From Hopper To Hip-Hop

IN THE ART WORLD, RICH patrons fresh from corporate boardrooms dance cheek to cheek with feisty young artists fresh from schools where everyone talks about "the contradictions of late capitalism." You'd think that with the clash of such opposites, political correctness would quickly melt away. But patrons, wanting to stay hip, suffer the artists' preachiness. The artists, not wanting to feel like sellouts, imagine their art work is morally uplifting. Nowhere in the art world is this P.C. tango choreographed with more passion than at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. And no bandleader gets more criticism for the music they all dance to than the Whitney's urbane young director, David Ross.

Ross, 44, who came to the Whitney almost three years ago, sees the museum not as a protector of traditional esthetic standards but rather a "site for the contest of values," a stage for the same cultural debate over diversity that has embroiled college campuses and the civil courts. And it's singed other museums, too: the director of Cincinnati's Contemporary Art Center was tried (and acquitted) for showing Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs in 1990. Washington's National Museum of American Art's 1991 show about the history of whites and American Indians, "The West as America," was attacked by lawmakers. And for showing politically contentious art, Ross, too, has been regularly lambasted in the press. Former New York Times chief art critic and dependable conservative Hilton Kramer, aided by an anonymous Whitney board member who leaks him memos, has been Ross's most frequent and bombastic detractor: "What we are witnessing at the Whitney Museum these days is the rapidly accelerating destruction of an important art institution...carried out in the name of political virtue." The current Times critic, Michael Kimmelman, has also weighed in, writing that "the place is without a clear vision from the very top." Even the liberal Village Voice recently called the Whitney "the MTV of American museums."

Rumblings about Ross's reign began in earnest last fall with the retrospective of hip-hop painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died at 27 of a heroin overdose (even though the show was in the works before Ross arrived). But the real first and last straw was this past spring's Biennial--a sampling of what's hot and what's not in contemporary American art, held regularly at the Whitney since 1932. Particularly irksome was California artist Daniel J. Martinez's motto, "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white," printed whole or in fragments on the show's admissions buttons. When asked how he would have regarded an imaginary work of art by a black Islamic artist from Crown Heights that said "I can't imagine ever wanting to be Jewish," Ross replied: "It couldn't have been done because it wouldn't have been about the position of dominance."

Two subsequent Whitney exhibitions were "The Subject of Rape"--a dull, bureaucratic-looking jumble of installations and autobiographical drawings--and "Abject Art," a sad melange of dejectedness in everything from an early Arshile Gorky painting to art works made of discarded trash, full of scatological references. These shows underscored the Whitney's commitment to a constituency of "the Other," the art world's blanket term for racial and sexual minorities together. Objections by the right-wing Christian Action Coalition to depictions of genitalia and excrement in the "Rape" and "Abject Art" shows became lightning rods in the congressional debate over the National Endowment for the Arts last summer; later, the agency's appropriation was slashed by $4.4 million. Ross is impatiently unapologetic about the political fallout from shows like "Abject Art." The exhibition's premise, he says, "is very complex and easily distorted" into serving the goals of the political right. With the opening this week of a controversial retrospective of Los Angeles grunge artist Mike Kelley--whose sculptures made of soiled stuffed animals deal with, in Ross's words, "the sociopathology of everyday life"--Ross and the Whitney will likely be under fire again.

The Whitney's interest in reform through art isn't entirely out of character with what the Whitney's artist-founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, had in mind. Seeing her contemporaries facing what she called "a vista of dreariness which appalled me...a terrible lack in our city's capacities," she started the Whitney Studio Club for artists in 1918. Soon it had 300 members, including Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper and Alexander Calder, three artists whose work became the foundation of the Whitney's great permanent collection. When Gertrude Whitney tried to donate her art collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was rebuffed and started her own museum. In 1966, the looming modem granite fortress designed by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue opened. What had begun essentially as an alternative space took on a museum's typically sclerotic self-importance.

Ross's critics spend little time crediting the new director for keeping this underendowed behemoth afloat. Less than 2 percent of its budget comes from government sources, but Ross has a flair for the bottom line. After early curatorial stints in Syracuse, N.Y., and Long Beach and Berkeley, Calif., he landed his first directorship in 1982 at Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. When he arrived, the ICA was $1.5 million in debt on an annual budget of $600,000 and attracted only 25,000 visitors a year. By 1990, Ross had tripled the budget, almost quadrupled attendance and put the place in the black. (Although one ICA trustee says "He was very active in promoting his own future," and a few local artists still resent Ross's fondness for the latest thing from New York or Europe, the Boston scene sorely misses him.) Since he came to the Whitney, he's increased the endowment from $19 million to $23 million, signed a contract with the San Jose Museum of Art to give them "curatorial expertise" and four long-term shows from the Whitney's permanent collection for $3 million, and rented that bumptious Biennial to the South Koreans for $700,000.

For the Whitney, Ross has meant a huge shift from the tenure of longtime director Tom Armstrong, who was acrimoniously dismissed in 1990. Armstrong had been under intense criticism for mounting too many shows of such '80s highprofile, but not-quite-ripe, gallery artists as Eric Fischl and David Salle. In Ross, the Whitney saw an invigorator, if not a savior, and indeed, he's distanced the museum far from the chic gallery circuit. "As a fortysomething museum director, David just sees things in a different way from the sixtysomethings," says chairman of the Whitney's board of trustees and chief Ross supporter, cosmetics mogul Leonard Lauder, 60.

And multiculturalism is clearly going to be part of the Whitney for quite a while. Ross contends that "we haven't yet inscribed [the African cultural contribution] into the history of the visual arts; we haven't inscribed the Asian immigration into it." The 1992 American Association of Museums book "Museums in Communities" notes that a quarter of the yearly U.S. population growth comes from immigration, and that a majority of immigrants are nonwhite. As that constituency becomes a bigger part of the museum audience, its cultural traditions will have to be addressed. That doesn't mean that the whole cubism-to-abstraction-to-pop history of modem art has to be ditched. Kirk Varnedoe of the Museum of Modem Art maintains that Western "modern art is by nature inclusive" and, like Western technology, is by nature adaptable. MoMA colleague Robert Storr agrees, saying that what multiculturalism has wrought in contemporary art so far is partly a welcome revival of "symbolism, dada and a lot of stuff previously left out."

The hope expressed at the much more establishment MoMA is that modernism is a tent big enough to accommodate P.C. Ross hopes that P.C. will turn out to be generous enough to accommodate modernism. Says Lauder, "If you ask me what I thought of the Whitney's program from Feb. 1 to about Sept. 1, which is when the three shows [the Biennial, "Rape" and "Abject Art"] were up, I would have to say that taking that kind of snapshot is not my bag. But if you asked me what I thought of David Ross's program [which includes upcoming mainstream retrospectives of painter Joseph Stella and photographer Richard Avedon], looking forward from where I sit on this wonderful fall day in New York, I'd have to tell you that Hilton Kramer is simply all wrong."

Contrary to persistent rumors of a year ago that Ross wanted to leave to become head of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland (and that the Whitney would happily help him pack his bags), almost everybody conversant with the situation now expects Ross at least to finish out his five-year contract, which expires in 1996. Critic Michael Brenson thinks Ross deserves support: "The Whitney is the only major New York museum where you feel something can really happen. The way Ross has opened it up since Armstrong left is really necessary." Ross can't imagine the Whitney ever wanting to be uptight.