two accompanying websites: www.artmuseum.net
context information for more than 200 works, and
specifies show-related programs and materials. Show continues to
For those who weren’t alive or conscious during this period (or who
have chosen to blank it out), the exhibit catalog offers an excellent
graphic and textual reminder.
Exhibit of watercolors and oils by Kathleen Maguire Morolda. Gallery
hours are Monday to Saturday, 10 to 6 p.m.; Thursday and Friday to
9 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
In the Merwick unit library: "Paintings of Fred and Jennie
to March 9. Part of proceeds benefit the medical center. Open 8 a.m.
to 7 p.m. daily.
Featuring color and black-and-white photographs by Harry Rubel who
has been making photographs for 45 years. Also, works by area artists
Patrice Sprovieri, Wayne Mathisen, Annelies van Dommelen, and Susan
Setteducato. Also exhibiting Hsu Dan, Tom Chesar, Larry Chestnut,
Calvin Hart, Clem Fiori, Leslie Neumeyer, Leyla Spencer, Janet Landau,
Jacob Landau, Ellyn Gerberding, and Marge Levine. Hours are Monday
through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday to 9 p.m.; and Saturday,
9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Street, 609-921-9292. "Going Global: Contemporary fine art from
around the world spanning Princeton, New Jersey, to Reykjavik,
Princeton artists include Michael Berger, Jane Eccles, Richard Erdman,
and Robert Sakson; from farther afield, Tanya Kohn, Karolina
Salvatore Magazzini, and Mary Stork. To January 22.
Works on Paper," to January 16. "Contemporary Photographs,
new acquisitions and photographs from the permanent collection; to
January 9. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to
5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free tours of the collection are every
Saturday at 2 p.m.
The permanent collection features a strong representation of Western
European paintings, old master prints, and original photographs.
of Chinese, Pre-Columbian Mayan, and African art are considered among
the museum’s most impressive. Not housed in the museum but part of
the collection is the John B. Putnam Jr. Memorial Collection of
outdoor sculpture, with works by such modern masters as Henry Moore,
Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso, and George Segal located throughout
609-258-4790. "Dreamscapes," an exhibition of paintings
by WWS alumna Alexandra Isaievych. Combining her passion for art with
an interest in public policy and economics, Isaievych has worked on
economic assistance programs in Ukraine, an experience that has
her conviction that "art which provides inspiration for reclaiming
the dignity of the human spirit is as essential as good economic
Gallery is open daily from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays; weekends from
8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
609-799-6706. "Portraits in Other Objects" by Eric Montoya,
an artist who exhibits in Los Angeles and New York. The show features
oil portraits whose forms are comprised of other narrative elements.
To February 12. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to
6 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The gallery celebrates its fourth year and a new exhibition season
featuring 12 gallery co-op members presenting shows that change
Working with owner Eric Gibbons are curators and artists Beverly
and Lana Bernard-Toniolio.
Wednesday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.;
Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Road, 609-921-3272. All-Artists Show in the Upstairs Gallery,
by members of the 1860 House Professional Artists Group, to January
29. Gallery hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
609-737-7592. "Vanishing Landscape," an exhibit of oil pastel
and watercolor studies of the region’s fast-disappearing natural
by Dorothy Bissell. To January 8.
Burlington, 609-386-4773. "Wildfowl Decoy Exhibit" by master
Burlington carver Jess Heisler (1891-1943), whose best work ranks
among the finest of the Delaware River school of carving, and works
by his friend and pupil John Marinkos (1915-1999). To January 9. Hours
are Monday to Thursday, 1 to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 2 to 4 p.m.
On exhibit through January, toys from the collection of Tom and Marion
McCandless, including seven toys made in Hopewell by the short-lived
Hoproco Toy Company, located on Burton Avenue from 1925 to ’27. Also
on exhibit, a dozen miniatures including doll houses, churches, and
barns. Free. Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays from 2 to 5 p.m.
908-735-8415. "Mud Like a Blessing: Elemental Clay Sculpture,"
featuring works by Peter Callas, Sara D’Alessandro, Shellie Jacobson,
Jim Jansma, and Lauren Silver. To January 9. Gallery hours are Tuesday
to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Guest curator for the show is Michele Mercadal whose concept and title
was inspired by a phrase from a poem by Mary Oliver. "The
in this exhibit conveys the honoring of clay as a material and the
organic process by which it becomes a sculptural form," says
"The forms carry a contemplative feeling and convey the mysteries
and secrets of combining earth and fire."
215-340-9800. "Let Children Be Children: Lewis Hine’s Crusade
Against Child Labor," an exhibition of historic photographs from
the early 20th century. Show runs to February 27. Website:
Museum hours Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday &
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $5 adults; $1.50 students; children free.
Trenton, 609-394-4121. "Ben Shahn: Graphic Works from the
of the New Jersey State Museum." Show features 17 prints, created
from 1936 to 1968, by the renowned American artist who lived in
New Jersey, before his death in 1969. Lobby gallery is always open.
To January 11.
609-586-0616. Fall-Winter Exhibition. In the Museum and Domestic Arts
Building, "Beverly Pepper," one-artist show. On the mezzanine,
a thematic photography show, "Focus on Sculpture." Shows
to April 16. Gallery hours are Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m.
to 4 p.m., and by appointment.
New additions to the 22-acre landscaped sculpture park include works
by Michele Oka Doner, David Hostetler, J. Seward Johnson Jr.,
Leiro, John Martini, and Joseph Menna. The park is on the former state
fairgrounds site, with indoor exhibitions in the glass-walled, 10,000
square foot museum, and renovated Domestic Arts Building.
609-292-6464. "Unseen Treasures: Imperial Russia and the New
an exhibit of historic treasures of the Russian empire. The dazzling
collection of 300 art objects and artifacts from Russian’s famed State
Historical Museum and State Archive is displayed in five historical
settings. Show remains on view through April 16, 2000. Admission $10
adults; $8.50 seniors and students; $6 children. Advance ticket
at 800-766-6048 or online at http://www.tickets.com.
through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The dazzling collection of over 300 art objects and artifacts from
Russia’s State Historical Museum and the State Archive are being seen
for the first time outside the Russian Museum since its recently
The exhibition takes the visitor on a unique journey beginning with
the formation of the Russian American Company in 1799 and spanning
a period of 200 years and 6,000 miles. From the Imperial Court of
St. Petersburg through the Russian winter in Siberia to the New World
of Alaska and Northern California and back to Moscow for the
of Alexander II, the exhibit tells an adventurous story of heroism,
romance, and spiritual enlightenment through the experiences of real
people who shaped Russian-American relations in the 18th and 19th
Trenton, 609-695-0061. "Art from 19th Century to the Present," plus
antiques and interior design. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Saturday,
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
609-895-7307. Garden State Watercolor Society third annual associate
member juried exhibition. Jurors are Gary Snyder of Snyder Fine Art,
and Frances McIlvain, American Watercolor Society. To January 7.
is open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
609-397-0275. "Heart and Soul," a doll exhibit by Brook
Beaty and paintings by Cory S. Dale. To January 15. Gallery hours
are Monday to Thursday, 1 to 9 p.m.; Friday 1 to 5 p.m.; and Saturday,
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The annual "Small Works Show," a mixed bag of affordable,
collectible art by 17 area artists. Show runs to Saturday,
January 22, when the gallery celebrates the new millennium with a
party and 2,000 seconds of discounts on small works. Gallery hours
are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
609-397-2226. Pastel landscapes by Julia Akers Gribbin, to January
Holiday show featuring landscapes and regional scenes by Hunterdon
County artists Alexander Farnham in oil and by Ron Lent in watercolor.
To January 9. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5
609-397-2300. A show of Charles Fazzino’s whimsical, three-dimensional
paper constructions on big subjects that include New York,
sports, and the law. To February 28. Open Wednesday through Sunday,
noon to 5 p.m.
Street, New Brunswick, 732-846-5777. "The Hungarian Spark in America,"
an exhibit highlighting Hungarian contributions to the arts, sciences,
humanities, commerce, religious and civic life in America. To January
31. Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 1
to 4 p.m. $3 donation. Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m.
to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m. $3 donation.
Brunswick, 732-932-7237. "The Enduring Figure, 1890s to 1970s: Sixteen
Sculptures from the National Association of Women Artists." Show
continues to March 12 when the museum closes for renovation, through
mid-October. Museum hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30
p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. Free.
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