Canon Fodder: Carol Armstrong on the Whitney Museum and Tate Modern Collections

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WE LIVE IN an art-historical moment in which the canon has been deconstructed, destroyed, blown to bits; and yet, at the same time, the canon has been expanded to infinity, to include anything and everything, to let every comer in. Either way, the canon becomes a nonsense, its categories baseless, while the exercise of aesthetic judgment has been ruled a thing of the past and/or a matter of indefensible personal taste without any common cultural basis. These attitudes are found nowhere more so than in that beast called contemporary art, which has from the start taken canon-busting as one of its main briefs.


As if to perform this questioning of the canon, museums of modern and contemporary art keep reinstalling themselves. None does so more repeatedly and restlessly--or to more contentious response--than New York's Museum of Modern Art. But recently, two other museums devoted to modern and contemporary art on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean have offered new installations of their collections: the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in its exhibition "Full House: Views of the Whitney's Collection at 75" (the Whitney opened in 1931) and, in London, Tate Modern's reinstallation, organized just six years after the museum's opening. With national collections of modern art and brilliant modern buildings to live up to, the museums structured their exhibitions in very similar manners. They expressly tried to cut across chronology and break with the movement categories inscribed in their collections, making several pasts resonate with several presents and vice versa. But for all they share, one installation is dead-on and the other is all off. One is a qualified success, and the other is a mess, albeit a thought-provoking one.

I confess: I didn't want to like the Whitney exhibition. The Whitney Biennials have gotten increasingly worse, spelling out the endgame that so much contemporary art has become. I didn't go to this year's Biennial (I was rather uselessly boycotting it), but all reviews suggest its utter bankruptcy of artistic discourse. However, I have to admit, "Full House"--organized by chief curator Donna De Salvo and a team of her colleagues--was compelling, complex, and thoughtful. It held together, showcasing the Whitney's New York-based modern and contemporary art, with both local and world-class significance. In "Full House" the modern and the contemporary addressed each other meaningfully. The Whitney divided its collection three ways, with a floor devoted to each section: "Content Is a Glimpse" (centered around an AbEx core); "The Pure Products of America Go Crazy" (centered on Pop); and "What You See Is What You See" (Minimalism). The top and bottom floors were consigned to single artists with important places in the museum's collection, Edward Hopper ("Holiday in Reality," the one section still on view now) and Alexander Calder ("I Think Best in Wire"), respectively. You could begin at the bottom with the Calder floor and toil up the Whitney's inversely stepped architecture, or you could begin, as I did, at the top with the Hopper floor and move down. Either direction worked across time and topic, and undercut linear chronology to a purpose. I started at the top, and my experience of "Full House" was thus inflected throughout by the Hopper floor. Intentionally or unintentionally, a dualist picture of American modern art emerged that had everything to do with a very American bifurcation that I felt within Hopper's work.

The selection of works by Hopper included what for me was a surprise: the revelation of his earliest paintings, made in the first decade of the twentieth century in Paris--that modern-art mecca to which Americans, Britons, and European Continentals flocked and from which they exported various offshoot brands of its modernism. Here Hopper created his own version of the brightly lit, plein-air Impressionist landscape. The most stunning aspect of these works is the solid facticity of their paintedness, minus the familiar anecdotal attentions of the artist's later work. …


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