The American Century

A museum picks 700 works that define an era

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."

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 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."

After 1950, American art began to assert itself on the world stage as New York overtook Paris as the international art center. It was a heady time for American artists and intellectuals. They developed a vanguard known as the "New York School," an umbrella term that encompassed a variety of styles, foremost among them American Expressionism.

Also influential during the '50s were popular magazines, radio, and TV, which intensified the promotion of the cult of fame and celebrity in American life. Beat-generation writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, experimental filmmakers, and music rebels like Elvis Presley, Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald, all contributed to America's flourishing cultural scene.

Complex, contradictory impulses

Beginning with 1950s canvases by Abstract Expressionism's best-known practitioners - Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline - the exhibition charts all the artistic currents at the start of the show. The canvases set the stage for a 50-year period marked by complex and contradictory impulses as artists developed alternative forms of art and cultural expression.

This explosively creative postwar period in the '50s and the artistic movements that followed it are examined in terms of the prevailing social and cultural issues of each decade - Pop Art and Minimalism amid the socially turbulent '60s; Post-Minimalism, conceptual art, and feminist works produced during a crisis of faith in institutions in the '70s; street culture and graffiti art in the materialistic '80s; and our current decade's multifaceted, media-driven artworks born out of a focus on identity, ethnicity, and gender, as well as an intense exploration of new technologies.

Multimedia 'cultural sites'

In addition to the five floors arranged chronologically by decade, six multimedia "cultural sites" provide context and inspire viewers to consider the artworks in relation to news events. The site for the '80s and '90s, for example, walks viewers through "culture wars" of the period with a time line of political events such as President Reagan's election in 1980, the rise of the religious right, and the House of Representatives' vote in 1997 to dismantle the National Endowment for the Arts (later overturned by the Senate).

No exhibition spanning art and culture during the past five decades would be complete without a computer or two. Just as the latter part of the show reflects a willingness to absorb technology into the art world, the Web site (, developed by show sponsor Intel Corp. and the Whitney's team of educators, does the same.

Granted, nothing can replace the in-person experience. But if you can't make it to New York before Feb. 13, 2000, when the exhibition closes, navigate your way through the five decades by mouse. You'll find even the virtual buffet quite enriching.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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