America is Hard to See
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
I saw this show on a rainy afternoon in September, after talking about it for months and finally making the pilgrimage to New York from Philly just a couple days before the whole thing was taken down. I’ll admit that I was expecting to like it, after reading positive reviews about the installation and the beautiful new space, and the show did not disappoint. The space was saturated with work, all of it strong and curated well, but somehow the sum total of all of it did not feel claustrophobic. Maybe it was the timed tickets, maybe it was the walls of floor to ceiling glass, maybe it was the generous inclusion of outdoor decks and lounge areas that made you feel like you could actually stop for a second and think instead of getting pushed along an invisible conveyor belt to make room for someone else. There was lots to like, and everyone I was with seemed to feel it.
The show intended to present a survey of American art from the 20th century to the present, working to represent more than just the predictable art historical canon and referencing a Robert Frost poem in its title to account for the shifting landscape of American art, evasive and hard to pin down for longer than a moment. In this, I believe that the show was successful, though I will admit that prior to seeing it I wasn’t sure just how exciting a survey show could be. I expected that the title had a story behind it, I expected that the Whitney could find great examples of American art that would relate to it, and I expected that they would be able to articulate the complexity present in American art throughout the decades in a thought-provoking way. A survey show could embody boring territory pretty fast, and the last thing I wanted was for this particular show to be predictable.
For me personally, America Is Hard to See was all about the moments that I was totally surprised, taken aback, or shown something that I was not expecting; the exciting part was in the Robert Frost reference, in the atypical combinations and the works you hadn’t necessarily seen already. For me, the show’s strength was in the decision to display a light installation by Felix Gonzalez-Torres in a stairwell, causing me to actually want to be in that stairwell for several minutes rather than in the main galleries. It was in the decision to include videos with Sonic Youth songs and incredible paintings by female abstractionists and a landscape piece by Cory Arcangel featuring Nintendo clouds, all in the same exhibition. It could deliver, even to a person who knows a lot about art history or a lot about the typical art historical canon, who might think that a survey show on American art might not have a lot to teach them. And to a person who isn’t as familiar with American art, this could definitely be an exhibition that would make them want to learn more.
Sometimes, I think it’s easier to write about an exhibition that you weren’t crazy about: when you really like something, it can be hard to find the words. My pilgrimage to the new Whitney ended by sitting in neon chairs; first in those Mary Heilmann chairs, which are somehow still cheery even when it’s raining, and then in the bright yellow chairs in front of the entrance, where I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with friends and watched the storm clouds. When all was said and done, I really was very impressed. Here’s hoping I feel that way again about a museum show very, very soon.