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#Hashtags: Learn Where the Meat Comes From

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With the arrival of the new Whitney Museum on Gansevoort Street, New York’s once notorious Meatpacking District completes lower Manhattan’s transition from a no-man’s-land populated by artists and outcasts to a stomping ground for fashionable elites. Befitting of an institution that represents the American art world—which has long positioned itself within both these groups, often simultaneously—the Whitney would seem to want to have it both ways. With the museum’s inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, audiences are presented with a chronological reworking of the history of American art as collected by the Whitney. The works installed on five floors of the gleaming Renzo Piano building tell a story that is complex, and at times contradictory, while demonstrating the limitations of official art-historical narratives in articulating the various trajectories of art and culture in the United States and in the 20th century.

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Whitney Museum of American Art, view from Gansevoort Street, 2015. Photo: Ed Lederman.

The good news is that Whitney curators, led by Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs Donna De Salvo, have systematically sought out gaps in the museum’s permanent collection and attempted to fill in missing contributors to American art history since the late 19th century, with particular attention paid to works by women and people of color. Less encouraging is the limited impact that these new introductions have had on the curatorial framing of American art’s influences and objectives. On the eighth floor, covering the years 1910 to 1940, unfamiliar names like Nancy Elizabeth Prophet and Richmond Barthé join a familiar roster that includes Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella, Lyonel Feininger, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Isamu Noguchi. The historical narrative is expanded a bit to include African and Asian influences as well as European modernism. Yet, non-Western influences are cited only in discussions of the works by artists of color, while the overarching themes of industrialization and geometric abstraction as American art’s primary interests in that period are preserved from earlier presentations of the collection. An opportunity to connect American modernism writ large to the United States’ emergence as a global power is thereby wholly missed.

Glenn Ligon (b. 1960). Rückenfigur, 2009. Neon and paint, 24 × 145 1/2 × 5in. (61 × 369.6 × 12.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture  Committee  2011.3a i.  © Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon. Rückenfigur, 2009; neon and paint; 24 × 145 1/2 × 5 in. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art © Glenn Ligon.

On the seventh floor, covering the years 1925 to 1960, images of immigration and alienation in the cities from artists including Charles White, Maya Deren, and George Tooker begin to compete with heroic depictions of the American West by Andrew Wyeth, Grant Wood, and Chiura Obata (whose Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of America’s national parks represent a major recent acquisition and a collection highlight). These themes converge in the work of Edward Hopper, who blends the clear light and detail of the landscape genre with the psychological charge of Surrealism. Mannerism as a tool of social critique appears in works by Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, and Paul Cadmus, which invoke the exaggerated caricatures of German Expressionists George Grosz and Otto Dix, though that relationship is not articulated at the museum. Social Realists working in printmaking and photography, including Mabel Dwight, Hugo Gellert, Margaret Bourke-White, Lisette Model, Walker Evans, and Weegee, depict the era as tumultuous and divided: plagued by poverty, labor abuses, racist violence, and war. A suite of important paintings by Jacob Lawrence, War Series (1946–7), and a major work by Ben ShahnThe Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931–1932),  situate these themes within a larger historical sweep. Sited somewhat incongruously at the center of this storm of passion and rage is Alexander Calder’s whimsical Calder’s Circus (1926–31)—one of the Whitney’s best-loved works—which embodies the energy but not the anxiety of the works in its vicinity.

Woodblock prints by Chiura  Obata,1930. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Gyo Obata. Photo by the author.

Woodblock prints by Chiura Obata, 1930. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Gyo Obata. Photo by the author.

That combination of energy and anxiety continues, although stripped of historical specificity, in the adjacent gallery of Abstract Expressionism including works by Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Alfonso Ossorio, Alma Thomas, and Joan Mitchell. While some artists such as Gorky and Guston can be said to have been responding to social upheaval and ethnic violence, the historical engagement of the Social Realists has been replaced by introspection and metaphor. Abstract Expressionism’s reputation for large-scale machismo is beautifully challenged by the central placement of Lee Krasner’s The Seasons (1957), a work nearly 17 by 8 feet large that is rambunctious and pastoral at once. Painted shortly after the death of Krasner’s husband, Jackson Pollock, The Seasons shows Krasner coming into her own as both a major painter and a woman who no longer fears the critics’ dismissive characterizations of her work as “feminine.” Complemented with sculptures by Louise Bourgeois and Ruth Asawa, this arrangement balances the traditional masculine narrative of the period with female points of view.

Alfonso Ossorio. Number 14-1953, 1953. Ink and wax on board. Overall: 60 1/2 × 38 1/2 × 1 3/8in. (153.7 × 97.8 × 3.5 cm) Sheet: 60 × 38in. (152.4 × 96.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Purchase 55.8. Photo by the author.

Alfonso Ossorio. Number 14-1953, 1953; ink and wax on board; overall: 60 1/2 × 38 1/2 × 1 3/8 in.; sheet: 60 × 38 in. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Anuradha Vikram.

The sixth floor, including works from 1950 to 1975, fluctuates between the serenity of geometric abstraction and the clamor of assemblage. A tranquil, meditative tenor is established by paintings from Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Jo Baer, Carmen Herrera, and Jasper Johns, only to be radically disrupted by the reentry of day-to-day life into art’s refined spaces. Arguably the strongest grouping in the whole museum brings New York art stars like Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, and Ray Johnson into dialogue with West Coast artists such as Noah Purifoy, Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner, Wallace Berman, (Marjorie) Cameron, and Jess (Collins). Artists of color including Raphael Montañez Ortiz and women including Lee Bontecou are given pride of place, effecting a balance of perspectives as with the Abstract Expressionist gallery above. These groupings are rewarding because they respond to diversity without reducing the curatorial narrative to a lecture on diversity—allowing each artist to function as an artist, engaged with form and material, and equally entitled to ambiguity and open-ended interpretation.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz. Archaeological Find, Number 9, 1964. Wood, steel, plastic glues, rope, fabric and horse hair. Overall: 76 3/4 × 66 3/4 × 22in. (195 × 169.6 × 55.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of George and Lillian Schwartz, 65.33. Photo by the author.

Raphael Montañez Ortiz. Archaeological Find, Number 9, 1964; wood, steel, plastic glues, rope, fabric, and horse hair; overall: 76 3/4 × 66 3/4 × 22 in. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Anuradha Vikram.

This openness and inclusion is maintained throughout the sixth floor, with works by Yayoi Kusama, Marisol (Escobar), Malcolm Bailey, Lee Lozano, Nam June Paik, and Betye Saar alongside Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, and Wayne Thiebaud. Regrettably, these works from the 1960s and early 1970s are the last in painting and sculpture to challenge official narratives within the exhibition as a whole. A gallery dedicated to Minimalism includes Rafael Ferrer, Eva Hesse, Anne Truitt, and Michelle Stuart, but subverts these artists’ contributions to an established discourse centered on Donald Judd and Richard Serra, who dominate the space. On the fifth floor, covering 1965 to the present, a terrific collection of videos approaches gender, racial, and geographic parity by linking the interests of Suzanne Lacy, Eleanor Antin, Lynda Benglis, Hermine Freed, Cynthia Maughan, Howardena Pindell, and Ulysses Jenkins with more frequently shown works by Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, Martha Rosler, Joan Jonas, and William Wegman. Feminism is very much on display in video and photography by many of these artists as well as Hannah Wilke, Dara Birnbaum, Laurie Simmons, and Adrian Piper; however, with the exception of Lacy, artists representing the Feminist Art Program and the Women’s Building that emerged from Los Angeles in the 1970s are absent.

Eva Hesse (1936 1970).  No title, (1969 1970).  Latex, rope, string, and wire, Dimensions variable. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Eli and Edythe L. Broad, the  Mrs. Percy Uris Purchase Fund, and the Painting and Sculpture Committee  88.17a b.    © Estate of Eva Hesse; courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Eva Hesse. Untitled, 1969-1970; latex, rope, string, and wire; dimensions variable. © Estate of Eva Hesse. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

In works from the 1980s through the present, the influence of the contemporary art market seems to inform selections in painting and sculpture as much as, or more than, the interests of posterity. Works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kara Walker, Mark Bradford, David Hammons, and Jimmie Durham do less to challenge the official narrative than to demonstrate how contemporary art frameworks have adapted to incorporate artists of color and social-justice themes within a thriving luxury-goods economy over the past 40 years. This is not to say that the work is weak. Basquiat’s Hollywood Africans (1983) is to the Whitney what Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is to the MoMA collection: a watershed. Martin Wong’s Big Heat (1986), Mike Kelley’s More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and the Wages of Sin (1987), Fred Wilson‘s Guarded View (1991), and Catherine Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) will likewise be recognized by future generations as significant points of departure. Still, these works operate less like counterpoints to an official narrative than as its reinforcements, as the story has shifted from one of America’s heroic, masculine exceptionalism to one of America’s heartfelt yet superficial remorse at the inequality and pain we would prefer to believe we have left in the past.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas. Overall: 84 1/16 × 84in. (213.5 × 213.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Douglas S. Cramer, 84.23. Photo by the author.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hollywood Africans, 1983; acrylic and oil stick on canvas; 84 1/16 × 84 in. Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Photo: Anuradha Vikram.

Two works best encapsulate the conflict at the heart of the new Whitney Museum: Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), and Karen Kilimnik’s The Hellfire Club Episode of the Avengers (1989). Haacke turns his critical eye on real-estate transactions in lower Manhattan, chronicling exploitation of dire economic conditions by the wealthy to profit from the displacement of working-class New Yorkers. His work hangs in a gallery inside a $422 million building atop a natural-gas pipeline on a street that, in 1971, was home to slaughterhouses and transgender sex workers, and today hosts exclusive restaurants and a Louboutin store. Kilimnik’s installation considers a 1966 episode of the British serial The Avengers, “A Touch of Brimstone,” in which the titular spies infiltrate a fictional BDSM club that shares a name with one of the now defunct sex clubs of Gansevoort Street circa 1980–1990. Banned from broadcast in the U.S., the episode represents how popular media both absorbs and defangs what was once underground. Perhaps few people would begrudge the glittering river views of the new Whitney building for the AIDS-related anxiety and crushing poverty experienced by New York’s LGBTQI community between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s. Nonetheless, the disappearance of that history from the shiny new Meatpacking District comes with an unaccounted-for cost. As Suzanne Lacy admonishes, it’s important to “learn where the meat comes from.”

Karen Kilimnik. The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers, 1989. Fabric, photocopies, candelabra, toy swords, mirror, gilded frames, costume jewelry, boot, fake cobwebs, silver tankard, audio media player, and dried pea. Dimensions variable. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Peter M. Brant, courtesy The Brant Foundation, 2014.106. Photo by the author.

Karen Kilimnik. The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers, 1989; fabric, photocopies, candelabra, toy swords, mirror, gilded frames, costume jewelry, boot, fake cobwebs, silver tankard, audio media player, and dried pea; dimensions variable. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Peter M. Brant. Courtesy of the Brant Foundation. Photo: Anuradha Vikram.

America Is Hard to See is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through September 27, 2015. 

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.

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