The American Century: Art & Culture (Two Volumes, 1900-1950; 1950-2000)

Lisa Phillips <em>Whitney

New York's Whitney Museum is clearly determined to go out of this decade with all trumpets blaring. The first instalment of its survey exhibition, The American Century, began in April, provoking dismissal from one high priest of the American art world, Hilton Kramer, and enthusiastic endorsement from the often caustic Robert Hughes. Visitors to part two alone, covering 1950-2000, which runs until mid-February, are confronted with some 700 works of art by 220 artists. By any measure, the two shows constitute a blockbuster.

The project title offers a clue to the problems that the enterprise tries to contain or ignore. It could be understood as a simple description, but the quotation of Henry Luce's 1941 essay highlights a proprietorial aspect. Maxwell Anderson, the museum's director, acknowledges in his preface an element of American hubris at work, but ultimately he does not address the two issues that seem central: first, whether this big-talking country can really take itself seriously; second, the role that ownership and the values put on ownership play in its attempts to take itself seriously.

The two books, which give almost as much space to text as to the 1,300 illustrations, are far more than exhibition catalogues. Painting and the visual arts dominate, but are complemented by developments in architecture, music, literature, theatre and film - all are set against socio-economic and political backdrops. "Stars" such as Sargent, Hopper, Pollock, Warhol and Koons are well represented, but many less familiar names help to make sense of art's apparently sudden breakthroughs.

In 1941 Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, felt that America was "the intellectual, scientific and artistic capital of the world". After the dynamism of the 1920s and 1930s, epitomised by home-grown phenomena such as jazz and the skyscraper, such a boast might be forgiven. But in terms of art, still markedly influenced by Europe, it was nothing short of hype.

In fact, Luce was part right: ten years later the abstract expressionists - Pollock, De Kooning, Rothko, David Smith and others - were producing work that revolutionised art, sparking a vitality that reverberated through pop art, conceptualism and minimalism, not to mention numerous lesser movements, for three decades.

Simultaneously, another element was cementing the high profile of American art. New York's Museum of Modern Art had opened in 1929; it was to be the mother of MOMAs throughout the world and signalled the start of a new relationship between contemporary art, authority and the public.

Promotion is inherent to the practice of art - which is, after all, about hype and presentation. The Whitney more than gestures at this, describing the transformation of America's attitude towards abstract expressionism from initial suspicion to its celebration as a quintessentially American form. By the 1960s, it was even being used as a weapon in the cold war. See what wonders the west's freedom produces was the implicit message of MOMA's travelling exhibitions.

Later, in the 1980s, America was the scene of another hot art promotion as the Hollywoodisation of artists and the art world, seriously begun in the 1960s, coincided with Reaganism. Auctions were "frenzied" and "intoxicating"; but you have to turn to Robert Hughes's superb American Visions (Harvill) to read a story that illustrates the madness of a period in which Van Gogh's Irises was sold for $53.9 million. It was mad because the buyer, on the verge of bankruptcy, was being secretly lent half the purchase price by Sotheby's.

This omission is indicative of the slightly dry flavour to the Whitney text. Others suggest a desire not to make more provocative connections. There is no mention of America's thriving porn industry, which is surely an important element of the country's contemporary cultural make-up. On a different note, MOMA and its first director, Alfred Barr, are given only a cursory nod; a wider exploration of their influence in ordering our perceptions of modern art is missing. Finally, it seems bizarre that James Turrell's huge project, begun in 1979, to turn an extinct volcano in Arizona into a work of art is not included.

A week after the second Whitney exhibition opened - and two months before the close of this "American century" - another art show stole the limelight, triggering denunciations from New York's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who threatened to have it closed. Hundreds of demonstrators rallied in its support outside the Brooklyn Museum. The cause of the outrage? "Sensation", Charles Saatchi's collection of contemporary British art.

Next Article