Flag-Waving at the Whitney

Flag-Waving at the Whitney

The Triumph of the New York School, a deeply ironic painting by the American artist Mark Tansey, looks at first sight like a rotogravure depiction of a military surrender that took place l


The American Century: Art and Culture, Part II, 1950-2000

The Triumph of the New York School, a deeply ironic painting by the American artist Mark Tansey, looks at first sight like a rotogravure depiction of a military surrender that took place long ago. Representatives of two opposing forces are arrayed on either side of a field desk, on which the defeated commander signs the document in the presence of the victor. The losing army wears French military uniforms circa World War I, while the victors are dressed in the GI khakis of World War II. The picture is obviously not a historical possibility, as the United States and France were not at war on either occasion. But in a sense, there was a battle between the schools of Paris and New York in the late forties and early fifties, and Tansey has painted an allegory of the latter’s triumph. André Breton, chef d’école of the Surrealist movement, ceremonially acknowledges defeat at the hands of Clement Greenberg. Behind Greenberg, we can identify Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and New York School stars of various magnitude. Behind Breton, we see Henri Matisse, dressed in a French officer’s cape and kepi, and Picasso–Hector to Pollock’s Achilles–wearing the fur duster of a World War I flying ace. Smoke rises in the distance, as in Velásquez’s Surrender at Breda.

Tansey was being ironic about the triumphalist language used when New York indeed achieved pre-eminence in modern art–a tone that lingers on in “America Takes Command,” as the Whitney Museum of American Art designates the first set of works that begin this second installment of “The American Century” (until February 13). Tansey’s painting, though held by the Whitney, is not included in the show, though it would have introduced a welcome note of self-satire if it had been. Whatever the case, The Triumph of the New York School belongs on neither side in an aesthetic conflict that was ancient history when Tansey painted it in 1984. Neither side would have considered his painting an allowable form of art. But from the seventies on, American art became more and more deeply pluralistic, to the point that artists were no longer constrained to work in any given style–they could choose, indeed, whatever style served their larger purposes. Tansey used a dated style of illustration to achieve ironic ends–particularly appropriate since both schools used “illustrational” as a pejorative critical predicate.

In the light of Tansey’s wry historicism, it is possible to ironize a logo selected for The American Century–Jasper Johns’s nested trio of American flags, laid one upon the other in graduated size. The largest flag would be the state of American art in the fifties and sixties, when Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism established New York as the capital of the art world. The middle-sized flag might then denote the seventies and eighties, when Conceptual Art and Neo-Expressionism became universal practices in art worlds the world around. David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl were our best Neo-Expressionists, but not necessarily better than Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke in Germany or “the wretched Italians,” as Donald Barthelme liked to speak of Enzo Cucchi, Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia. The art world of the eighties acquired a complex geometry, with various art centers as foci, while New York shrank in status to the kind of art market Chelsea now makes vivid. The smallness of the smallest flag emblematizes the nineties, when there is very little distinctive about the art produced in America in contrast to art produced anywhere and everywhere else.

Lisa Phillips, who curated this show, ends her catalogue essay by asking two old questions: “What is art? And what is American?” The answer to the first question is: anything. That answer must not be confused with: everything. The history of postmodernism, which began early in America under the leadership of the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, is the history of erasures, of overcoming boundaries to the point that little is left to distinguish works of art from the most ordinary of objects–snow shovels, to take a characteristic example, or urinals, to take a controversial one (both of these were shown in the first part of “The American Century,” in the gallery devoted to New York Dada). In order for there to be a distinction between Anything and Everything, the question becomes urgent of how one snow shovel can be a work of art and another, exactly like it, not be a work of art. That is part of the treachery of the concept of art: We cannot imagine two animals exactly alike, but one a giraffe and the other not. There was a time when art and non-art could be told apart as readily as giraffes and camels. But since anything can be a work of art, this is no longer true. Since there can be no perceptual difference between artworks and their counterparts that are not works of art, the philosophical question is wherein the difference lies. That is what makes the definition of art a thrilling and indispensable task. A good place to begin is to recognize that artworks necessarily have meanings that explain their structures. In any case, it is at the level of metaphysics, rather than connoisseurship and taste, that Phillips’s first question must be pursued.

So far as the second question, “What is American?” is concerned, it seems to me decreasingly relevant as our century has evolved. Artists of every nationality live and work in the United States, and American artists work in various corners of the world–in Munich, Berlin, Milan, Florence, Paris, London, Tokyo, Tangier and Stockholm. The art world has become an entirely polyglot entity, and the tiny size of Johns’s flag conveys this to perfection. This point is perhaps general. There were so many foreigners in the School of Paris that xenophobic legislators suspected a plot to subvert the purity of French art. There were so many artistic refugees in New York during World War II that it is counterfactually true that Abstract Expressionism, however American, could never have arisen had they not been here. When the century was young, American artists painted American things in a kind of universal Beaux-Arts representational style. Between the two wars, artists in France painted within the traditional art-school genres–portrait, figure study, still life, landscape–in adventurously nontraditional ways. Among the Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko was born in Russia, de Kooning in the Netherlands. But New York painters vied to be the first to get their hands on the latest Cahiers d’art, much as artists in Nairobi and Zimbabwe rush to read the newest ArtForum to see where to go next. The art world at century’s end is analogous to the European community, where national differences mean less and less, and borders are more and more like parallels on the globe–mere devices to tell us where we happen to be. Artworks look, with some qualification, as if they could be made by anyone anywhere. One of the last works in the show, Lineup (1993), by Gary Simmons, a New York artist, displays upscale (gilded) gym shoes on the floor beneath lines indicating graduated heights–allegedly a familiar New York sight to young black men. It would probably not have been painted anywhere but New York–but what especially American essence relates it to the other work of its time and place?

There are, of course, cultural differences between Americans and others. It is always easy to tell when a foreigner has spent some time among us. There is an American informality, for example, to which visitors easily adapt, even if in their own cultures they must continue to respect the formalities. In a way, Mondrian loosened up sufficiently when he moved to New York to use diagonals in his abstractions instead of the vertical and horizontal lines he had considered mandatory in Europe. But Agnes Martin, who lives in the Southwest, could scarcely be more American as a person or more formal as an artist. The Whitney has a vested interest in the concept of Americanism through the fact that it is the Whitney Museum of American Art. But the decision as to what counts as American art is pretty much a matter of casuistry. Must one have been born in America, as well as live and work here? These seem radically external determinants of a national style, when the latter, where it can be said to exist, is present among artists who were born here but work elsewhere (like Sam Francis) or born elsewhere and work here (like Lucio Pozzi and Alain Kirili). The informality of American social relationships–dress as you wish, live as you like, find love with whom you will–is taken at times as what freedom means. Someone might then argue that much American art of the second half of the century is a further exercise of freedom, since making what you like is licensed by the fact that art can look whatever way one wants. But the breaking down of barriers to the present state of art was the product of twentieth-century art in general. Picasso and Matisse broke down barriers at least as powerful as the ones Pollock and de Kooning overcame. So the freedom exists everywhere in the world today, except where political limits are imposed on making (as against showing) art. That is why artworks at century’s end are all alike in their differences from one another.

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.

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