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The American Century

A museum picks 700 works that define an era

By Jennifer WolcottFeature writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 1, 1999



NEW YORK

It's a rare museum that lets an exhibition spill beyond its galleries into the entrance lobby, stairwells, pay-phone areas - even into restrooms. But then, New York's Whitney Museum of American Art has never been known as conventional. And neither has the half century featured in its highly ambitious, monumental new exhibition, Part II of "The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000."

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Virtually every inch of the Whitney is being used to display 700 works in six different mediums - painting, sculpture, photography, dance, music, and film - that reflect the dynamic, exploratory, and fascinating period from 1950 to 2000 in American art and culture.

While waiting in the ticket line, visitors can look up at Nam June Paik's ceiling installation of 20 TV screens flashing images of swimming goldfish. Or if they opt to take the stairs instead of the elevator, they'll listen to Yoko Ono, John Cage, and even Homer Simpson en route.

Head for the phones, and one hears William Wegman, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Serra telephoning instructions to curators. And in the ladies' room, autobiographers from retired Gen. Colin Powell to food writer Ruth Reichl beam out their memoirs from hidden speakers.

Original as these venues are, it is, of course, the galleries on the Whitney's five floors th.at are the most stimulating. Each floor is dedicated to a different decade. The exhibition flows chronologically from top to bottom, so that the fifth floor spans the '50s; the fourth, the '60s; the third, the '70s; and so on.

Like approaching an all-you-can-eat buffet, visitors may want to first seek out their favorites, perhaps starting with the decade that resonates most with them, and then sample others with equal gusto as long as their appetites hold. Ideally, they will partake of the whole buffet - and allow a little time to digest between courses.

It's a sumptuous, and for the most part, satisfying, feast.

'Kaleidoscopic affair'

Curator Lisa Phillips calls the art of the past half century a "kaleidoscopic affair, characterized by diverse and often divergent tendencies that cannot be easily contained within a linear progression of movements and styles." Nonetheless, she had to narrow her selection of artists and artworks somehow.

She chose to focus on the avant-garde - those artists who have propelled American art since World War II and who challenge assumptions about what art is and what the role of the artist should be within the turbulent social atmosphere of 20th-century America.

All this questioning produced many provocative works, some of which viewers may find offensive. Maxwell Anderson, director of the Whitney, acknowledges that some of the 220 artists included - people like Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, and Karen Finley - may not be among the most crowd-pleasing.

But that's not the point, he says.

"The selection of artists will no doubt irritate some and win favor with others, but such dissension in the critical ranks is also part of the Whitney tradition ... the aim of this project is not to create a definitive 'A-list' of vanguard artists during the past 50 years, but rather to peg their work to the society and culture in which they flourished."