American Art from 1676 to the Present Day
Patronage of New York’s foremost modern museums is vested in a few plutocratic families like the Whitneys, Guggenheims, Rockefellers, and Burdens. In addition, foundations great and small help with benefactions, while collectors, dealers, and art fanciers are under incessant pressure to help with donations, subscriptions, committee work, and alms. In the last resort, however, the costs of housing, stocking, and running these private museums are the responsibility of a small group of enormously rich patrons. That they have been generous and progressive no one would deny. They have seldom interfered more than they could help; they have deputed power to museum staffs; they have financed not only the wholesale acquisition of modern works of art but scholarly exhibitions, costly catalogues, and multi-services, as well as the lives of a great many artists. Lastly, for better or worse, they have encouraged their minions to impose a taste for modern art on Manhattan’s formerly tasteless middle classes.
On the face of things, capitalism would appear to have done well by modern art. However, the present system of private patronage is bad in that it lends itself to abuses of all kinds; it puts museum personnel at the mercy of the millionaires, condemns curators to act as fund-raisers, to wander, cocktail glass in one hand, begging bowl in the other, from one identical Park Avenue collection to another. It also encourages the obnoxious dispensation which permits richer citizens to accrue kudos, tax relief, and immunity from guilt in exchange for expendable works of art. The result is that museums risk becoming the clearing-house of the tax-evader; social operators and smart dealers are hailed as modern Medicis. Given the dangers of this system, it is surely time to see whether this absolute reliance on private enterprise could not be replaced by some enlightened form of public—or semi-public—patronage. The Museum of Modern Art is rumored to have toyed with the idea of going public a few years ago. That the Trustees would not hear of it is sad but predictable.
SUCH THOUGHTS are suggested by the opening of the new Whitney. Breuer’s blockhouse is handsome, practical, and economical. The architect has taken a form like a block of steps and stood it on its head, thereby reversing its meaning. Insofar as this conception reflects the modern artist’s concern with the semantics of form, it is admirable. The only trouble is that, as a form, it lays itself open to an unfortunate interpretation: the inversion implies that instead of going forward and up as steps normally do, the Whitney goes backward and down. This is a bad omen for a museum whose function has become more and more anomalous with the years.
When in 1930 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney turned her collection of American Painting into a museum, native art was at a low ebb. Mrs. Whitney’s patronage was all there was; it is hardly surprising that her museum on Eighth Street soon became the power-house of American art, such as it was. Thirty years have gone by since then: modern art and American art are now virtually synonymous. Patronage abounds and the artistic field is covered if anything too thoroughly by the Museum of Modern Art, the American Wing of the Metropolitan and the Jewish Museum, not to speak of dealers’s galleries. Isn’t there a risk that the Whitney, which has always lagged behind its bigger, richer sisters, will simply be in the way?
The enterprising projects announced by Lloyd Goodrich may of course turn out to justify the museum’s new existence. Meanwhile I would like to take issue with him over one of them: “the gradual assemblage of an historical collection, probably chiefly by gifts and bequests.” What worries me is not so much that he proposes to rely on the questionable system referred to above as the fact that in 1949 the Whitney sold the bulk of the superb collection of American art which it inherited from Mrs. Whitney. This reversal of policy is not reassuring. What is to prevent a private museum from doing this again?
In the absence of an adequate historical collection, the Whitney has opened with a broad survey of American art, from 1676 to 1966, organized by Mr. Goodrich. The show draws partly on the museum’s own depleted resources, partly on loans. Habitués of the old Whitney will know what to find: one—occasionally two or three—of almost everything. Comprehensiveness is all. Mr. Goodrich has been at pains to exhume representative and often unfamiliar examples of each artist’s work, and, insofar as one agrees with his choice (more about that later), the quality is high. I especially enjoyed the ground-floor gallery of colonial portraits—the only homogeneous section of the show. For all their coarseness and naiveté, these pictures ring more true than the mannered English models from which they derive. Colonial they may be, provincial never.
Mr. Goodrich is less successful with post-revolutionary art. As floor succeeds floor and the eighteenth century gives way to the nineteenth, there is less and less attempt at coherence. The pictures, good, bad, and peculiar, are hung in such a wayward fashion that no stylistic or historical development emerges. Schools, genres, styles, even pairs of pictures (the two William Pages) are gratuitously split up. The topographical finds itself next to the fantastical. Eastman Johnson rubs shoulders with Remington, corny Leutze with Morris Hunt. Trompe l’oeil painters like Hartnett and Peto are separated and shown out of their rightful context. The same is true of the Hudson River painters, whose inability to leave anything out reflects the organization—or rather the disorganization—of this show. Every so often Mr. Goodrich brings off an eye-opening confrontation, but on the whole he has made the tangle of nineteenth-century American art more raveled than ever.
THE THIRD FLOOR galleries, which cover the end of the nineteenth and the first third of the twentieth century—Whistler and Cassatt at one extreme, Ben Shahn and early Gorky at the other—carry confusion a stage further. What Alfred Barr has described as “the bumptious, mid-western regionalism of the 1930s” has to fight things out with Abstract Artists, Social Realists, and School of Paris pasticheurs. Some of the juxtapositions are waggish to the point of cruelty. A case in point is Robert Henri’s modish portrait of Mrs. Whitney in green and purple. This is hung between Marsden Hartley’s haunting Fishermen’s Last Supper and Demuth’s purist My Egypt. Likewise Max Weber’s cubistic Chinese Restaurant cringes between Joséph Stella’s huge capriccio in the Ballet Russe manner and Luks’s Armistice Night reportage. By the same token, Pascin is hung above Arthur Dove, who fails to make the impact he should with one inadequate pastel. But what chance does a good painter have in this omnium gatherum? Was it really obligatory to include many of those chauvinistic and reactionary artists whom Mrs. Whitney backed in the 1930s—artists whose only interest is that they reflect the isolationism of the period? Let us relegate them once and for all to footnotes. I am afraid the main lesson to be learned from this section of the show is that the triumphs of American art in the Forties and Fifties owe less to the philanthropic efforts of Mrs. Whitney and her zealous cohert, Juliana Force, than to the Paris artists and Surrealists who came to New York in 1940.
NOTHING—not even the vagaries of selection and hanging below—prepares one for the top-floor galleries, where a cross-section of contemporary painting and sculpture is on view. Idiosyncracies are to be expected, indeed welcomed, in an anthology of this kind. Alas, Mr. Goodrich’s idiosyncracies testify more to his generosity than to his discrimination. Granted, the choice of individual works by the leaders of the New York School—Pollock, Kline, Motherwell—does them justice. But the director has seen to it that every hack has his hook. It would be tedious to list the bathetic inclusions or the puzzling exclusions, so I shall confine myself once again to the peculiar arrangement of the galleries. Worst of all is the way Barnett Newman’s works have been snubbed (a backhanded tribute to his powers?). His earlyish (1951) Day One—a picture with special relevance to the art of today—is put next to Lichtenstein’s eyetickling Little Big Painting. Properly hung, Day One could have made a valid historical point. The same artist’s formidably austere sculpture is stuck next to Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning, which in turn extinguishes a Tobey; this is unfair to everybody. In front of the Motherwell and Frankenthaler, Roszak’s meretricious Sea Sentinel stands guard, while Al Held’s neighbor is, of all things, an Andrew Wyeth. Odder still is the coupling of Rauschenberg and Ivan LeLorraine Albright. Outstanding pictures by Frank Stella and Morris Louis likewise find themselves in unsuitable company. Ops are pitted against Pops; Social Realists against Abstract Expressionists. Schools and styles go by the board, as do good sense and taste. Are these confrontations supposed to be droll or revelatory? Are they unintentional?
The answer is important because it will give us some idea of the role that the Whitney proposes to play. If it seriously hopes to outpace its rivals in the American field, it must renounce its uncritical one-of-everything policy for a tougher, more objective approach; it must not be afraid to discriminate or discern. Then again, if the Whitney is going to specialize once more in the art of the past, it will have to be more resolute in its approach. Finding respectable forebears for modern art has become a fashionable pursuit which can be played two different ways: You either do your best to set the record straight, or you follow the selective method of the Museum of Modern Art and highlight the attainments of your more fragrant or progressive forebears. The one thing not to do is chop the family tree into kindling.