Doing the impossible is as American as it gets. We've put a man on the moon and the Dow over the 10,000 mark. Next, we might even create an art exhibition that tells the story of the whole incredible 20th century. Everyone seems to be trying. The Museum of Modern Art in New York will roll out a standard set of great art themes--"People, Places and Things"--starting next year. The Art Institute of Chicago opens a new installation of its modern-art collection on May 7. But first out of the blocks is Manhattan's Whitney Museum, with "The American Century," part one (1900-1950). It fills the museum's strangely shaped Marcel Breuer fortress through Aug. 22.
The Whitney has a lot going for it. The first is a trove of American modernism, rich in such beloved artists as Edward Hopper (yes, "Early Sunday Morning," 1930, is in the show) and Georgia O'Keeffe. The second is new director Maxwell Anderson, 42, who appears rededicated to playing to the strength of the Whitney: its collection. (Under David Ross, the museum had a reputation for staging hip, but very P.C., shows.) "The American Century's" organizer, curator Barbara Haskell, is one of the best in the business. The Whitney has also scooped up what it calls "the largest corporate grant ever made to an art museum exhibition": $6 million-plus, from Intel. The question for the ticket buyer is whether "The American Century" repays the $12.50 admission fee.
At "The American Century," you take an elevator to the top floor and gravity-feed downward, toward 1950. First stop, "America in the Age of Confidence," the early part of the century. President Coolidge says factory workers "worship" in the temples industrialists build. Sculptor Morton Schamberg puts a couple of pieces of plumbing pipe together in 1917 and calls it "God." He's being facetious, of course, maybe even a little angry, like the great "Ashcan school" painter George Bellows in his "Men of the Docks" (1912).
Next, the fourth floor and "Jazz Age America," with what the wall text says is "America's first truly national popular culture: the flapper, nightclubs, jazz, skyscrapers and the movies." In spite of O'Keeffe's early urban landscape "New York, Night" (1928) and the underrated Guy Pene du Bois's subtly satirical painting "Mr. and Mrs. Chester Dale Dine Out" (1924), the big news here is what shook American culture free from its residual European stodginess: African-American art. Not just paintings like Archibald Motley's glowing street scenes, or incisive photographs like James van der Zee's "Couple in Raccoon Coats" (1932), but a whole raft of posters, film clips and musical samplings that give the show its oomphiest galleries. (If you can't get to the show, the Web site--www.artmuseum.net--is snazzy and the catalog is a keeper, even at $60, hardback. The text is a little schoolmarmish here and there, but the layout and succinct sidebars on, say, "Surrealism and American Publishing" mean it will spend more time alive in laps than dormant on coffee tables.)
"America in Crisis"--the 1930s, with their bread lines and dust bowls--could be a downer. But two of the best-known icons of American art--Grant Wood's "American Gothic" (1930) and Dorothea Lange's wrenching photograph of a "Migrant Mother" (1936)--make it the show's most memorable section. The final chapter, "America in the 1940s," ending with a weak nod at abstract expressionism, is an anticlimax.
But the biggest problem with part one of "The American Century" lies in its very premise: shoehorning 50 years of art into four cramped stories and having to settle for art works small enough and few enough so that they say, in effect, "Well, you get the idea," instead of "How about that!" An art exhibition is a visual, visceral thing; you feel the absences. And the show's effect is mitigated by the lack of another wonderful feature of American culture: irreverence. "The American Century" in real life was louder, messier and sassier than its portrait at the Whitney. The show's neat, tasteful installation reminds you of the reception lobby at a computer company. Should getting some more bumptiousness into the show have been such an impossible task? Not for Americans.
The American Century: Art & Culture 1900-2000--Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Through Aug. 22.