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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.
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.
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.