A.i.A.'s May issue focuses on the Whitney Museum of American Art as it opens its new building, designed by Renzo Piano, in New York's Meatpacking District. The inaugural show, "America Is Hard to See," brings together more than 600 works from the Whitney's collection made since 1900, offering a new narrative of American art. We've looked back to our archives and now present an article from our September 1999 issue, "The American Century." In this article, three art historians—Jonathan Weinberg (whose article on the West Side piers adjacent to the new Whitney's location appears in this month's issue), Barbara Rose and Janett Wolff—offer strikingly different opinions about the Whitney Museum exhibition "The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000" from the year 1999. The two-part Whitney blockbuster show, sponsored by Intel, featured more than 1000 art works that told the story of the art of the United States from a fin de siècle perspective.
Three specialists weigh the pros and cons of the first installment of the Whitney Museum’s controversial two-part blockbuster, "The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000." —Eds. May 18, 2015
The Whitney Museum of American Art is observing the close of the 20th century with an enormous, two-part exhibition, “The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000.” According to the museum, “the exhibition explores the changing character of American identity during the 20th century as seen through the eyes of our nation’s artists.”
More than 1,200 works and documents from the fields of painting, sculpture, photography, design, architecture, decorative arts, music, dance, literature and film flesh out what the organizers describe as “the largest and most ambitious exhibition ever presented of American art and culture of the 20th century.” Divided into half-century segments, the show’s first part, organized by Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, was on view form April 23 through August 22. Part II, organized by Lisa Phillips, a former Whitney curator and now director of the New Museum, debuts this month [September 26, 1999-February 13, 2000].
Beginning with its very title—which appropriates Henry Luce’s triumphant appellation for the period, first trumpeted in Time magazine in 1941—“The American Century” project has drawn attention, and fire, for its sheer brass. The Whitney bluntly calls the show’s two-volume catalogue “the definitive sourcebook of 20th-century American art and culture.” The chip-making firm Intel, the exhibition’s sole corporate sponsor and the force behind the show’s expensive electronic media support, is credited by the museum with furnishing “the largest corporate contribution ever made to the an art museum exhibition.” Well, from those to whom much has been given, much is expected. On the eve of the opening of the exhibition’s second installment, Art in America has asked three specialists to reflect on the strengths, the shortcomings, and the lessons to be learned from “The American Century, Part I.”
The Three Gertrudes
By Jonathan Weinberg
My first Gertrude is the Whitney Museum's founder, who, in the guise of Robert Henri’s splendid portrait, holds court over “The American Century, Part I.” Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney defended herself from the criticism of her museum's inaugural exhibition in 1931 by insisting that she did not “pretend to have covered anything like the entire field in my collection of American Art…At first l bought with no such idea in mind, just bought a picture because I liked it and thought the artist well worthwhile."1 Taking Mrs. Whitney's lead, we should abandon the grandiose expectations raised by the exhibition's unfortunate title and, instead, think of “The American Century, Part I” as curator Barbara Haskell’s personal selection of the best American art from 1900 to 1950. My initial response was one of exhilaration at seeing so much room—all five floors of the newly expanded museum—devoted to the art of the first part of the 20th century.
In Henri’s portrait, Mrs. Whitney, reclining on a well-stuffed sofa, looks quite at home. And I think she would have been comfortable with most of Haskell’s choices in the early rooms, particularly the emphasis on the paintings of George Bellows and John Sloan (rather than on their illustrations that accompanied attacks on her wealthy circle in The Masses). Haskell shares Mrs. Whitney’s admiration for Guy Pène du Bois, whose canvases held up well against the better known work of Edward Hopper. Mrs. Whitney was less enthusiastic for the art of the Stieglitz circle, and for Haskell’s particular passion, Precisionism (although she did buy Charles Demuth's My Egypt). And she probably knew nothing of the African-American artists included, such as Archibald Motley, Jr., Meta Warick Fuller and Palmer Hayden. Motley was particularly well represented, taking his rightful place on a wall with du Bois and Hopper, just as Aaron Douglas’s mural from the “Aspects of Negro Life” series looked terrific alongside the works of Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. Fuller's Ethiopia Rising was less fortunate in its position at the entrance to a cramped alcove devoted to the Harlem Renaissance.
You would never know from the exhibition that Mrs. Whitney was a prominent artist in her own right. As a sculptor she was decidedly antimodernist, which probably explains why Haskell did not include an example of her work in the exhibition. This exclusion is regrettable since Haskell made such a concerted effort to include the work of women artists. I counted over 80 works by such unfamiliar women artists as Lillian Westcott Hale, Sonya Noskowiak, Agnes Pelton, Henrietta Shore, Rebecca Strand and Bessie Potter Vonnoh. But missing from the show was the work of a far better known woman artist, Romaine Brooks. I would have included Brooks's great self portrait in which she dresses in a mannish black suit of her own design and is beribboned with the French Legion of Honor. Perhaps the fact that she worked in France eliminated her from the exhibition; if so, why did Haskell choose to include three works by Gerald Murphy (almost half his overrated oeuvre), when his brief career as a painter transpired entirely in Europe?
Brooks's absence leads me to my second Gertrude, the painter's fellow expatriate Gertrude Stein. While Stein was not a visual artist, her Parisian salon was crucial in introducing the European avant-garde to American artists. In general, the Whitney show would have benefited from a greater emphasis on the role of such informal gatherings in the cause of modem art. The trajectory from the domestic to the public, from Mrs. Whitney’s parlor to the Whitney Museum of American Art itself, was an essential part of the way in which modern art became accepted and institutionalized in America, By and large, the wall labels avoided the story of how artists lived, and how their art was exhibited, bought and sold. To the degree that there was social and economic context in “The American Century, Part I,” it was a matter of very broad themes like the Great Depression or the Jazz Age. The result was homogenizing. Cheerful images of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing gave way to mural-size photos of bread lines and the nuclear blast at Hiroshima, and back to the kissing couple in Times Square, as if such cultural landmarks were all somehow equivalent and their relationship to the art of the time unproblematic.
The inclusion of both Brooks and Stein would have brought into the show the presence of two out lesbians. In past exhibitions, Haskell has forthrightly dealt with questions of art and sexual identity; here, however, the extraordinary changes in sexual mores that were occurring during the period covered were largely unexplored. It is for this reason that Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain looked so forlorn in its role as a precursor to the machine esthetic of the Precisionists. A common urinal submitted to a supposedly nonjuried exhibition of modern art in 1917, it created a scandal over what constituted art and what constituted acceptable behavior. To take the urinal as merely a celebration of the machine is to miss the work's scatology, which was aimed at esthetic pretensions of all kinds. Haskell included a film clip from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times as an example of the sense of alienation produced by the machine. But that alienation was already embodied in Duchamp’s readymades, even as his American circle, which included Demuth, Man Ray, Morton Schamberg and Francis Picabia, caricatured modern sexuality as a machine given to malfunction and breakdown.
In general, the dialogue between Europe and the United States, which was so crucial to the introduction of modern art in this country, was all but missing from “The American Century, Part I.” Perhaps this is an inevitable byproduct of the nationalism that is at the core of Mrs. Whitney’s original intention for the museum. To Haskell’s credit, “The American Century, Part I” was not as jingoistic as its title and its brief MTV-style “digital orientation” might imply. The wall labels, which were short and restrained, made no claims for the originality or importance of the displayed works. And the calendar midpoint of the century falls before many of the most important Abstract Expressionist paintings (Pollocks excepted) were executed. Thus, Haskell avoided retelling the tired story that culminates in the “triumph” of American art.
But the general tone of the exhibition was celebratory, as signaled by the first section, titled “The Age of Confidence.” It may have been a confident age for financiers and industrialists, but not for many of the artists who felt that America was unsympathetic to the cause of modern art. As a result, many of the best American artists—Benton, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Hayden, Man Ray, Florine Stettheimer, Max Weber, the list goes on and on—went to Europe. Conversely, key European artists like Picabia, Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Max Ernst and Piet Mondrian came to the United States for extended periods of time. Their presence should have been acknowledged more fully through photographic portraits and installation shots, as well as a careful selection of a few key non-American works (Duchamp’s urinal notwithstanding).
My third Gertrude is Gertie the Dinosaur. One of Haskell’s most inspired choices was to include a clip from a 1914 film by Winsor McCay, credited by many as the inventor of the animated cartoon. Gertie begins as a static drawing on McCay's easel, but as the camera moves in, she starts to move out of her cave. Like a trained horse, she executes a few tricks, all the while eating every plant and tree in sight. What distinguished “The American Century, Part l” from the installation of American art at the Metropolitan Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago was the way in which it juxtaposed so-called high art with such examples of popular culture. When I heard that Intel was sponsoring the exhibition, I imagined that the viewer would be bombarded by multimedia, so that the effect would be a kaleidoscope of video and sound in which static paintings and sculpture would be unable to compete. In actuality, most of the film clips took the diminutive format of small monitors recessed in the walls that rarely distracted from the paintings and sculpture, Still, if this century deserves the title of American at all, it is not for the painting or sculpture of 1900-50 but for the all-consuming Gertie, and the world of popular entertainment from Disney to Jurassic Park that she heralds.
Although I applaud the inclusion of film, illustration and sheet music, I am worried by the show’s cheerful vision of a high and low culture somehow always in sync. According to one label, the use of commercial imagery in American art by artists like Stuart Davis is seen as harnessing the new energy of American advertising, while photographers were “revealing the elegance and beauty of ordinary consumer products” so that they are elevated to “the level of high art.” I can see how such an image of happy coexistence would warm the cockles of lntel’s heart, but, in fact, what united American artists and critics over a broad spectrum of political and esthetic differences was deep unhappiness about the commercialism and emptiness of American culture in all its manifestations, high and low.
When asked what he looked forward to, Charles Demuth said simply, “the past.”2 Although Demuth’s work is very much in evidence in the Whitney exhibition, his fin de siècle sensibility of belatedness, so appropriate for our own present end-of-century mood, is not. Museum exhibitions by their very nature are usually about the past, but they tend to avoid the unhappy side of retrospection—in this case, the regrets and failures which were so much a staple of the careers of American artists in the years before World War II. My own regrets about “The American Century, Part I” should not take away from what I think were its joys, its diversity of well-known and underknown artists, its elegant and spacious presentation, and its general enthusiasm for the cause of an indigenous art. This, after all, was the dream of the Whitney’s first Gertrude.
[In reading my response, it should be kept in mind that I was one of more than 30 specialists consulted in the early stages of planning “The American Century: Part I.”]
The Emperor’s New Suits
By Barbara Rose
In a move to change its image from trendy hip-hop emporium to solid scholarly bastion, the Whitney Museum is offering chronology as its visionary concept. This approach produced a banal, stilted, “March of Time” newsreel version of 20th-century American art history that served neither its subject nor its audience, nor for that matter the Whitney itself. The exhibition, the catalogue and the fancy Web site—more about that later—dress up reactionary thinking in fancy futuristic technology. Art works are downgraded to the status of illustrations of history in a misguided and naive interpretation of contextual presentation.
The Whitney’s massive and costly attempt to redesign itself at the millennial "window of opportunity," as the suits who funded this show might have it, is understandable given the museum’s history. From the outset, the Whitney has labored under the restriction that it be exclusively a museum of American art. "The American Century, Part I" maintained that viewpoint, treating American art outside the context of its European precedent, and perpetuating the foolish cultural isolationism that has characterized the museum's later years. The result emphasized the museum’s own limitations as well as those of the young and brash culture it celebrates.
When Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the museum in 1929, she felt American artists were getting a raw deal. She transformed her Greenwich Village studio into a club for her impoverished pals, never dreaming it would turn into the present corporate behemoth on Madison Avenue—much less that American artists would one day find themselves at center stage. The Whitney has long outlived the need for chauvinistic boosterism.
The pretentious exhibition title is a clue to ambition gone awry. It suggests an official patriotic celebration rather than a studied historical or critical reconsideration of 20th-century American art. The first half of this large, two-part extravaganza, covering 1900-1950, was roundly trounced by informed critics both in the U.S. and abroad, for good reason. It was a pastiche of received ideas based on a false premise that the exhibition and its attendant paraphernalia did not support. Emulating the interdisciplinary approach of its arch-rival, the Museum of Modern Art, by incorporating a lot of photographs plus a few examples of design, architecture and film into a show dominated by painting, the Whitney made itself look feeble in comparison.
The show's catalogue is definitely a postmodern enterprise. Its format and much of its content, whether consciously or not, have been appropriated from elsewhere. The cover duplicates that of the standard textbook on the subject, the title is taken from a jingoistic Time magazine editorial of the 1940s. The layout apes the reductive summation of weekly news magazines. Complete with explanatory sidebars (should the simplistic text prove too daunting), it seems aimed at the lucrative textbook market. The writing blithely slaps along, oblivious to complexity, insensitive to contradiction. It contains not one new interpretation of its endlessly recycled images—a great many of which are, of course, old friends, being from the Whitney’s collection.
The installation had a similarly déjà vu effect, looking very much like the World's Fair of 1939, that is—that put America on the map as a global cultural power because of the nation's evident technological advances. Television, for example, was first previewed there. At the Whitney, small, flickering video monitors showing film clips were interspersed with the art throughout the show, providing enough changing visual activity to entertain the most attention-deficient visitor. This detracted from the art without actually contextualizing it coherently. Like violence in Greek tragedy, TV in art shows is best left offstage. By contrast, the most effective media contextualization of art I have yet seen, the brilliant year-by-year documentary that paralleled Suzanne Pagé’s extraordinary 1997 exhibition in Paris of European art in the 1930s, “Les Années 30 en Europe: Les Temps Menaçants, 1929-1939,” alternated media galleries with exhibition galleries to dramatically re-create the Zeitgeist.
To highlight the Whitney’s new commitment to photography, the walls were plastered with photographs lined up in densely hung rows like well-disciplined little soldiers. The effect was photographic wallpaper. Despite some interesting and unusual inclusions, the installation obscured the importance of the individual images as works of art. Lip service was given to the central contribution of photography to American art, but the truth of this premise was never demonstrated to the depth it deserves.
Sculpture, when it was present at all, seemed to have been considered merely in passing, though there is much to be discovered about American sculpture before 1950. The absence of Gaston Lachaise’s late, great erotic bronzes was only one case in point (though the well-known classic Standing Woman, 1912-27, was on hand, along with a late drawing). The lack of imagination and daring in the treatment of sculpture was evident throughout. Indeed it would have been bold and at least a surprise, of which there were few in the exhibition, to have dramatically placed at the entrance one of the giant monumental bronzes made by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a highly accomplished academic artist who studied in Europe and had a considerable career.
The exhibition began with The Thinker: Portrait of Louis N. Kenton (1900) by the great American realist Thomas Eakins, but from this grand height, the show slid progressively downhill, reaching its nadir in the abysmal regionalist paintings of John Steuart Curry and the Social Realists of the 1930s. These artists confounded art with political propaganda, an error that has become the hallmark of the Whitney in recent years. It is time to relegate these hackneyed illustrations of customs and mores back to sociology and cultural studies and remove them from art history, to which they make no contribution.
Indeed, now is the moment for a really thorough revision of the history of American art. For example, an artist who deserves more attention and in-depth study is Grant Wood. While Wood was present in the show with several examples, they were scattered and did not make for a coherent representation. His iconic American Gothic was taken literally as homage to his native Middle West. Yet now we can see Wood’s entire oeuvre as a satiric replay of American history that is a precedent for Pop irony. His intentionally eclectic style prefigures postmodernism, in the context of which he looks surprisingly contemporary. His self-conscious mixture of the refinement and detail of Flemish painting with the decorative simplicity of folk art still has a surprisingly vinegary punch. Quality is exactly that capacity to survive the passage of time and still look new and fresh—a capacity that was lacking in a great deal of the work in this show.
There are many, many other artists who should be reevaluated through updated connoisseurship. One such painter is Walt Kuhn, a major artist (known today mainly as one of the organizers of the Armory Show) who disguised his painterly gifts by his choice of repetitious circus subject matter. Only a single painting represented him in the shows Showgirl with Plumes (1931), a beauty from the Phillips Collection.
This was also the perfect opportunity to purge the artists favored by salon society. One could, for example, have lived without the coy cuteness of Florine Stettheimer (two Stettheimers in the show, and only one Kuhn?) as well as the dapper camp of Elie Nadelman, while looking with necessary curiosity at the contribution of early American abstraction and, above all, American Cubists, many of whom were distinguished women artists such as Gertrude Greene and Esphyr Slobodkina (neither of them, alas, represented in the show).
Altogether, insufficient discrimination was made on the Whitney’s walls between real innovators and mundane epigones. The installation gave no sense of the hills and valleys that define art history, nor of the singular creative personalities who dominate it. The chance to seriously contextualize modern American art was similarly passed up. There was no consistent effort, for example, to show the influence of Native American culture on generations of American artists, many of whom were the first to understand its worth. Even before Pollock, Gottlieb and Newman became fascinated with North American tribal art, artists such as Max Weber, George L.K. Morris and, of course, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe were decisively influenced by Native American forms. The Asian impact on American art was also overlooked. That Chinese scroll painting (rather than Japanese wood-cuts) had a major impact for the modernism of O’Keeffe, Marin, Tobey and Reinhardt was not even hinted at. Some judicious juxtaposition could have demonstrated these important affinities.
The selection of work by African-American artists, which was severely limited, suggested little more than a wish to satisfy political correctness. The presence of works by Aaron Douglas, Hale Woodruff, Archibald Motley and a few small paintings by Jacob Lawrence (all from the “Migration” series) did not sufficiently highlight the profound esthetic contribution of African-Americans, which Mondrian was perhaps the first to publicly acknowledge. The opportunity was lost to explore the shared esthetic of Norman Lewis and Ad Reinhardt. ln addition, though jazz was present as background music here and there in the show, there was no serious attempt to demonstrate the fundamental importance, in terms of images, forms and energy, of jazz to the American experience.
The main problem with the selection and installation of the works, the media components and the accompanying catalogue was the absence of the imprint of an identifiable, authoritative intelligence capable of threading together these elements in a subtle or organic manner. As for the premise that the 20th is the “American” century, l am not the first to find it as arrogant as it is preposterous. Certainly the first half of the century belonged to Europe. American artists of real consequence knew this, even if sometimes they reacted against it. Most of them traveled—to Germany, Italy, Spain, France—to study and to see masterpieces firsthand. The pictures of the emerging New York School artists included in the show hint that the second half of the century will make a better case for the American contribution, even though many of the New York School greatest artists were born in Europe or, in the case of the second generation, trained there. One of the best points made in the show, which included the infamous urinal by Marcel Duchamp (indeed a product of his New York years), is that the artist chose late in life to become an American citizen, leaving a legacy of anti-art that the Whitney has taken great pains to institutionalize. (In fact, the New York Dada section of the show had an intellectual coherence that the rest lacked, probably because it benefited from the excellent 1996-97 exhibition curated for the Whitney by Francis Naumann.)
There was no inkling here of what made America great, and what, as the show approached the midcentury point, was beginning to make American art great: risk-taking, experiment, an openness to new concepts and other cultures, and a concept of heroism and machismo that can be criticized but cannot be denied.
Perhaps one cause of trouble was the some of the funding of “The American Century.” The show appears to have been conceived to spend Intel’s $6 million in a way that would please the sponsor. The bells-and-whistles Web site was clearly designed to attract a new audience as large as, if not larger than, that of the bikers that Thomas Krens drew to the Guggenheim with last summer’s motorcycle exhibition. But, unfortunately, the Whitney is victim to its own cynicism. The Web site is even more boring than the show and its catalogue. Who or what is to blame? Perhaps it is the wrongness of the idea that if you put a computer nerd together with an art historian you will get a third thing—an educational Web site. Even if that were the way to go about long-distance art education (and it isn’t), education is clearly not the focus of the Intel-Whitney collaboration: shopping is. So many of the options on the site take you directly to the Whitney shop that you feel you are in a Monopoly game and constantly getting sent to jail.
Like the catalogue on which it is based, the Web site offers the Dick-and-Jane version of American art and its history. Attempts to condense and make things easy distort the truth. The hyperlinks suggest simplistic cause-and-effect relationships. Yes, you can customize your Whitney tour, but instead of analysis, you get superficiality.
As currently envisioned by the Whitney, “The American Century” does not advance the study of American art. Where are passion, originality, spontaneity and daring? Does the “strategic alliance” between business and museums necessarily stamp out these qualities? Standardization, predictability and banality are the characteristics of outsourcing as now practiced by successful managers. These days the Whitney seems pleased to style itself as a business instead of simply a family gesture of noblesse oblige. However, it should be remembered that no matter how much they do to please their shareholders, businesses that lack a unifying vision, mission and direction, and a capacity to take essential risks, sooner or later fold.
The Whitney’s Missing Whitney
By Janet Wolff
There is a certain consensus that “The American Century, Part I” was the grand and definitive culmination of a revisionism which, for more than two decades, has challenged the Eurocentric, MoMA-influenced narrative of American art.3 That is, of course, the famous story according to which the legacy of Post-Impressionism passed through European modernism to be taken up by the New York School after the Second World War.
One consequence of this powerful narrative was the denigration of much realist painting in the 20th century and of most American art before Abstract Expressionism. Ashcan painters, Social Realists and regionalists were marginalized in this account, considered as either interesting but unimportant developments or transitional moments on the way to modernism.4 With certain exceptions (Edward Hopper is the foremost example), the dominant story of American art—as told in art history books and reflected in art-market prices and institutionalized in displays at the major museums—has been a selective account of the emergence of American modernism in the early part of this century, of a period of retreat from creativity in the interwar period and of the efflorescence of new and truly modern work in the 1950s.
Since the 1950s, the Whitney Museum of American Art itself has generally sustained this narrative, shaping the history of American art to conform to the MoMA story. As early as 1960, the Whitney's director, Lloyd Goodrich, was challenged in a letter from 22 artists who were concerned by the lack of representational art in the Annual of that year.5 Nearly 40 years later, the New York Times’s critic, Holland Cotter, was quite right to point out that “The American Century, Part I” forces a rethinking of that single-minded story and its exclusions (this "blinkered view"), and facilitates an understanding that "American art in the first half of the century was an unruly, multifaceted, undefinable phenomenon, alternatively hyped up and strung out, streetwise and above it all, emerging from a patchwork of disparate constituencies for whom no national style, modernist or otherwise, would ever do."6
The Whitney has already undertaken the study and display of some of the artists and movements sidelined by the dominant narrative. One can point to its 1995 Florine Stettheimer retrospective and, perhaps more significantly, to the third in the Whitney’s series of major exhibitions organized by museum directors and curators from abroad. Presented in 1997 by Nicholas Serota and Sandy Nairne of London’s Tate Gallery, the show was described by the New Yorker as American art viewed through eyes used to looking at Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.7 The exhibition’s title—“American Realities”—announced the curators’ intentions, which were confirmed in the preface to the catalogue, whose essays, they explain, “provide a starting point for a series of revisionist views which question the premise that the triumph of Abstract Expressionism was the most significant, determinative event in 20th-century American art.8 Prominent in the show were works by Ashcan artists (John Sloan and George Luks), 14th Street artists (Isabel Bishop and Raphael Soyer) and other realist painters of the early 20th century (Reginald Marsh, Guy Pène du Bois, Hopper).
Realist art was well represented in “The American Century, Part I” and displayed for once on equal terms with (and, indeed, often side-by-side with) American modernism (artists of the Stieglitz circle, early abstractionists, the Synchromists Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, and the Precisionist painters Charles Sheeler, Ralston Crawford, Charles Demuth and Elsie Driggs). But there was a strange absence in the show—one especially striking in this particular venue. With only a couple of exceptions, the key artists of the Whitney Studio Club and the Whitney Studio Galleries—precursors to the museum—were not included. These were the artists whose work, shown at the Club and the Galleries in the period 1918-30, and purchased by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Juliana Force, formed a large part of the collection upon the opening of the museum in 1931. Force—director of the Whitney Studio Club and the Whitney Studio Galleries, and the first director of the Whitney Museum—is not mentioned in the catalogue, and neither is Mrs. Whitney (outside of the director's foreword). This omission is odd, if only because a comprehensive account of American art in the first half of the 20th century might be expected to include its institutional homes along with the discourses and debates focused on those spaces. The early history of the Whitney is not just of academic interest: it explains a good deal about the nature of the museum’s current collection, including (and perhaps most interestingly) those works held in storage (but still available for curators like Serota and Nairne to rediscover and retrieve).
The published records of the early exhibitions of the Whitney Museum and its precursors, the catalogue of the collection on the museums opening in 1931, the catalogue from the memorial exhibition held for Force in 1949 and Avis Berman’s comprehensive history of the early years of the Whitney all bring to the foreground the names of artists who are now little known.9 Many of these artists were active in the Whitney Studio Club, some as assistants to Force, and were connected with one another through shared training at the Art Students League and through summers spent in Woodstock in the 1920s. They showed regularly, often in one-person exhibitions, and their work was central to the original collection of the museum.
At the time of its opening, the Whitney Museum’s 500 paintings included six by Arnold Blanch, seven each by Lucile Blanch and by Alexander Brook, twelve by Guy Pène du Bois, ten by Ernest Fiene, three by Isabella Howland, three by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, nine by Joseph Pollet, eight by Katherine Schmidt, two by Dorothy Varian and eight by Nan Watson. Only Kuniyoshi and du Bois appear in the current exhibition. There are two works by Kuniyoshi from 1937 and 1947, but none from the days of the Whitney Studio Club. Du Bois is the interesting exception. “The American Century, Part I” does include three of his paintings from the premuseum years (1924, 1926 and 1929). Moreover, his work is seen quite often in exhibitions today. Du Bois was a central figure in the Whitney Studio Club, as an artist and a critic. His survival in the new canon, if only as a minor painter, may be explained by modernist tendencies in his work, whose isolated and alienated figures are stylistically simplified.10
The story of these artists, their interconnections, and their relationship to Juliana Force, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the Whitney Studio Club is a fascinating study in the sociology of artistic production, and is well detailed in Berman’s account.11 Most of them painted in a post-Ashcan realist style, having studied with Robert Henri, Sloan and Kenneth Hayes Miller at the Art Students League. Their omission from “The American Century, Part I,” an exhibition that took realism seriously, is worth noting, given their prominence, at least up to the 1949 exhibition, in the Whitney’s own history. Although “The American Century, Part I” contained works by a number of artists (Ashcan painters, Precisionists and other modernists) who were connected with the Whitney Studio Club, it is the disappearance of most of the core group that calls for comment.
The real difficulty here is that revisionism puts into question issues of quality and esthetic judgment.12 We might say that the works of Brook, Schmidt and Varian are simply not as good as, say, those of Henri, Marsh or Bishop, so that even a revisionism which reevaluates realist work will necessarily select and exclude accordingly. But what does such assessment of quality mean when a radical reevaluation of a dominant modernist esthetic is under way? In fact, the Whitney Museum considered the work of the women artists of the Studio Club “good enough” to merit an exhibition at one of its branches recently.13
It has been pointed out that the collecting practices of Force and Whitney were somewhat uncritical, often based more on the desire to support artists than on an informed assessment of the works.14 But this knowledge does not help in the task of retrospective judgment. If it is really the case that “The American Century, Part I” consolidates much recent revisionism in American art history, the exclusions from that revised account must also be considered. This is not necessarily to fault the exhibition for its omissions—it makes little sense to ask for a complete re-creation of the art world of the early 20th century. Nor is it to claim that the Whitney Studio Club artists are “as good as” the better-known realists. It is to suggest that in obliterating its own history, the Whitney loses the opportunity to explore a number of important issues in the history of 20th-century American art: the formation of the museum’s own collection, the initial moment of an institutional definition of “American” art and the prehistory (and therefore the retroactive consequences) of the postwar abstract hegemony that is foreshadowed in the final rooms of “The American Century, Part l.”