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Installation view, Whitney Museum, with work by George Segal, Keith Sonnier, and Peter Saul, from left to right (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The inaugural exhibition at the new Whitney Museum is not perfect, but it is pretty damn good. Spanning four floors, over 100 years, and more than 600 artworks, America Is Hard to See delivers on many of its promises: to “present fresh perspectives on the Whitney’s collection,” to show “all mediums … together without hierarchy,” to “challenge assumptions about the American art canon.” These things do often come true in an installation that draws you into its artworks and its story, making you want to linger.

The show is structured both traditionally and not. That is to say, it runs chronologically — beginning on the top floor with the playing out of European modernism in the US in the early 20th century — and it also runs thematically by gallery (titles include “Forms Abstracted,” for the aforementioned modernism, and “Large Trademark,” for Pop art). This, although quite common for special exhibitions, isn’t often the case with broad collection installations, and it makes for a welcome duality, as specific subjects and groupings offer fresh takes while still nestling themselves within a familiar timeline.

A cluster of anti-lynching works (click to enlarge)

Those fresh takes are delivered in a variety of ways. Sometimes the surprise comes in the very subject itself — a stunning wall devoted to anti-lynching prints from the 1930s, for instance. Other times a subject’s simple acceptance and display in a major museum gives one pause, as with a gallery devoted to artists affected by and making work about the 1980s–90s AIDS crisis, among them David Wojnarowicz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Nan Goldin. (This may seems unexceptional today, but it was unthinkable only 20 years ago.) At still other points, the curatorial approach to a well-trodden subject brings a wave of relief, as in a room filled with quirky, decidedly not tacky surrealist pictures by the likes of Man Ray, George Tooker, and Joseph Cornell.

Then there are the surprises in the choices of works, perhaps the most bountiful area for discovery in the show. Who knew those two abstract black-and-white watercolors that seem to riff on the yin-yang were early works by Isamu Noguchi? Or that Robert Smithson made a collage of an android-looking human eating an arm? I also, happily, spotted fantastic works by artists I didn’t previously know, including Richmond Barthé, Miguel Covarrubias, Mabel Dwight, and Earl Reiback (apologies to the devotees of these artists for my ignorance). Many of the galleries feature tight, salon-style groupings of smaller works without wall labels but with information cards at either end, which moves you (or me, at least) away from an overreliance on names and towards a vision of the art of specific periods as movements, as interplays, as conversations. So does the mixing of media and the seamless integration of “outsider” art alongside insider (I guess) art; it is long overdue to see Bill Traylor hanging between Marsden Hartley and Thomas Hart Benson. (Although Martín Ramírez is conspicuously absent.)

Still, a paradox hangs over America Is Hard to See: it’s a show drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, and so it reflects the biases of the museum’s curators and collecting history — meaning it can only go so far in its goal to “[set] forth a distinctly new narrative.” Hyperallergic’s demographic breakdown of the exhibition artists pointed out the lack of Native American and Latino voices, and that absence is tangible in the galleries. The Chicago Imagists (Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt) and California Light and Space artists do get nods (Larry Bell, no James Turrell), but are glossed over in favor of a New York–centric narrative. Quite surprisingly, the exhibition skips such pioneering women artists as Helen Frankenthaler, Judy Chicago, Martha Wilson, and Carrie Mae Weems, all while Matthew Barney gets his own small, conspicuously spare room. There’s very little craft-related work — where is Ken Price? — and even less work that’s communal, collective, or focused on social engagement and public participation.

More than anything, this reflects a need for institutional change at the Whitney, which, naturally, is a much longer and slower process than the making of any one show. In the meantime, it’s nice to see a history of American art that includes only a few Warhols, two of them relatively small and hung in close proximity to work by Lilliana Porter, Betye Saar, Sister Corita Kent, Judith Bernstein, Faith Ringgold, and May Stevens.

One of the Whitney Museum elevators designed by Richard Artschwager

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled (America)” (1994), 12 light strings, each with 42 15-watt lightbulbs and rubber sockets

Installation view with Alexander Calder sculptures in the center (click to enlarge)

Left: E.E. Cummings, “Noise Number 13” (1925), oil on canvas; right: Richmond Barthé, “African Dancer” (1933), plaster (click to enlarge)

Florine Stettheimer, “Sun” (1931), oil on canvas, with painted wood frame

Back left: Isamu Noguchi, “Paris Abstraction” (1927–28), opaque watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on paper, and “Paris Abstraction” (1927–28), opaque watercolor and graphite pencil on paper; front right: Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, “Congolais” (1931), cherry

Paul Cadmus, “Sailors and Floosies” (1938), oil and tempera on linen, with painted wood frame

Installation view, Alexander Calder, “Calder’s Circus” (1926–31), wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, and bottle caps (click to enlarge)

Installation view, “Fighting With All Our Might” gallery (click to enlarge)

George Grosz, “The Painter of the Hole” (1947)

Man Ray, “La Fortune” (1938), oil on linen

Left: Marsden Hartley, “Madawaska, Acadian Light-Heavy, Third Arrangement” (1930), oil on composition board; right: Bill Traylor, “Walking Man” (1930), opaque watercolor and graphite pencil on board

Installation view with work by John Chamberlain, Mark di Suvero, and Lee Krasner, from left to right

Louise Bourgeois, “Quarantania” (1941), painted wood

On a terrace: David Smith’s “Cubi XXI” (1964), stainless steel

Donald Judd, “Untitled” (1966), painted steel

Left: Nancy Grossman, “Head 1968” (1968), wood, leather, metal zippers, paint, and metal nails; right: Christina Ramberg, “Istrian River Lady” (1974), acrylic on composition board, with wood frame

Installation view, “Raw War” cluster (click to enlarge)

Raphael Montañez Ortiz, “Archaeological Find, Number 9” (1964), wood, steel, plastic glue, rope, fabric, and horse hair

Above: detail of Sam Middleton, “Out Chorus” (1960), collaged newsprint and paper, watercolor, and tempera on composition board; below: Al Held, “Untitled (Life magazine)” (1959), oil, ink and collaged paper on magazine

Left: Lee Bontecou, “Untitled, 1961” (1961), welded steel, canvas, wire, and rope; right: Jay DeFeo, “The Rose” (1958–66), oil with wood and mica on canvas (click to enlarge)

Installation view, with Claes Oldenburg’s “Giant Fagends” (1967), canvas, urethane foam, wire, wood, latex, and melamine laminate, at center, and work by Alex Katz and Andy Warhol behind

Installation view, with work by Barbara Kruger on top of work by Donald Moffett

Hannah Wilke, “S.O.S. Starification Object Series (Curlers)” (1974) gelatin silver print

In back left: Nam June Paik, “V-yramid” (1982), 40 televisions and video, color, sound; front right: Charles Ray, “Boy” 1992), painted fiberglass, steel, and fabric

Detail of Hans Haacke’s “Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971” (1971), 9 photostats, 142 gelatin silver prints, and 142 photocopies (click to enlarge)

David Wojnarowicz, “Untitled” (1989), three gelatin silver prints (click to enlarge)

Fred Wilson, “Guarded View” (1991), wood, paint, steel, and fabric

David Hammons, “Untitled” (1992), human hair, wire, polyester film, sledge hammer, plastic beads, string, metal food tin, panty hose, leather, tea bags, and feathers, with work by Mike Kelley in back left and Karen Kilimnik in back right

Jimmie Durham, “Self-portrait” (1986), canvas, wood, paint, metal, synthetic hair, fur, feathers, shell, and thread

Left: Josh Kline, “Cost of Living (Aleyda” (2014), plaster, ink, and cyanoacrylate, janitor cart, LEDs; right: Cory Arcangel, “Super Mario Clouds” (2002), handmade hacked Super Mario Brothers cartridge and Nintendo NES video game system

Installation view with work by Ed Ruscha (painting far left), Rachel Harrison (sculptures in center), and Carroll Dunham (painting in back) (click to enlarge)

Glenn Ligon, “Warm Broad Glow II” (2011), neon, paint, and powder-coated aluminum

Paul Chan, “1st Light” (2005), digital video, black-and-white and color, silent, 14 min

America Is Hard to See opens at the Whitney Museum (99 Gansevoort Street, Meatpacking District, Manhattan) on May 1 and continues through September 27.

Correction: This article originally misstated that the exhibition skips the feminist movement of the 1960–70s and a number of artists therein. It also said there were only two Warhols on view. Both of these were wrong and have been corrected.

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