From the 1940s through the early ’60s, the Museum of Modern Art mounted a series of group shows that offered many viewers their first glimpse of some of the most vital new American painting and sculpture of the day. Curated by Dorothy C. Miller, the exhibitions never claimed to capture the zeitgeist, but rather to do nothing more than display new art worth considering. Even the titles of the shows were modest: “Sixteen Americans,” “Twelve Americans” and so on. As Miller explained in 1959, “Differences rather than similarities in point of view, as well as in age, experience and fame, have been emphasized in these exhibitions at the Museum…bringing together distinct and widely varying personalities.” Yet the shows were often controversial. “Congratulations, Dorothy,” her boss, Alfred H. Barr, quipped at the opening of one. “You’ve done it again. They all hate it.”
Yet the “Americans” exhibitions are legendary because Miller was discerning in her choices. In 1946, the second of these shows, “Fourteen Americans,” included such exponents of the new abstraction as Arshile Gorky, Isamu Noguchi, Robert Motherwell and Mark Tobey. Among those in “Sixteen Americans,” in 1959, were Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, not to mention the West Coast assemblagists Jay DeFeo and Wally Hedrick; and the last in the series, “Americans 1963,” included the budding Pop artists Robert Indiana, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist among the fifteen selected, as well as young and older abstractionists such as Lee Bontecou and Ad Reinhardt.
Miller decided to start the series because she’d realized that there was no other way for many artists, in the New York of the 1940s, to get their work seen. “I had this terribly sad job of seeing all these artists who were starving,” she later said. “There were no galleries to send them to.” By the mid-’60s that was no longer true. Accompanying the emergence of Pop Art was a boom in the market for contemporary art, and the number of galleries mushroomed along with it. Fifty years on, New York is so thick with galleries that it’s impossible to immerse yourself in all of them, and so many cities around the world have thriving gallery scenes (and art fairs) that you couldn’t possibly visit them all. Maybe the museum should be the public’s filter again—surveying all the galleries and selecting the best work for an audience that wants to explore contemporary art without hacking a path through the jungle. Except that the population of artists has increased even more rapidly than the number of galleries, so that there are still plenty of talented artists whose work is hard to see even for die-hards of the scene.
One of the current shows at the Museum of Modern Art (through April 5) could have been called “Fourteen or Fifteen More-or-Less Americans, Three Germans and a Colombian Who Lives in London.” That’s an unwieldy title, but also as accurate and straightforward as it could be. The “More-or-Less” would be necessary because the show includes some foreign-born New Yorkers, and the qualification also has the virtue of not pretending that the exhibition is other than it is: a gathering of “distinct and widely varying personalities” with not much more in common than that they’re all at work right now and the curator (in this case, MoMA’s Laura Hoptman) thinks they demand attention.