A Time To Take Stock

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Since its founding in 1930, the Whitney Museum of American Art has professed to be “a depot where the public may see fine examples of America’s artistic production.” Although “Full House: Views of the Whitney’s Collection at 75,” the group show that will occupy all five floors of the museum until Labor Day, offers something for practically everyone, it signals a shift in the Whitney’s perception of its own collection. The exhibition suggests that the Whitney values the art of the last 50 years over that of the previous 50.

“Full House” includes roughly 400 works by 159 artists, hopping from icon to icon like a textbook as it surveys American art from the last 100 years. The exhibition gathers some of the greatest hits from the museum’s permanent collection and presents a perfect opportunity to get reacquainted with them. It includes representational and abstract painting and sculpture; Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, Minimalism, and Conceptualism; installation, photography, film, performance, and video.

But don’t let the exhibition’s size and catholic taste fool you into thinking the show is completely impartial. “Full House” is the museum flaunting its wares, flexing its muscle, and asserting its artistic stance as it takes stock of itself. And it presents us with an opportunity to take stock of the Whitney.

Although divided into six sections, “Full House” is really four shows rolled into one. It begins in the Lobby Gallery with a show centered on Alexander Calder’s “Calder’s Circus,” but the bulk of the exhibition is taken up by the thematic, three-floor group show from the Whitney’s permanent collection. On the fifth floor is “Holiday in Reality: Edward Hopper,” a Hopper retrospective that is meant to be seen with “Holiday in Reality,” a smaller ancillary exhibition displayed in the mezzanine gallery comprising works, mostly photographs, by such artists as Walker Evans, Merry Alpern, Larry Clark, Robert Bechtle, William Eggleston, and Nan Goldin – all supposedly related in temperament to Hopper’s voyeuristic melancholia.

“I Think Best in Wire,” the small, lovely show focused on “Calder’s Circus” (1926-31), is an absolute joy. It includes the “Circus,” some drawings, and the 1961 20-minute film of the artist performing with his magical wire creations, as well as the five worn black suitcases Calder used to carry the “Circus” back and forth from Paris to New York.

Calder is one of America’s greatest sculptors, and “Calder’s Circus” is a highlight of the Whitney’s collection. However, as thrilling, entertaining, and wondrous as it is, the “Circus” – as the sole representation of Calder’s art in “Full House” – tends to narrow rather than broaden his genius. Calder’s sculptures, spectacular alone, can also be enthralling in groups. Seen as a sideshow, Calder begins to look like the weird, inventive uncle whom the Whitney does not know exactly how to handle, and deliberately keeps set aside. It is high time the museum let Calder play with the big boys: Tony Smith, David Smith, Donald Judd, and Richard Serra. And while we’re at it, why not put his sculptures next to the American Neoplasticists Burgoyne Diller, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Fritz Glarner, artists who, like Calder, were influenced principally by Mondrian? Generally, “Full House” misses the opportunity for that kind of greater dialogue.

“Edward Hopper,” which allows for internal dialogues between his own works, is the only section of “Full House” to bring in art from outside the Whitney’s collection. The roughly chronological exhibition of more than 160 pictures has sections devoted to early, dark self-portraits, academic illustrations, paintings of the Seine, and exhilarating seascapes. Some galleries, littered with studies and sketchbook drawings, focus on individual paintings and shed new light on the artist’s limitations.

Hopper’s painting “New York Movie” (1939) – of a brooding female usher leaning against a lobby wall just outside the theater proper – is dark, foreboding, and claustrophobic. The theater’s Baroque pillar snakes menacingly upward. As in other of Hopper’s paintings, space is exaggerated and changes abruptly; walls shift and do not line up properly. Yet the more than 60 drawings on view for “New York Movie,” as well as those for other strange, solitary paintings, show that Hopper, in his preparatory sketches, was basically just collecting information.

Hopper’s melancholy paintings and surreal interiors and street scenes seem to have happened in spite of the artist. Although the show has some high points – the painting “Early Sunday Morning” (1930) and three ledger books filled with descriptive notes and shorthand drawings of his paintings – Hopper’s pictures ultimately feel distant mainly because he was unable to maintain, or lost interest in maintaining an engagement with the whole canvas. Many of his paintings contain wonderful passages, but somewhere along the way – a wall plane, a patch of grass, water, sidewalk, carpet, or sky – Hopper almost always stops painting and merely fills in areas with paint. Still, this telling show is a major event and deserves to be viewed apart from “Full House.”

The rest of “Full House,” we are told, “takes as its starting point Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, and Pop art, innovations that registered broadly on an international level and ushered in a new chapter in how art produced in the United States was perceived.” Organized into tidy groupings of like-minded work and heavy on postmodern and contemporary art, the exhibition tells us more about the Whitney’s curators than it does about the Whitney’s collection. And it is as telling for its omissions as for its inclusions.

Omitting such American masters as Elie Nadelman, Isamu Noguchi, Diller, Marsden Hartley, Yves Tanguy, John Marin, Lyonel Feininger, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, “Full House” instead offers us the usual suspects of Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art, and Postmodernism, as well as racially motivated and activist works by Adrian Piper, Fred Wilson, and Joel Sternfeld. And Hopper basically stands in not only for representational art but also for art produced before 1945. (That is, unless you count the mechanical banalities of Elizabeth Peyton, Duane Hanson, and Chuck Close as genuine representational art.)

The show groups works by theme or time period, and generally by color (black-and-white or brightly colored works hang together) – a tendency that gives the installations a house-beautiful atmosphere. By reducing works to their lowest common denominators, “Full House” does not allow the artworks to spark and to engage with each other.

A rare exception is the pairing of two Donald Judd sculptures with Ellsworth Kelly’s “Painting in Five Panels” (1955). In this beautifully interactive gallery, the rhythms of individual geometric forms, as if they were being thrown back and forth between the artworks, playfully bounce off of and illuminate each other. On the other hand, the white fluorescent lights in Jeff Koons’s “New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue; New Hoover Convertibles, Green, Blue; Double-Decker” (1981-87) completely wash out any light in the nearby paintings by Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler.

Often in this show, too much dialogue (or too much simplistic dialogue) ruins individual works or turns them into wallpaper. Anne Truitt’s subtle pink, cream, and red column “Triad” (1977) – a sculpture that, like Calder’s work, has more to do with Neoplasticism than with Agnes Martin – is placed in the company of Jasper Johns’s “White Target” (1957), Brice Marden’s “Summer Table” (1972), and Martin’s “Untitled #11″(1977).Washed out and robbed of its power, “Triad” is reduced to an accent color. Elsewhere, a group of hot, high-keyed paintings by Stuart Davis, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jean-Michel Basquiat (artists, really, who have little in common) becomes one long brightly colored blur. And in a crowded vitrine next to the bathrooms on the second floor, classic works by Joseph Cornell and Man Ray are diminished to props in a store window.

Sometimes, though, with works in close proximity, the best images so overwhelm those around them that their quality becomes that much more apparent. Paul Strand’s “Wall Street, New York” (1915), Walker Evans’s “Untitled (Subway Portrait), New York City” (c. 1939-41), James Van Der Zee’s “Nude” (1923), Phillip Guston’s “Dial” (1956), and Joseph Stella’s “The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme” (1939), for example, all stand out from across their respective galleries.

Packed to the gills, “Full House” gives us a little of everything. But the show privileges some things above others. It is more concerned with looking forward than back. It edits and streamlines American art to fit the Whitney’s postmodern sense of self, instead of presenting us with the messy truth – the full, contradictory range of art and artists in the Whitney’s permanent collection. Depending on your point of view, “Full House,” which cannot please everybody all the time, is either half-full or half-empty.

“Full House” until September 3; “Holiday in Reality: Edward Hopper” until December 3 (945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, 212-570-3600).

The New York Sun

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