12 June 2018

'Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900–1960'

My friend Diana, with whom I usually go to the theater, called me on the evening of Tuesday, 8 May, to tell me that the Whitney Museum of Art was holding a Member Night on Wednesday, the next evening.  Diana’s a member of the Whitney, which is now (since May 2015) located in Manhattan’s West Village, within walking distance from my apartment in the Flatiron District.  On designated Member Nights—the Whitney holds them throughout the year; we went to another one on 7 July—museum members get to spend two-and-a-half hours, 7:30 to 10 p.m., after the museum closes to the public (6 p.m. on Wednesdays) for free.  Each member may bring a guest—that would be me in this case—and there are some special events scheduled throughout the evening: talks, performances, demonstrations and workshops, music); while not all the museum’s facilities are open after closing, the main restaurant, Untitiled, the Studio Café and Bar on the eighth floor, and the museum shop and bookstore in the first-floor lobby are all operating.  All the exhibit galleries are open for viewing, and, after a light meal at Untitled, off the lobby north along Gansevoort Street in the shadow of the southern terminus of the High Line Park, we decided to go straight to the seventh floor where Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900-1960 is on exhibit.

Where We Are opened on Friday, 28 April 2017, for an open-ended run.  It features artists drawn entirely from the Whitney’s holdings such as Louise Bourgeois, James Castle, Elizabeth Catlett, John Steuart Curry, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley, Jr., Florentine Stettheimer, and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others.  Where We Are, comprising around 140 works, is organized by David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection, with Jennie Goldstein, assistant curator, and Margaret Kross, curatorial assistant.

Spread out over several galleries, including the Jasper Bloomberg and Zelda  Bloomberg Outdoor Gallery, the works of painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture are separated into five themes: family and community, home, work, the nation, and the spiritual. The museum’s publicity explains the show’s rationale:

During the six decades covered here, the United States experienced war and peace, economic collapse and recovery, and social discord and progress.  American artists responded in complex and diverse ways, and a central aim of the exhibition is to honor each artist’s efforts to create her or his own vision of American life.  The artists and their works suggest that our sense of self is composed of our responsibilities, places, and beliefs.

The curators have taken the poem “September 1, 1939” by W. H. Auden (1907-73) as a sort of guiding template for the exhibit’s organization, using lines from the poem for the title of the entire exhibit and each of its sections: “No One Exists Alone,” a look at family relationships and responsibilities, filial and parental affection, and friendship; “The Furniture of Home,” an examination of “the objects with which we identify, the home [which] can serve as a window into the period when an artwork was made, a stand-in for its inhabitants, or a symbol of the class of its residents”; “The Strength of Collective Man,” displaying “works that portray the sites of production, scenes of working, and the individuals who constituted the workforce”; “In a Euphoric Dream,” featuring works by artists looking at the symbols of the United States to study the times in which they lived and the history of the country George Washington called a “great experiment” (in a letter to British historian Catherine Macaulay Graham on January 9, 1790); and “Of Eros and Dust,” representing artists who “sought recourse in spirituality and mysticism . . . through the symbolic, the sublime, the natural, and the abstract.”  

(The date in the title of Auden’s poem, written on the first day of World War II, is the date of the German invasion of Poland.  First published on 18 October 1939 in the magazine New Republic and then in book form in the Auden collection Another Time in 1940, the poem, speaking of anguish over events that have occurred and apprehension about the potential repercussions, has figured in several modern occasions in the United States.  A paraphrase of one of the poet’s lines, “We must love one another or die,” was included in a speech by Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson that became part of the famous “Daisy” campaign commercial for Johnson’s election in 1964.  In the commercial, which ran only once, on 7 September 1964, Johnson’s voice is heard saying “We must either love each other, or we must die.”  After the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday, read the poem on National Public Radio and it was widely discussed and reprinted in the days following the attacks.)

Having said all that about the themes and curatorial narrative of the Whitney’s Where We Are, I should confess that I was far more interested in the art—that is to say, the individual works and the artists whom I didn’t already know—than what the exhibit’s organizers intended to tell me about “how artists have approached the relationships, institutions, and activities that shape our lives.”  The whole relationship of the art and artists with Auden’s poem went pretty much right over my head.  The curators have written, for example:

Although mournful, the poem concludes by pointing to the individual’s capacity to “show an affirming flame.”  Where We Are shares Auden’s guarded optimism, gathering a constellation of artists whose light might lead us forward.

This strikes me as awfully pretentious and overblown, even for a museum self-promotion.  The poem’s a response to the first shots fired in what would become a six-year, worldwide armed conflict; most of the art wasn’t anything like that.  Furthermore, I don’t accept the suggestion the curators seem to be making that the artists’ intentions were to comment specifically and directly on the themes the organizers have carved out.  Theirs is a retrospective reinterpretation from the vantage point of a half century to a century after the art was created.  Somehow I doubt anyone asked the artists about their intentions—almost all of them are dead.  (As an acting teacher of mine used to say about playwrights no longer with us: We don’t have their telephone numbers.  Which makes the curators free, I guess, to say whatever they want.)

In the end, the thematic organization was irrelevant to me; the art itself was all that mattered.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed the show if for no other reason than it was largely made up of works from perhaps the greatest era so far of American art (IMHO), the post-World War II period of the ’40s to the ’60s.  The decades of the 20th century before that, from the century’s turn until the war cut us off from Europe’s cultural influence and allowed American artists to set a path of their own, was the cocoon out of which an indigenous American art emerged.  

Mind you, I should acknowledge here that the culmination of this period was the time when I first was introduced to modern art and the period of the art that most influenced my interest and taste.  (I’ve told the story of Gres Gallery and its connection to my family several times in this blog—see, for example, “Washington Art Matters,” 5 September 2013; “Yayoi Kusama,” 18 May 2017; “A Passion for Art,” 21 November 2017; and “Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib (2007),” 26 November 2017; among other posts.  That started in 1958, or thereabouts, when I was 11, and continued through about 1961, the years when I was forming tastes and interests that would follow me into adulthood.  By the way, my tastes in music also began in those years as well; so did my interest in theater, though my appreciations in that field broadened considerably in the ensuing years.)

Though there are many wonderful artists in Where We Are, the star of the show is arguably painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who also happens to be a favorite of Diana’s (though not of mine; as I wrote in my 2008 report on Edward Hopper at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., this artist “doesnt move me; I find his work cold and emotionless”).  Visitors congregated around his paintings and the Whitney has scheduled an “Exhibition Talk,” one of the perks of attending a Member Night, on A Woman in the Sun (1961), one of the two Hopper canvases in “The Furniture of Home.”  Small crowds gathered for the four short (15-20 minutes) lectures by Whitney teaching fellow Janine DeFeo.  Diana and I listened in on this talk, which also included a stop at New York Interior (c. 1921), the other Hopper in this section of Where We Are.  

While DeFeo made some pointed comments about Hopper’s painting style, noting his use of light—one of his signatures—and space, the solitariness of the woman in the picture, and the sparseness of the room’s décor, I don’t really appreciate someone telling me what a piece of art “means,” since  by its nature, art means something different to each partaker.  Art—whether music, poetry, drama, or painting—means to me whatever I take from it, not what someone else tells me I should take from it.  Once again, we come up against the tendency of some “expert” deciding what the artist meant to communicate which, unless she or he left notes (and even then . . .), none of us can actually know.  (Diana complained strongly about commentators who “psychoanalyze” a painting, and I think this is what she objected to.) 

In her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag asserts:

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us.  The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

I have had a hard time agreeing with Sontag’s ban on interpretation for one fundamental reason: it’s not possible to experience a work of art—or nearly anything else—without finding some kind of meaning in it.  I think it’s human nature—we’re hard-wired to find meaning in what we see and experience.  But when it comes to someone else—a critic, say—interpreting  a piece of art for me, that is in my stead or in my behalf—I’m with Sontag: I say nix!  (I’m not even terribly sanguine about artists themselves telling me what their art should mean to me!)

Actually, I’ve almost always seen Hopper’s paintings, at least those with people in them, as stills from a playlet or a scene from a play.  I can spin a whole little scenario from them.  (My favorite painting for this exercise, which isn’t in Where We Are, is 1942’s Nighthawks, a scene at night in a corner diner from the perspective of the street outside.  As I pondered in my pre-ROT report on the Hopper show at the National Gallery, it makes “you wonder what might have just happened—or might be about to happen—in that single lighted room on a dark, empty street.”)

A Woman in the Sun depicts a nude woman standing profile in the center of a shadow-shrouded bedroom.  She’s brightly lit, however, by the sun shining through an unseen window out of the frame to the right, creating a long rectangle of yellow light and casting the elongated shadows of her legs behind her.  The bed to her left is unmade, as if she’d just gotten out of it; her high-heeled pumps are sitting haphazardly on the floor just at the edge of the bed.  Another window in the room’s far wall is closed, but the curtains are pulled back as if the woman wasn’t concerned if anyone could see in.  The rolling green hills just visible through the glass suggests that the room’s on an upper floor and that the house is in the country so there’s no one to see her anyway.  The room, with sea-green walls, is sparsely decorated and furnished.  The only piece of furniture is the bed; there are framed pictures on two walls.  Aside from the shoes, there’s no other clothing insight.

So, what’s the woman’s story?  Is this her room, or is she a guest in the house?  A visiting relative?  An old friend?  A paying guest?  Did she sleep naked?  There’s no nightgown or pajamas or slippers.  Was there a lover or a husband just moments before?

Is it morning, afternoon, or evening?  The curtain visible at the right edge of the canvas seems to be billowing a bit, so that window might be open.  That suggests it’s warm out—maybe late spring or summer.  Of course, if it’s down south some place, it could be fall or even winter—we don’t know. 

The woman’s not young—probably early middle-aged.  She’s got long, brown hair, which doesn’t seem mussed from the woman’s having been in bed just moments ago.  Did she brush it just before the picture was made?  There are no toiletries to be seen.  A bathroom down the hall, maybe?  There’s no bathrobe around, though.  Maybe the house is hers and she’s alone and doesn’t have to worry about such things.  Maybe she’s about about to get in the bed, not just getting up from it.

The woman doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get dressed or go anywhere. She’s smoking a cigarette.  Why is she smoking standing up instead of sitting on the bed?  There no ashtray in sight—does she drop her ashes on the green rug? 

New York Interior, though a smaller “scene,” raises many intriguing questions, too.  The woman sitting with her back to us, sewing what looks like a white dress, could tell a fascinating story.  Is she making the dress, or mending it?  Letting it out or taking it in—maybe for someone else?  Is it a hand-me-down?  The room looks well furnished and appointed—it’s not a tenement.  I could go on—Hopper leaves so much out of his paintings—but supplies hints, even if he doesn’t mean to.

In another section of Where We Are, Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930) is on display.  It’s one of the artist’s works with no people in it, a deserted strip of storefronts along a town street.  It’s a stage set!  Are the shops, all empty like the street, closed because it’s early morning on a Sunday (no businesses open on Sundays in 1930!)?  Or is it because it’s 1930—the second year of the Great Depression?  (The painting’s title was apparently attached by someone else, not Hopper—so maybe it isn’t even Sunday.)  There are apartments on the second floor above the shops—but no one’s visible there, either.  The artist’s said that the painting depicts 7th Avenue in New York City, but does it?  It looks like a small town to me.  Sunday Morning’s less intriguing than the populated paintings, but there’s still a lot we can wonder about and imagine.

The exhibit opens with a display outside the entrance to the first gallery, facing museumgoers as they exit the elevators in the seventh floor, of Jacob Lawrence’s War Series, 14 panels that present expressionistic representations of World War II, which Lawrence (1917-2000) saw first hand as a Coast Guardsman.  In the paintings, made between 1946 and 1947, Lawrence showed the war as perceived by the individual, whether soldier or civilian on the home front.  Among the War Series are depictions, in muted earth colors of rust and olive green and brown and black with splashes of white, of Coast Guardsmen reporting for Another Patrol (1946), soldiers Shipping Out (1947) for the combat zone, wounded and injured men Going Home (1947), a father or brother or son receiving The Letter (1946) telling him his loved one died in battle, and finally, Victory (1947), the image of a soldier in full battle gear, his rifle held vertically in front of his, kneeling in prayer or thanks.  The series may be the most moving images in the show. 

One example of what I meant when I complained about shoe-horning an interpretation onto a piece of art that may not have been remotely what the artist was out to do comes from Pittsburgh (1927) by Elsie Driggs (1895-1992).  It’s in “The Strength of Collective Man,” the section on industry, labor, and the working man.  Pittsburgh is a painting of the stacks and tubes of a steel mill, presented as a depiction of 20th-century American industry, the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake, perhaps a warning of industrial pollution to come.  But Driggs said she was compelled to paint the scene because, “This shouldn’t be beautiful.  But it is.”  So she drew it!  It was a purely aesthetic impulse, not an environmental or political one.  The Where We Are curators are perfectly free to see in Driggs’s Pittsburgh what they want, or what they feel.  But they don’t get to lay their experience of the art work on me.  I see more or less what Driggs saw at the mill—a (perhaps frightening or ominous) beauty, majesty even, in the almost gracefully curved and sentinel-straight steel pipes, stacks, and tubes.  (There’s even a hint of M. C. Escher.)

Where We Are is too chock-full of terrific art to do it justice in a short report.  (Fortunately, the show is open-ended and should be accessible for a while yet, so I can recommend a trip down to Gansevoort Street in Greenwich Village  for you to see it for yourself.)  I do need to make one more stop: Morris Louis’s Tet (1958).  I do this not only because I like Louis’s work—I like it a lot because (and Diana doesn’t understand this) it cheers me up, it makes me happy—but also because Louis (1912-62) is a founding member of the Washington Color School (about which I blogged in The Washington School of Color,” 21 September 2014) and, yes, I am a hometown chauvinist.  (So sue me!)  

Tet (Louis’s titles aren’t his—he didn’t title his canvases before he died at the age of 49; after his death, his wife assigned titles, almost all letters of the Greek or, as in this case, Hebrew alphabets) is one of the artist’s Veil paintings.  (I explain what Louis’s techniques were, including “veiling,” in my post “Morris Louis,” 15 February 2010.)  But I want to make another point here about assigning meaning to works of art.  Tet is in the section covering spirituality and mysticism, “Of Eros and Dust.”  

The Color School movement, however, wasn’t about meaning.  Not at all.  A piece of Color School art was meant to stir the viewer totally by the pleasure received from the colors and shapes.  A Color School painting doesn’t mean anything—not spiritual or mystical or concrete or symbolic.  Now, you can find meaning in it—like you do when you look at clouds—but you cannot tell me I have to find your meaning in the painting, or any meaning at all.  So Tet doesn’t “mean” anything to me—it’s just wonderful colors on a canvas that please me.  (By the way, if you check out my post on Louis, you learn that he didn’t actually “paint” his canvases.  He poured the pigment onto the canvas and let gravity and chance share in the creation of the effect.  It’s hard to make meaning with that technique.)

There wasn’t a lot of critical press on Where We Are.  Calling the exhibit “timely” at this time when we’re debating “what it means to be American,” Elena Martinique of Widewalls observed, “Featuring both icons and the not-yet-known or the forgotten, the exhibition Where We Are brings together the beauty, diversity, difference, and complexity.”  In The Villager, Stephanie Buhmann called Where We Are a “stunning installation.”  

Ben Diamond declared, “Every piece of art in this show is incredible,” in Avenue magazine, but reported that the exhibit is “a bold experiment, one that ignores the dictums of rigid art historians in favor of an approach grounded more in thematic and aesthetic concerns.  Unfortunately, its admittedly excellent parts never combine into a coherent whole.”  As if to echo my complaint about the curatorial interpretation, Diamond asserted, “The thematic groupings in ‘Where We Are’ do the work on display [a] disservice, forcing viewers to interpret art in narrowly particular ways.”  The reviewer cited Frank Stella’s “maxim” that “‘what you see is what you see,’ was expressly created to resist the sort of easy interpretation that the show imposes on it.” 

*  *  *  *
On Wednesday, 7 June, Diana invited me to another Member Night at the Whitney.  My friend and I checked out three exhibits.  One was another show drawn from the museum’s permanent collection called An Incomplete History of Protest, an exhibit of art and artifacts (from 1940 to 2017) inspired by or in support of various political movements (civil rights and anti-lynching, women’s rights, the AIDS crisis, anti-Vietnam war).  As art, it was only mildly interesting; as a look back at history, it covered movements most of which I’ve lived through and didn’t feel compelled to revisit.  (I’m not a devotee of political art, including political theater.  It’s almost always more compelling as politics than as art.)

We also breezed through Mary Corse: A Survey in Light.  She’s an artist of whom I’d never heard (she’s about a year older than I am, born in 1945), and a lot of her work is white-on-white paintings.  (Do any of you know a play called Art by Yasmina Reza, a French playwright of Iranian heritage, that played on Broadway in 1998-99?  Three men in a Paris apartment argue over whether an all-white painting one of them just bought is even art.  It won an Olivier and Molière Award and the 1998 Tony, all for best play.)  A Survey in Light is a small show, but I didn’t find it very interesting.

We spent most of the visit at Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Myths.  The show opened in one of the museum’s fifth-floor galleries on 2 March and closed on 10 June.  Grant Wood covers all of the artist’s career, from his beginnings designing decorative objects, through his early paintings, to his fame generated by American Gothic (1930), and his mature work in murals; the exhibit also includes examples of his book illustrations and covers.

I’m not a fan of Wood’s, but though I knew he did other work, I only knew American Gothic (which is in the show, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago).  After seeing this exhibit, I’m not more taken with the Iowan’s art, but he is an interesting figure.  One thing I learned: he had a sly sense of humor which he occasionally exercised in his paintings.  Daughters of Revolution (1932) is a dig at the DAR’s pretensions and snobbishness disguised as a portrait of three middle-aged Iowan ladies.  (When I saw the canvas from across the gallery, before I even knew what its subject was, I immediately thought of The Music Man—a play set in Iowa, coincidentally—and the song “Pickalittle (Talkalittle)” in which three biddies show disdain for Marion “the Librarian” because “she advocates dirty books . . . Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac!”)

Wood (1891-1942) began as a decorative artist, though he didn’t accept a distinction between decorative art and fine art.  In the early part of the show, there are household furnishings, including a Tiffany-like glass lampshade, that Wood designed.  His early paintings were decidedly impressionistic, influenced by the European artists he was studying and emulating (Van Antwerp Place, 1922–23).  In 1930, the year he painted American Gothic, Wood decided that he was going to devote himself to developing an indigenous, hard-edged, straightforward American style of art, influenced and inspired by his Midwestern roots and the Iowa landscape in which he grew up and the people he knew.  (His models for American Gothic, for instance, were his sister—a portrait of whom, Portrait of Nan, 1931is in the showand his dentist.)  He often included images of Iowan icons, especially corn, in  his works (especially Corn Cob Chandelier for Iowa Corn Room, 1925, one of his decorative arts creations for the Montrose Hotel in Cedar Rapids.). 

Another example of Woods’s sense of humor is Parson Weems’ Fable (1939), which presents the famous apocryphal tale of  young George Washington confessing to his father that he chopped down the cherry tree.  It’s shown as a stage scene, with Parson Weems, the fable’s originator, pulling back a  curtain to reveal the drama taking place.  Presented as a fiction this way, Woods manages to cast doubt on the  popular story’s veracity while still celebrating the moral lesson it purports to teach.

Woods painted many scenes celebrating the Iowa farm and small-town culture in which he’d grown up (Rural Landscape, c. 1931. for example).  But the farms, rural landscapes, and little towns he painted were not only idealized renditions of the real Iowa of the 1930’s, but they weren’t even the actual Iowa of his childhood, though that’s what he put out that he was painting.  He was recreating images not of the world he remembered as a child, but a world he wanted to remember—but which never actually existed.  In his later work, however, Wood wasn’t above treating some ominous or dark subjects, most starkly exemplified in Death on the Ridge Road, a 1935 oil that depicts a rather expressionistic scene, viewed from above as if he were suspended in the air, of an impending automobile crash as two cars are speeding along a windy two-lane blacktop as a truck is hurtling down the steep road towards them.

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