Flag-Waving at the Whitney
There are, on the other hand, differences from decade to decade. Abstract Expressionism is the paradigmatic style of the fifties as Pop is of the sixties. Johns's nested flags (1958) belong between the two decades, as does the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly. With interpretive imagination, we can even see what the Whitney designates "The New American Cinema" as a melding of Abstract Expressionist aesthetics and Pop content, spiced with some surrealistic lingerings from the forties. Alfred Leslie, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, collaborated with the photographer Robert Frank on the film Pull My Daisy, which has the raw, grainy quality that goes with the raw ropiness of the Abstract Expressionist brushstroke. Cindy Sherman and Nan Goldin exemplify the seventies, especially as those years were lived in the East Village by young people whose preferred form of art was photography. The East Village produced exceedingly minor Neo-Expressionist paintings, the defining style of the early eighties, when the hope was that the art stars of tomorrow would come from its mean streets and druggy air. But Neo-Expressionism was an entirely international style: When the Museum of Modern Art reopened in the early eighties, artists from no matter where were working in that expansive, messy manner. But after the mid-eighties, when Neo-Expressionism turned out to have been a false start, there was no defined style whatsoever, in the United States or anywhere else, and this has remained true throughout the nineties, outside the United States as well as here. The art world settled into its present pluralistic, globalistic structure, which I cannot believe will not be with us forever. The art world proclaims the same disregard for boundaries as our mighty corporations.
In a way, the nested American flags correspond with the order in which the show is installed--or it would if there were five flags or only three floors. The fifties ("America Takes Command") is on the top floor, the nineties in the lowest levels. It is impossible to resist the thought that art in America grows increasingly diluted as the decades succeed one another. There can be no denying the energy of Pollock and de Kooning on the fifth floor, though the small and undistinguished Pollocks on view give little sense of the majesty and power of his great work. De Kooning's Woman and Bicycle is the one masterpiece on view in this section, with Marilyn Monroe not far behind. Rauschenberg's famous Erased de Kooning Drawing--which turned out to be predictive of what was to happen to Abstract Expressionism just a few years later--hangs in the same gallery with the art it symbolically erased. By contrast, the lowest levels, with the nineties installed, are very thinly populated, not because there is not a lot of good art being made today but because it is not united by any recognizably common style--though it is probably unthinkable that Simmons's Lineup could have been made in an earlier decade. The artists on the fifth floor project a sense of being in on the beginning of something tremendous. The artists on the lowest levels feel very much as though they are in the end-state of whatever the fifties began. What art won was the freedom to do anything. But in a certain sense that was the end of art as well. The young British artists we see in the "Sensation" show in Brooklyn derive a certain energy from penetrating moral limits, which accounts for the cheerful repulsiveness of much of their work; but there is a spirit in London that is no longer to be found in the American art world.
Critics have complained that the Whitney show provides far too much context for the art on view. But a lot of what might be considered context in fact exhibits the same aesthetic values as the art itself. One of the treats of the show (perfectly installed on the mezzanine of the fifth floor) is a set of clips from the great underground films of the sixties: Scorpio Rising, Flaming Creatures, Pull My Daisy and Stan Brakhage's films, edited at a breakneck speed the Futurists would have adored. The films anticipate Warhol's idea of a New York cinema as against a Hollywood cinema. They are unbuttoned and free, and go with the sense that anyone can be a filmmaker. But they are not "context" for the art: Rather, they carry the impulses of the art into another medium. Hollywood films perhaps belong to context, at best indicating what was happening while the art was happening, without helping explain why the art happened as it did. Some music was part of the art scene, some was not. Morton Feldman belonged with Abstract Expressionism, John Cage with Johns and Rauschenberg, Philip Glass with the phalanx of major artists who descended on New York from Yale in the early sixties. Glass's work with Robert Wilson was not part of the context but part of the scene. And the music that was part of the context--the rock that went with drugs and sex--was ubiquitous among American youth, whether artists or not. The New York poets--Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler, O'Hara--rubbed shoulders with artists, and a case can be made that they had more in common with the painters they were friends with than with poets from different milieus, whose writing again formed an inert context, accounting for nothing in the art. There are a great many books on display, some of which may have been read by this artist or that, but which penetrated artistic sensibility to no appreciable extent. But in the later sixties American artists became interested in a number of books written by French and German thinkers: Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard, Althusser, Barthes and Habermas. Their obscure and often frivolous writings were debated as intensely as artists of the fifties debated existentialism. Almost nothing written in the United States had that kind of impact on those who were making art.
Barbara Haskell and Lisa Phillips, mounting half a century of American art each, have discharged a necessary but thankless task. Their achievement, however, is considerable and in its own right somehow American--Americans being insatiably obsessed with questions of their own identity. By contrast, the curator responsible for MoMA's ModernStarts, the first installment ("People") of which is now on view, had an easy time. It is a display of the museum's treasures from 1880 to 1920, grouped and juxtaposed in different ways. It is an art lover's dream: Virtually every question worth raising can be answered from the works themselves, and the ingenious pairings made between them. Against that, "The American Century" belongs to the same struggle it puts on display, of artists for whom America itself was a certain burden. To be in moral struggle with America, while it may not show through all the art (and though the art it does show through is often not the best), is something one feels at every step. The question of what is American, rather than any answer, is what it means to be an American artist. The exhibition is perhaps its own best exhibit, since the questions it raises are of a kind the individual works cannot raise on their own.
Happily, the museum is thronged. Whatever the critical discontents, the Whitney audience is seeking to make sense of America through making sense of American art. They are finding out what they lived through and what they are. This could not have been true of a more cosmopolitan show, which, on the same model as "People" merely showed and juxtaposed treasures of twentieth-century American art, much of it by many marvelous Americans, like Tansey, excluded for whatever reason. Such a format was not possible partly because of the deep pluralism of art today. A modernist work, by comparison, is easily recognized as such, and which are the treasures is relatively easy to determine. This is not true of postmodern art--say, art since the mid-seventies. Heidegger defines a human being (his term is Dasein: "being-there") as the kind of being for whom its being is in question. American artists have something akin to this. They have had to grapple with the question of being American, and that, somehow, is part of what makes them American. There is something profoundly moving in the reflection that the art is ours, American in whatever way we are American, in perhaps the last time in our globalized world in which that will mean very much at all.