• U.S.

Art: Creative Chaos

7 minute read
Steven Henry Madoff

It is hard to imagine a more explosive, splintered era in art making than the past 50 years in America. The roll call is dizzying–happenings, body art, minimalism, earthworks, conceptualism, neo-Expressionism, installations–to name just a few of the schools that have swum vigorously or otherwise through public waters. Then there is the vast sweep of photography, from the voluble street scenes of William Klein to the arch self-reflection of Cindy Sherman. And there is video art, whose evolution has fast-forwarded from monochrome navel gazing to gorgeous spectacle in a scant 30 years.

Yet for all that, there have arguably been just two moments of final consequence to art’s mainstream in the past half-century: Abstract Expressionism, with its reinvention of the spiritual; and its brazen opposite, Pop, whose smart, smirking celebrations of Brillo boxes, billboards and Mickey Mouse smiled into the heart of postwar America and found it made of chrome.

In 1963, when Andy Warhol remarked, “I think everybody should be a machine,” in witty response to Jackson Pollock’s proclamation, 21 years before, that “I am nature,” the distance between artistic generations couldn’t have been clearer. Here was the age-old struggle of the sacred and the profane updated; here was the earnestness of inner spirit vs. the irony of outer cool.

Now this struggle for the soul of American art is mapped in all its fitful chaos in the Whitney Museum’s mammoth, frenetic show, “The American Century: Art and Culture 1950-2000,” part two of a yearlong survey, on view through Feb. 13. The first installment of the retrospective, covering 1900 to 1950, was all about American artists striving to find their identity in the shadow of European masters–and finally making the leap with the figure-breaking canvases of Pollock. The sequel shows the rampantly imaginative shattering of that identity from Pollock onward, shuttling at high speed between the spiritually sublime and the subversively crude, with a whole lot of stops along the way.

Hundreds of works are on view, all of the Whitney’s rooms and corridors crammed with pieces dating from AbEx to those practically yanked off the walls of today’s downtown galleries. Yet nowhere is the primal battle pitted so bluntly as in the opening salvos on the top two floors of the show. First is Pollock’s Number 27 (1950), its swooping marks scraping away the recognizable shapes of the world, implying in the skeins of paint a web of pure energy, limitless and deep. Its yellows and pinks, its muted greens and blacks are autumnal; a pure buzz of nature’s prodigious, generative force. And then, just one floor below, is this: a towering partition plastered with Warhol’s hot pink and green wallpaper covered with cows’ heads, like an advertisement for milk gone mad. On it, in clashing hues, is the artist’s portrait of Elvis, gun drawn, off register, multiplied by four like a drunken vision. He stares you down, that famously curling lip, with all the swagger and pow of Pop’s sardonic message: how a world of glossy goods and superstars is way more gripping than the prayerful hum of our inner lives.

With his ice-white wig and his freon-filled veins, Warhol and his deadpan cool spoke volumes about the new, acquisitive culture suddenly exploding in the ’60s, buoyed by the youthful confidence of the Kennedys’ Camelot. Yanked up in voltage and turned garishly hip, Warhol’s iconic images of Jackie after J.F.K.’s murder, and his tabloid pictures of cars crashed and suicides, replaced dignity with glitz, marrying starstruck glamour to grisly death. Nothing since has seemed so electric and shallow, so perfect a mirror of what was happening to the state of America’s spirit. The soulfulness of Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists never stood a chance after Warhol–and no radical art movement has ever been bought up so quickly as Pop was by the public.

Yet it’s far too simple to say that art ever after has followed trancelike in the acid-green aura of the Warhol Effect. The art roughly of the ’70s, from Kent State through Watergate to the imperial rise of Reaganomics, reflected the seismic social shifts of the times. And what that churned up is seen in the show’s kaleidoscope of imagery, ranging from a full-size mannequin of a rather worn-looking camel by Nancy Graves through documentary photos of Chris Burden after a self-inflicted gun wound to a film of Robert Smithson running along the rocky ground of his massive and most famous earthwork, Spiral Jetty (1970), which juts into Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

There was no lack of experiment and soul searching in these years. While Warhol was spinning out his sops to celebrities in sycophantic portraits and the swooning talkfests that filled his gossip sheet Interview, much of American art seemed largely earnest–as if it were a vast machine spitting out proof after proof of the solution to what art should mean as war, protest, the surge of feminism and the pulse of disco played themselves out on the nation’s stage.

The work in the ’80s was no less diverse, yet the mood had shifted. This was the Me decade of Julian Schnabel proclaiming his genius in front of anyone with a tape recorder, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who managed to squeeze in all 15 minutes of his fame, literally following in Warhol’s footsteps through strobe-lighted grottos like Studio 54 before drugs did him in.

The moment of the Warhol Effect was back, inspirited by the cash of the swelling Wall Street plutocracy that seemed to live inside the Pop artist’s reverie of an endless spree of sensations and spectacles acquired, used up and instantly replaced. This is not to say that work harkening to the spiritual, to quieter introspection, wasn’t being done. Such abstract artists as Bill Jensen, Sean Scully and Christopher Wilmarth were making some of their best work, but their belief in the poetic possibilities of doubt were no longer the currency of the day.

It’s telling that none of them are in this show. Lisa Phillips, curator of the exhibition, manages to mimic the raucous energy of a half-century of American art in these overstuffed rooms (and frequently to confusing effect), yet it’s clear who she thinks won the struggle for the soul of that art. Despite a token gallery or two thrown in at the end of the show that seem little more than a grab bag of hot names in the ’90s, the real finale to the Whitney’s survey comes just before these rooms.

Jeff Koons’ Rabbit (1986), a blow-up bunny cast in mirror-bright steel, is plunked down center stage, surrounded by works that date from the Wall Street boom of the ’80s. Its cartoonish exterior basks in the shiny glare of its obviousness: here is our post-Pop world–little else than the distorted reflection of commerce, all chrome and gaudy light. And as you approach it, you too are caught in its surface: carnival-like and bloated, staring out.

That is the landscape contemporary artists navigate, at least on Phillips’ map of the American century. But just to make sure the point is numbingly clear, she leaves one last reminder, one last relic of the exhibition’s patron saint, by the elevators that take visitors down to the street. There, lined up neatly, is a group of 10 small Warhol silkscreens. In neon-bright inks on contrasting fields, a familiar symbol is emblazoned again and again. Dollar signs.

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