For art critics, Groundhog Day now seems to come in September. Looking over this fall’s major exhibitions, we see the same big names on offer last year, and the year before that, and before that: van Gogh, Picasso, and Warhol.
No sane critic could doubt the talent of these stars, and this fall’s shows drill down into them. Becoming van Gogh, opening Oct. 21 at the Denver Art Museum, aims to track the artist’s measured steps toward his final great works. (The mad genius will be replaced by the systematic innovator.) Picasso Black and White, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York from Oct. 5, will show how that master could make brilliant pictures without resorting to color. (The contrast to Henri Matisse, his chroma-mad rival, ought to become clear.) And Regarding Warhol, again in New York but at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from Sept. 18, will match the Popster with 60 of his heirs, charting his unparalleled influence.
Timothy Standring, who is curating Denver’s van Gogh celebration, refers to his artist as “almost Shakespearean” in stature and range, and insists that Denver deserves this first chance to see him in depth. He argues that great masters provide the best fodder for serious curatorial thought: “The more important the artist, the more narratives you can tell.” Fair enough—but isn’t there also the chance that less touted figures might yield fresher stories? We aren’t choosing the wrong names, said one senior curator, “we’re choosing the right ones too many times.” There’s no doubt art lovers will come running to this season’s blockbusters and will get lots out of them. But we can’t be sure they’d get any less pleasure from forgotten masters, if they too were promoted as geniuses.
Let’s remember that some of today’s stars, such as Caravaggio and Vermeer, were barely known when they got their first museum shows toward the middle of last century. By constantly confirming our clichéd list of greats, curators risk billing all other talents as also-rans. Genuflecting to genius again and again strikes me as more Old World royalist than American and democratic.
Arthur Wheelock, of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., made a big splash in 1995 with his insanely popular Vermeer exhibition. Since then, however, he’s become famous as a rare champion of the art underdog, mounting almost annual shows of Dutch masters who need resuscitation. “[Gerard] ter Borch has elements of genius that Vermeer doesn’t have. I believe Vermeer’s reputation has gotten out of control,” Wheelock says. (I’ve had occasion to agree with him.) As a curator, he insists, “you have to recognize that there’s an evolving canon—and you have to force the museums to recognize that.” He cites the cautionary tale of a great Caravaggio that his own museum passed up, years ago, as unworthy of its walls. And he says that today’s corporate sponsors only compound the problem: “They want known names they can be identified with.”
Yet we can’t be sure our current top 10 makes more sense than the roster preferred by our ancestors, who ignored Vermeer but raved over figures like ter Borch, Guido Reni, and Adolphe Monticelli—the inspired brushman van Gogh hoped to equal.
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is one of the few major players that rarely puts big names on its schedule: its main fall show is about the underrated pop artist Richard Artschwager. But even in a museum where audience draw seems off the agenda, director Adam Weinberg admits that “we do pay attention to it—I don’t want to sound holier than thou.” He reminds me that the Whitney is careful to serve regular doses of its Edward Hopper holdings, and that a Warhol show is in planning. The danger, Weinberg says, comes when a museum’s balance is so off that “it becomes more like polling than like leading”—when a museum only ever confirms the tastes its audience already has, rather than also taking them to new places.
“It’s more evidence of the death spiral of museums,” says David Ross, former director of the Whitney and of San Francisco’s MoMA, and now head of a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Today’s institutions are forced to shout out the same “show business” names, Ross says, because of the remorseless growth of their buildings and budgets, their faltering endowments, and a demand for earned income from corporate-minded trustees. At any but the richest institutions, he says, “the pressure is absolutely real and continual.” (Although unless very carefully handled, a blockbuster’s costs in insurance and fees can eat up any profits.) Ross says that when a director calls his staff to the table and cries “Our yield is in the shitter—help me here, gang!” smart curators come up with big-name events that can also be justified on scholarly grounds.
But then Ross softens, as we all do when faced with undeniable talent. Every generation needs its chance to come to terms with our greatest art heroes, he says. “As many times as I’ve seen Picasso, I can always go see another great Picasso show.”