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Organized around twenty-three chapters, each of which takes its name from the title of an artwork included in that section, America Is Hard to See, the inaugural exhibition in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building, jettisoned a purely chronological or conventional art-movement “ism” organizational structure in favor of a thematic one. The result challenged traditional (one might say, outmoded) categories of art history and created unexpected juxtapositions that pushed viewers to understand that history—and the history of the United States—in fresh ways. The exhibition does move in linear fashion from the eighth floor to the fifth; but because the Whitney curators (Donna De Salvo, Carter E. Foster, Dana Miller, and Scott Rothkopf, with assistance from Jane Panetta, Catherine Taft, and Mia Curran) allowed certain time frames to overlap (for example, the seventh floor covers 1925 to 1960, while the sixth floor begins at 1950 and ends in 1970), this sequencing feels less like imposed categorization and more like smart and necessary historical contextualization for each individual section or story. Diverse media also commingle here in ways that, on the one hand, work to undo customary classifications, and that add texture, depth, and historical insight, on the other.
The Whitney’s new building, which includes approximately 50,000 square feet of indoor gallery space (and approximately another 13,000 square feet of outdoor space), also means that the exhibition curators can show an enormous number of works—and over six hundred by approximately four hundred artists are on view in America Is Hard to See, all without visitors feeling overwhelmed or crowded. Some of the material on display, such as Ben Shahn’s The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1931–32) or Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930), are old favorites; others, such as E. E. Cummings’s Noise Number 13 (1925) or Harry Sternberg’s startling lithograph, Southern Holiday (1935), of a tortured black man bound to a post and left to die, have been hidden in storage but emerge here as key works that effectively fill gaping holes in the story of art production in the United States; still others, such as Lewis Hine’s Untitled (No Fear of Heights) (ca. 1930–31) or Carmen Herrera’s Blanco y Verde (1959), the only work produced by a Cuban-born artist, are newly acquired. The breadth and organization of America Is Hard to See feels in its capaciousness and diversity like what one might imagine Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney wanting when she developed the Whitney Studio in 1914: an art display designed to show support for a variety of American artists from the perspective of another admiring artist. The word “studio” of course was significant, designed to emphasize the creative process more than the final product.
The spirit of the Whitney Studio also comes through in how pieces in America Is Hard to See speak to one another. For example, on the seventh floor, Alexander Calder’s Calder’s Circus (1926–31) is installed across from paintings like George Bellows’s Dempsey and Firpo (1924), Roy DeCarava’s photograph of jazz musician Elvin Jones (1961), Miguel Covarrubias’s drawing Scene: “The Last Jump.” Cabaret on a Saturday Night (1924), and Mabel Dwight’s lithograph Stick ’Em Up (1928), which depicts a huddled crowd at the cinema. The curatorial decision to hang these pieces together complicates the predictable reading of each work. As Holland Cotter pointed out in his New York Times review, the cuteness of Calder’s Circus, which was much on display in the old Whitney, fades in this installation as the dark spectacle represented in the surrounding works inflects Calder’s Circus with a maniacal murkiness (Holland Cotter, “A History, Fully Unpacked,” The New York Times [April 23, 2015]: C23). Though it is not just Calder’s sculpture that comes off well, or at least with some newly available meanings: to look, for example, at Bellows’s Dempsey and Firpo in this installation among other works that speak to America’s apparent unending enthusiasm for sport, entertainment, and spectacular distraction allows viewers to appreciate his brand of realism and social criticism on its own terms while simultaneously gaining insight into the history of mass amusement in the United States and its hold over Americans.
But these kinds of thought-provoking juxtapositions do more than just create simple fleeting moments of revelation. At their best, they work to challenge the definition of the nation-state, or the meaning of citizenship, or they call attention to moments of institutional racism and sexism—and it is this self-awareness that makes America Is Hard to See an important exhibition, not just a beautiful one. The permeability and instability of American identity is addressed, for instance, in the “Breaking the Prairie” chapter in which Japanese-born Chiura Obata’s prints of the U.S. western landscape from 1930 hang near Ansel Adams’s 1941 photograph of New Mexico; or in the grand stairway where forty-two fifteen-watt light bulbs from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (America) (1994) puncture and illuminate the space with a warm yet somber glow, reminding viewers of lives lost during the AIDS epidemic; or on the fifth floor in the “Course of Empire” chapter where Glenn Ligon’s Rückenfigur (2009), which presents a neon sign of the word “America” written as if seen from behind (as a figure contemplating the view in a Romantic painting might be portrayed), asks spectators to consider America’s vast and contradictory landscape. This is an American art uncertain about its own geocultural boundaries.
In fact, the notion of a porous American identity appears in the exhibition’s very first chapter, “Forms Abstracted,” which announces the show’s desire to push against (in order to expand) what might be understood as restrictive, bigoted, or conventional definitions of America and American art. When the elevator doors open on the eighth floor, spectators encounter a pair of Marsden Hartley paintings: Forms Abstracted (1913) and Painting, Number 5 (1914–15). No one would challenge Hartley’s “American-ness,” and yet these paintings point to the influence that European abstraction had on American modernism in the early twentieth century. Indeed, Hartley completed Painting, Number 5 as a tribute to his lover, Karl von Freyburg, while living in Berlin and being fascinated by German military pageantry. In this sense, America Is Hard to See opens with a nod to internationalism and a self-aware openness, as well as to a world at war.
America Is Hard to See also seeks to include women’s voices, and women constitute approximately thirty percent of the exhibited artists; in the more contemporary spaces, that percentage jumps to around fifty. Paintings, drawings, sculptures, photography, and film and video works by artists such as Irene Rice Pereira, Ilse Bing, Mary Ellen Bute, Faith Ringgold, and Judith Bernstein look fantastic, and add insight, texture, and diversity to the story of art production in the United States. Work like Bernstein’s Vietnam Garden (1967) feels relevant as we are now living through our own moment of endless war. But it is the presence of women in the Abstract Expressionism chapter, titled after Hedda Sterne’s New York, N.Y., 1955 (1955), that leaves one of the greatest impressions, and evidences how an inclusive curatorial vision can change the way viewers think about the processes and realities of art making. Lee Krasner’s The Seasons (1957), which at almost seventeen-feet long overpowers the more modest works on view by Jackson Pollock (her husband) and Willem de Kooning, features sweeping lines and organic forms drawn in garish color, laid down with a kind of intuition or speed that appears more urgent than contemplative or introspective. And the exigency of this abstraction comes to function, from a curatorial perspective, as much as a vehicle for social comment as individual signification. Krasner painted The Seasons shortly after Pollock died and she got to take over his studio. Her work became bigger right away, and The Seasons seems to celebrate that license, that freedom to work in a larger format. In America Is Hard to See this in turn takes on extra importance for how the painting dwarfs the rest of the room, something we expect from Pollock but not Krasner.
The title, America Is Hard to See, comes from a line in a Robert Frost poem (first published in the Atlantic in 1951) that questions the popular understanding of Christopher Columbus as portrayed in conventional histories of the United States. Frost casts Columbus as a colonizer who lacked insight about the possibilities connected to his find. America is hard to see because Columbus’s imperialist attitude obstructs his vision. I love the title of this exhibition—it captures many of the complexities involved in trying to define what “American” art is, of trying to tell a history of the United States through art, and of trying, simultaneously, to maintain and challenge the mission of a museum dedicated to the art of a nation-state. But I wish the curators had even more explicitly engaged the premise of Frost’s poem, which refers to America the continent, not exclusively the United States, so as to emphasize not only the diversity and fluidity of “American” identity, but also the role of conquest and imperialism in delineating the national culture. Given this, perhaps it is unsurprising that I found the three most overtly political chapters—“Fighting with All Our Might,” “Raw War,” and “Love Letter From The War Front”—among the exhibition’s most moving. Each of these sections— about workers’ rights and racist violence in the 1930s, the social and cultural upheaval associated with the 1960s and 1970s, and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s—is contained in a smaller space that keeps the viewing experience intimate and personal, yet tethered to a broader story (about artistic production and political history) by virtue of its placement in the larger installation. These chapters also present the best argument one could ever make for the relevance and long life of topical political work. It is, for instance, sobering to look at images of racial violence from the 1930s in the “Fighting with All Our Might” section, such as Sternberg’s Southern Holiday or Philip Guston’s Drawing For Conspirators (1930), and to realize how current are the concerns.
There is much to admire in America Is Hard to See, and despite whatever criticisms of terminology, politics, or even the installation (the awkward placement of Minimalist work on the sixth floor, for example) one might have, the exhibition is thoughtful and, in unexpected ways, touching. Yet I cannot help but wonder if some of the extravagant praise bestowed upon this inaugural show (and Renzo Piano’s building) results from the space and exhibition simply not being horrible. Where so many predicted failure, there is instead great success. Are all the positive reviews, including this one, then, really a kind of mass sigh of relief at something not going dreadfully, embarrassingly wrong? The art world saved from justifying another huge expenditure, a sensationalist, ostentatious display of corporate money, further expression of the United States’s growing inequality, and so on? Of course there is no way to know, other than to wait and see if the new Whitney will maintain the high standard it has set for itself, and whether, like Frost’s poem, it can support populist form with some weighty content.
Associate Professor, School of Art and Design, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign