20th-century American art show misses several stops along the way

THEY call it ``American Art of the 20th Century.'' What they might have called it is ``Some American Art of the 20th Century.'' This major show, drawing crowds at the Royal Academy of Art here, has a mere 66 artists in it. To even try to cover such a vast subject with so few painters and sculptors seems an unlikely notion.

The idea, the organizers say, is not a broad panorama but a critical focus.

This is the way Christos Joachimides, one of the two curators of the exhibition, puts it. The aim was ``to make value judgments.'' Since all the artists on display are extremely well-known - even the most recent to emerge like Jeff Koons or Cindy Sherman - the selectors' value judgments must have been exercised in deciding whom not to include. The artists they include are set in the concrete of historical consensus and are inevitable choices.

What is unfortunate is that the character of the exhibition, which is in fact rather exhilarating, may be remembered negatively for its exclusions. If it had been planned as a thorough survey it would surely have involved some notable absentees such as Robert Smithson, Morris Louis, and Jim Dine. Such exceptional artists as the sculptor Mark di Suvero, the kinetic sculptor George Rickey, and the painter Richard Diebenkorn were also missed. Not to mention that a stream of other artists whose reputations are international and longstanding, from Robert Motherwell to Wayne Thiebaud and from Louise Bourgeois to Christo, have been excluded.

Joachimides writes in his catalog essay that ``rather than to establish a consensus or to achieve encyclopedic completeness'' the show ``seeks to open a debate.'' But a debate on what? On who is ``in'' and who is ``out'' from the fashionable standpoint of 1993? The selection is certainly not true to history. It doesn't offer a picture of which art, in a given decade, was then considered the most important.

A hint of the kind of judgment that kept Morris Louis, for instance, out of the exhibition can be found in a catalog essay on the 1960s by Brooks Adams (the catalog is much more comprehensive than the show). Adams writes that ``to many viewers today, Louis's paintings seem no more and no less than lyrical and decorative abstractions.'' This point is part of a larger argument, but it is nevertheless dismissive.

Where once the word ``abstraction'' might have meant a positive and adventurous modernity, here it seems to amount to a criticism. Apparently, we have still not outlived the Post-Modernist theory that abstraction was not adventurous at all but a kind of orthodoxy. And for the promulgation of this ``orthodoxy'' one man in particular has been blamed, as Adams immediately goes on to show by taking a sideswipe at him. This man, an extremely effective art critic in the '50s and '60s, helped to put post-war modern American art squarely on the map. His name is Clement Greenberg.

Greenberg-bashing has actually become a cliche of post-'60s art writing. The misfortune of this is, perhaps, not so much the dent it may have made in Greenberg's self-respect, but the damage inflicted on unbiased critical assessment of some of the artists he championed so successfully. Thus not only Louis, but Noland, Frankenthaler, and Olitski have all been left out of this 1990s European exhibition presumably because they have become identified with what Adams calls ``Greenbergian orthodoxy.'' Even David Smith, the sculptor Greenberg reckoned (in 1956) to be ``the best sculptor of his generation,'' is hardly afforded pride of place, though he is represented in this show.

Greenberg, though highly exclusive in his judgments, was still only a critic. He wielded nothing more than the power of persuasion.

The real questions are: Why did so many in the art world at that time agree with Greenberg? And why, since, have his opinions been so extremely out of favor?

Then the next fascinating question is why do Joachimides and co-curator Norman Rosenthal champion the American painter for whom Greenberg was one of the earliest and most vigorous advocates - Jackson Pollock?

Champion him in this exhibition they certainly do. No painter in it is given more prominence or a more comprehensive showing. Rosenthal in his essay writes that Pollock's art ``broke through into a new field where things became possible that were not possible before.'' It might almost be Greenberg speaking.

Rosenthal goes on to quote German art critic Will Grohmann, writing at the time of the '50s touring exhibition, ``The New American Painting'': ``Pollock is more than the originator of the movement. Standing in front of his tremendous canvases one does not think of styles and slogans, but only of talent and singularity. Here is a reality not of yesterday, but of tomorrow.''

Pollock has in recent decades been characterized, notably by British critics like John Berger and Peter Fuller, as a ``failure.'' Tragic, certainly; heroic, maybe. Fuller approvingly quoted Berger on Pollock's all-over paintings: ``the tragic spectacle of a deaf-mute trying to talk.'' The ``theme'' of these paintings, according to Berger, was ``the impossibility of finding a theme.''

The current exhibition may follow the likes of Fuller in not giving wall space to the ``post-painterly-abstraction'' (Louis and company) that came after Pollock, but curator Rosenthal refreshingly evinces little sympathy with the bigoted anti-Americanism and traditionalism that apparently made it difficult for Fuller to see much good in anything from the United States.

This show is fourth in a series of ``art in the 20th century'' exhibitions organized by Rosenthal and Joachimides, and it is the first that isn't about European art. (Previous shows looked at German, British, and Italian art.) If not about European art, it still has been ``devised from a European viewpoint,'' we are told.

It is hard to determine precisely what is meant by this. Really, the viewpoint that comes across is thoroughly and vitally American in its optimism, large scale, lack of concern with history, and even in its anti-Europeanism.

Rosenthal finally settles for contemporaneity and obsession with ``the here and now'' as the essence of 20th-century American art. He says the exhibition ``attempts to document some of the most exalted expressions'' of ``that most legitimate concern.'' And he adds: ``Viewed from this perspective, America still has art in Europe panting for breath.'' It is not difficult to suspect something like a sneaking admiration (however European it might be) behind these words.

* ``American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913 to 1993,'' is displayed in London in two parts. The earlier work is at the Royal Academy of Arts; the later at the Saatchi Gallery. A free bus links the two. The show continues through Dec. 12.

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