'Sensation' in Brooklyn
The best artist in the show is the sculptor Rachel Whiteread. Her main work here is Ghost, which we initially perceive as a large white cubish structure. It replicates the interior of a child's room in an old house, however. The room serves as the matrix for plaster slabs, which register its architectural details--a door, a fireplace, etc. The slabs were reassembled in such a way that the interior of the room was reproduced as the exterior of the sculpture. The room was in effect turned inside out. That and its funerary whiteness make it a monument to lost childhood. You cannot enter the room--the door does not open--and this surely is a metaphor for the fact that we cannot revisit childhood. All we can see are its ghosts.
In 1993 Whiteread extended this procedure to replicate the interior of a whole nineteenth-century house, scheduled to be torn down to make way for a housing development in East London. She made, in Norman Rosenthal's words, a "concrete cast of the interior of an old terraced house [which] seemed...almost an apparition in the pallid daylight...palpable but not quite believable, pale and forlorn against a backdrop of trees and grass." House was bulldozed away the following year, as Whiteread was told it would be. Perhaps its ephemerality is a dimension of its meaning, but I cannot help wishing some enterprising institution had found a way of preserving what I have no hesitation in describing as one of the supreme masterpieces of twentieth-century sculpture. Whiteread's work often consists in sculpting negative spaces, such as the space beneath chairs, bounded by legs, floor and seat. One whole gallery is given over to ranks and files of these. Critics like to say that Bruce Nauman did the same thing years ago, but I cannot see in Nauman's work the humanity that belongs to Ghost or to House. So maybe something much deeper is being transacted in Whiteread's spaces, to which the similarities to Nauman blind us.
I have left untouched the large portion of what I think of as one-dimensional works, pieces that you and the child can negotiate easily enough and find more or less interesting but never deep or serious enough to clarify the topography of the soul. No harm in that. How many of the works in the concluding segment of the Whitney Museum's "American Century" rise to that level? As the Whitney show enters the present decade, it becomes more and more diffuse, lacking entirely the robust coherence of the British work here, which was all made in the nineties. I have to say that, whatever we may feel about Charles Saatchi, he has, as an adventurous collector, helped create an art world that would not have existed without him. I think the role of the collector is badly underappreciated, probably because of the art world's lingering suspicion of commodification. Saatchi has no real counterpart on the American scene. And that, augmented by the government's craven reluctance to support the arts, accounts in large part for the present demoralization of art in America. We have wonderful artists, but a vital art world requires a lot more than that.
I want to conclude with The Holy Virgin Mary, the occasion for political spite and spume, for the accusation of sickness and of what the Mayor calls "Catholic bashing"--although like the Mayor, the artist is himself a former altar boy. It is not a marvelous painting, questions of Ofili's signature elephant dung aside (a substance we now know comments as art itself rather than on what the art is about). On the other hand, the Holy Virgin has never been especially choosy as to how she is portrayed. The wonder-working Madonnas are usually badly painted, as if the Virgin were not entirely comfortable being shown as beautiful or even pretty. The miraculous paintings of the Virgin rarely have much by way of aesthetic charm, but they are not prayed to for the rewards of aesthetic gratification. They are prayed to, rather, for the things that matter in the dark moments of life. If I were a praying man, I would pray for a miracle in the Brooklyn Museum--the tiniest miracle, as long as it could be attributed to the Madonna. All at once, I imagine, someone looking through the Plexiglas protective screen might say, "My God! The Virgin is weeping!" People would come running, kneel, pray, marvel--or say "Wow." The gallery would soon be overrun by pilgrims. It is asking too much, perhaps, to expect that some would throw down their crutches, but still, it would be a miracle if even such a miracle helped. The Mayor could always say the Virgin wept because of the elephant dung. It would be hard to know how to deal with that, but at least the discussion would have moved to a higher level.