NEW YORK — "The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-1950," part one of the Whitney Museum's two-part millennial survey exhibition, is very educational. Which is another way of saying it feels dutiful and dull. Going to the Whitney is like going to school.
Midway through the show, which fills all five floors of the Madison Avenue museum, I found myself wondering just whom it had been organized for (it was organized by Barbara Haskell, longtime Whitney curator, with input from about two dozen consultants). Who is the imagined audience for a mega-show of ostensible greatest hits, which have been expanded from traditional categories like painting, sculpture and photography to include Broadway handbills and movie posters, cinematic dance sequences, industrial design and Tin Pan Alley tunes?
The only answer I could come up with was that it's meant for people with only superficial interest in art--"students" filling some imagined humanities requirement ("Today we go to the Art Museum to commune with America's Muse") in a school for upwardly mobile urban living. Even the info-packed catalog looks and reads like an introductory college text, American Culture 101.
Do I sound cranky? Good. "The American Century" revives an ever-ready attitude that in fact kept American art minor and provincial for most of the duration covered by the survey. In place of expansive imagination and surprising beauty, we get a crabbed series of little lectures--"America in the Age of Confidence, 1900-1910" or "Jazz Age America, 1920-1929" or "America in Crisis, 1930-1939." On one hand it's startling how confidence, jazz and crisis apparently came along in tidy 10-year chunks (not!). On the other, it's unsurprising how neither confidence nor jazz nor crisis guarantees the production of satisfying art.
Second-Rate Painting in First Half of Century
If you doubt the general provincialism of American life between the turn of the century and World War II, just take a look at most of the paintings in the show. (There's not much sculpture on view, which is a pretty accurate reflection of our century's first half; unless attached to buildings, sculpture crumpled in the advancing juggernaut of the Machine Age.) Amid quick and occasional flashes of brilliance, the paintings in "The American Century" make up a fiesta of the second-rate.
Great artists have made this small-minded limitation a surprising virtue. At the century's turn Thomas Eakins rendered a patrician intellectual, Louis N. Fenton, as the very soul of weary isolation and humility. Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning" (1930) endows an empty Main Street U.S.A. with the stunning specificity and grace of an ancient Greek temple. In 1940 Marsden Hartley painted a sad, blunt, imaginary portrait of a youthful and homely Abraham Lincoln, which looks chopped from a log of pigment.
Others, like the notorious jingoist Thomas Hart Benton or the Old Testament-besotted John Steuart Curry, are just thumping blowhards. Check out the diorama model of Benton's big 1930 mural for the Jefferson City State Capitol, "A Social History of the State of Missouri," and be amazed at how much his heaving, muscular style--Michelangelo down on the farm--now looks like a pneumatic prototype for the homo-erotic cartoons of Tom of Finland.
Needless to say, in the galleries there's a lot more of the Benton and Curry caliber of stuff than of the Eakins, Hopper and Hartley kind. The show even includes what may well be the single worst American painting I've ever seen.
In 1938 someone named Alexandre Hogue (a Texan who won't be found in the standard surveys) portrayed the landscape of a ruined farm pictorially fused with a nude female body. The "raped" land shown in "Erosions No. 2--Mother Earth Laid Bare" is a plea for crop rotation in the guise of a painting.
Hogue's apparent specialty was raining on other artists' parades. His composition, right down to the iconic horse-drawn plow in the foreground, spays and neuters the sunny naivete of Grant Wood's cheerful image of American abundance, "Fall Plowing" (1931).
Meanwhile, in the catalog, another Hogue turns the scene of Curry's evangelical "Baptism in Kansas" (1928) into a parched farm with a broken-down water pump presided over by a vulture. There'll be no salvation here today.
One question: Why is it important for us to know that really bad artists such as Hogue were diligently at work in "The American Century"? Because it moves the story along? The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl notwithstanding, his inclusion here is typical of the provincial confusion between social history and art history, in which paintings--however ludicrous--are useful as illustrations of worldly events, big and small.
Or, maybe it's because a survey of the period that stuck close to really first-rate work would tip over a favored apple cart: Photography, not painting, is the most abundantly and consistently engaging art to be found in the exhibition.