It was one of those rare moments when time stands still, or seems to. There was Flora Miller Irving, president of the Whitney Museum of American Art, posing next to a bust of her grandmother, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the museum and perhaps the most influential patron of American art in this century.
The profiles were almost identical, but there were striking similarities of a different order at this 50th-anniversary celebration of the Whitney's founding.
In honor of that august occasion the museum had invited 1,000 artists represented in its permanent collection and more than 400 had accepted, among them such luminaries as Jasper Johns, Isabel Bishop, Red Grooms, George Segal, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Alice Neel, Duane Hanson, Roy Lichtenstein, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, Philip Pearlstein, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Strolling musicians, ficus trees with twinkling lights, drawings by David Smith and paintings by Preston Dicksinson provided the background.
But the message was clear to everyone that the evening belonged not to the museum, the members, the dignitaries, the socialites, or even the art, but to the artists, prompting painter Tom Wesselman to quip, "It looks like a Whitney annual with the artists on view instead of the paintings." The emphasis was appropriate, in keeping with the intentions of Mrs. Whitney, who founded the museum to support, through exhibition and acquisition, the livingm American artist.
In the early 1930s the museum helped launch the careers of Esabel Bishop, Georgia O'Keeffe, Raphael Soyer, Noguchi, and Reuben nakian, among others. It continues to earn from its illustrious stable an unusual loyalty of artist to institution. Portraitist Alice Neel characterized her retrospective at the Whitney as "the turning point in my career," and superrealist sculptor Duane Hanson implied with regard to his own one-man show that to arrive at the Whitney is to "arrive."
"The Whitney is the only museum that has done anything for artists who are not so well known," he commented, "and that has taken a stand on behalf of unknown artists. You don't get any place in this racket unless you've done something in New York, and a show at the Whitney gives you that kind of stature."
Several artists praised the Whitney biennial as a unique forum for relatively unknown painters and sculptors. Dealer Leo Castelli described the biennials as "a vital force in helping to discover young talent."
Elaborated painter Richard Anuszkiewicz, "what the Whitney biennials do is survey what is happening in a particular period and they have done a marvelous job." But, he added, "their shortcoming is that they can't seem to get out of New York any more and represent other parts of the country as well."
A few grumbles were heard from other quarter as well. Old-timer Balcomb Greene castigated the museum for "spending too much time lately on shockeroos." The current Andy Warhol show, which was taken down for the occasion, was a recurrent topic of derision among the older artists.On the other hand "the young and unknown" who have not been recognized by the museum are prone to complain that the museum is to "cliquey" and "political."
Whatever quibbles individual artists may have with the museum, the consensus of the evening was that it has remained true for its founder's democratic principles. Mrs. Whitney, daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, was herself an artist and a staunch supporter of the avant-garde long before it became fashionable. As early as 1907 she mounted avant- garde exhibitions in her Greenwich Village studio, and from the acorn she christened in 1914 the Whitney studio grew the oak we call today the Whitney Museum.
Major exhibitions planned for the year-long anniversary celebration are one-person shows by Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, and Edward Hopper; a folk painting survey, the Lipman sculpture collection, and a look at the figurative tradition.