'American Visions' Keenly Eyes National Culture Through Art

Host Robert Hughes infuses PBS series with wit and insight

'American Visions," a new eight-hour public-television series on American art written and narrated by critic Robert Hughes, is as much about American culture as it is about painting and architecture.

Throughout these programs, which range from the Colonial period to the present, Mr. Hughes maintains that there has been a continuity in American concerns, and that these are reflected in art. He repeatedly returns to notions like nature, newness, public virtue, work, and the frontier.

As in his much-praised 1981 series on modern art, "The Shock of the New," the Australian-born Hughes is an agile guide whom the television audience will find easy to follow. He dwells on buildings and paintings, teaching how to look as well as how to think about art.

A master of terse barbs and poignant insights, Hughes is also unrelentingly witty. The morning after, viewers will be rehashing his epigrammatic darts the way they do "Frasier" and "Seinfeld."

Big-budget effects

Unfortunately, the first program, "The Republic of Virtue," is a faltering introduction to the series. Excessive helicopter shots, a costly and unnecessary embellishment throughout the series, whirl around the Capitol and the monuments of Washington. While Hughes talks about the Founders' classical restraint, Wagnerian music boils in the background, and storm clouds chase over the White House roof as they do in "Independence Day."

When Hughes settles in to discuss Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, the program admirably rights itself. From then on, it presents a lean, succinct, and discerning discussion of early American painting. Never one to shy from the brutality of history, Hughes stamps the series with continual references to slavery and its legacy.

In the second program, "The Promised Land," Hughes describes religious life at an early Spanish mission in New Mexico, as well as in New England's Puritan past. Although he cynically observes that culture has always followed money, he wisely allows that quilts produced by the Amish in Pennsylvania are as high an art form as any other aesthetic product in early America.

Landscape as metaphor

Program 3, the gem of the series, unites Hughes's muscular language with an appropriately vast subject. "The Wilderness and the West" persuasively shows how American landscape has been portrayed as moral ground, yet also served as a bulwark for blind patriotism, racism, and the destruction of nature.

The kernels of knowledge that flavor these productions are not always savory. Viewers learn that John James Audubon shot birds, wired their corpses into animate shapes, and only then produced his meticulously rendered paintings.

"The Gilded Age," fourth in the series, begins with the American Civil War and concludes with Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis about the closing of the American frontier. The increasing importance of photography in America's self-imaging is apparent both in depictions of the war and in the realism employed by painters like Thomas Eakins.

In the late 19th century, the natural sublime gave way to a technical sublime, exemplified by the Brooklyn Bridge and Chicago skyscrapers. European presence grew through increased immigration as well as importation of European artifacts.

"A Wave From the Atlantic," the fifth program, shows how American cities became raw, urban frontiers. Tenements were frequent subjects of the so-called Ashcan School painters. In Hughes's sharp phrasing, silent movies emerged as the soothing folk art of the poor.

Through the efforts of photographer and gallery director Alfred Stieglitz, American audiences confronted experimental European art, like that of the Cubists. Still, many American artists preferred identifiable subject matter, adapting the sleek, simplified shapes of modern art to celebrate the promise of industrialization and the city.

Throughout Program 6, "Streamlines and Breadlines," Hughes proves to be America's most impish public intellectual. He stresses the centrality of movies by walking in and out of a velvety black-and-white film.

One of the strongest of the series, this segment shows the variety of artistic responses to the Depression. While the completion of the Empire State Building gladdened spirits, American Regionalist painters moved outside the Eastern cities to depict the Midwest, South, and Southwest.

Oddly, this program does not show that most famous icon of the Depression, Dorothea Lange's photograph of "The Migrant Mother."

During the seventh segment, "The Empire of Signs," Hughes has difficulty making the connection between art and culture in the 1950s and '60s. Are we to assume that fear of nuclear war promoted the psychic passion of Abstract Expressionism? Is there a link between Pop Art and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.? Perhaps the postwar period was (and is) too various to be epitomized by typical artworks and major events.

Suburbs on the march

Yet in the final program, when Hughes focuses on the pervasive influence of the suburbs, the social world's bearing on art is convincing. "The Age of Anxiety" shows how painter Eric Fischl's sour colors and edgy narratives depict a place disfigured by veniality and hypocrisy. The multiple effects of the Vietnam War are apparent not only in Phillip Guston's paintings of bloodstained, hooded villains, but also in the fidgety videos and irksome installations of Bruce Nauman.

The final irony of "American Visions" belongs to its viewers, who will come away from the series marveling that their brusque guide, who ridicules foibles and feminists, political art and propaganda, produced so engrossing and meaningful a television experience.

* 'American Visions' is a co-production of the BBC and Time Inc. in association with WNET. The program premires on Wednesday, May 28, 9-11 p.m. on PBS, and continues on consecutive Wednesdays through June 18 (check local listings).

An accompanying book, 'American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America,' by Robert Hughes, is available from Alfred A. Knopf for $65.

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