‘America is Hard to See’

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I’ve taken the title of this entry from the inaugural exhibition at the Whitney Museum’s new building in New York. Through a series of chapters, works are grouped to present a history of twentieth century of American art and so we have Andy Warhol’s Coca Cola bottles in Large Trademark, Alexander Calder’s circus in, not surprisingly, The Circus and Georgia O’Keefes galore in Pink and Blue.

It’s an exhibition about American art and an American story of the twentieth century. But, wandering round the galleries, one of the things that struck me was the number of artists who weren’t born in the US. The labels alongside the works proclaimed origins in Poland, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Latvia, Armenia, Lithuania, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong and Canada amongst others. Some of the towering figures of American art – Mark Rothko; Agnes Martin; Willem de Kooning – weren’t born in America, but became American and their work is now part of the American story. I don’t know what welcome or resistance they met as immigrants and when – or whether – they felt American, but they’ve certainly been embraced as Americans now.

The narratives of the exhibition, in its chapters, also tell the tale of a nation of cities and machines constructed, of life on the prairies and war across continents, of the cool detachment of minimalism and abstraction and the raw reality of AIDS, of consumerism and terrorism. It’s the American story, rather than the American dream.

It isn’t a ground-breaking exhibition; it’s more inclusive than that. Although there are some outstanding individual works – the Rothko, in particular, dominates its gallery; the Mapplethorpes were immediately identifiable; an Ansel Adams photograph was luminous – that didn’t seem to me to be the point. It’s an exhibition to present a series of narratives and an overarching narrative that are familiar, but with a few surprises along the way, to intrigue as well as to satisfy and to appeal to all ages and backgrounds. The overall impression is important, but it’s an exhibition where everyone can make an individual find and come away with their favourite. America may be varied and hard to define or pin down, but it certainly isn’t hard to see.

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