Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans is one of the most recognizable paintings that represents a quintessential image of Pop Art. But not all of it was a glorification of popular culture. Sinister Pop, at the Whitney, takes a look at Pop Art from the movement’s inception in the early 1960s through the ’70s and focuses on Pop’s “darker side, as it distorts and critiques the American dream.” The show includes “figures long associated with Pop Art alongside those who were not,” Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator said, and also “attempts to bring a more textured and complex reading to a period that was pivotal in the U.S. and internationally.” Some of the artists in this exhibition are Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, Ed Ruscha, Warhol, William Eggleston, Peter Saul, Christina Ramberg, and Vija Celmins, among others.

Mondays-Sundays, 10 a.m. Starts: Feb. 21. Continues through March 31, 2012


Playing It Straight

“Full House” is the Whitney Museum’s smartly speculative, occasionally revelatory, but ultimately predictable attempt to pry itself open and represent the story of American art. The highs in this building-filling experiment are tantalizing enough to make you wish the institution had been more willing to lay its cards on the table, raise the stakes, and really go for it. “Full House” actually has a much stronger, more interesting hand of art and artists than it chooses to play. Rather than trying to break the game open by venturing beyond the orthodoxy, “Full House” hedges its bet and plays it straight, sticking too close to the conventional story of American art history.

That said, there is one marvelous wild card in play. Because of the maverick feel that Donna De Salvo, chief curator and associate director for programs, has for space and for juxtaposing works of art, attentive viewers will get a fresh, even electric understanding not only of some of the art in the Whitney’s collection but even the Whitney itself. As she (and co-curator Linda Norden) did so spectacularly in the innovative, open cone-shaped installation they devised for last season’s Edward Ruscha show, De Salvo and a team of capable curators have opened up, unbridled, and unfurled Marcel Breuer’s 1966 building, allowing you to grasp that space handled sensitively means deeper perception.

“Full House” proceeds in floor-by-floor themes like popular culture and appropriation, the transcendent and the spiritual, and materiality and conceptualism. Edward Hopper, often called “the Whitney’s Picasso,” gets the fifth floor to himself. “Full House” is an attempt to split the difference between the Tate Modern’s overly literal thematic installation and MOMA’s almost lockstep march through modernism. De Salvo, previously a curator at the Tate Modern, deftly avoids the Tate’s oversimplified installation. Despite her efforts, “Full House” is still mostly art history by the book, the Whitney now looks almost as conservative and canonical as the Modern. This is too bad because the game was wide open.

Nevertheless, several juxtapositions sizzle. My favorite is the kinky combo of the hard oversize bed of Claes Oldenburg across from the vulval void of Lee Bontecou, which is next to Barry Le Va’s s/m installation of shattered glass and strewn felt. There’s also the corner with Mary Kelly’s pregnant belly as a Sol LeWitt–like grid with implications of the birth canal delivered via Nauman’s nearby narrow-corridor video; and the abject-meets-the-Apollonian alcove of Louise Bourgeois, Sue Williams, Carroll Dunham, and Paul McCarthy. Yet, despite these inspired groupings, the Whitney blinked.

The 130 Hoppers on the fifth floor are proof. The overrating of Hopper’s greatness is confirmed here. Except for one riveting room of alternately sun-drenched and overcast scenes of the Seine that positively radiate light and solidity—and establish that except for several iconic later works Hopper was far stronger early on—the show is prosaic. The famous brooding scenes of people alone with one another or by themselves, and the depictions of solitary city streets and parks, are emotionally wooden, ultimately formulaic ersatz existentialism for an almost exclusively American audience.

Whitney ticket buyers expect the museum to exhibit its most known and loved works. But “most known and loved” doesn’t mean best. “Full House” was a chance to place some long-shot bets and reshuffle the cards. Then again, perhaps De Salvo and co. slyly overstacked the deck in order to prove once and for all that Hopper is not the “Whitney’s Picasso”; he is the people’s Picasso.

The Whitney’s—and maybe America’s—real pre-war Picasso is a less crowd-pleasing, more difficult, visually jarring, intellectually edgy artist: Stuart Davis. Davis the modern; Hopper the anti-modern. If not Davis, even a few Alex Katzs would have established that American solitude has a bleached-out cinematic side. Charles Burchfield would have shown this solitude turn visionary. Diane Arbus, Maya Deren, Henry Darger, Peter Saul, H.C. Westermann, Rube Goldberg, Ivan Albright, Ed Paschke, William Copley, Louis Eilshemius, or Jim Nutt—none of whom are included—would have shown the schizophrenia and pleasure in this separateness. A Whistler would show it in a dandy light; a Homer would indicate some of its origins; Frank Lloyd Wright’s anti-modern modernism could have demonstrated what happens when solitariness becomes individualism.

But perhaps the greatest ommission, the Artist Most Missing in “Full House” is the most intense, mystically physical, magically structured painter America ever produced, a man who looked like a seagull and who was so high-strung that he never lived in one place for more than a few years, the inimitably strange and great Marsden Hartley.

Still and all, “Full House’s” brilliant installation reveals something about Hopper that I had never gotten before: Not only is he a wellspring for artists like Robert Bechtle and flatfooted 1970s photorealism, he is a founding father of American photography. On the captivating mezzanine you’ll see that Philip-Lorca diCorcia, William Eggleston, Merry Alpern, Laurie Simmons, and Larry Sultan, among others, flow directly from Hopper’s introspection, skepticism, yearning, and ambivalence. “Full House” extends this melancholy line to Nan Goldin’s masterpiece The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. Revelations like these make you wish that “Full House” would have really upped the ante and gone for broke.

Ready or Not

It’s ba-a-ack. The week after Labor Day means the New York art world is flipping from its summer sleep mode into what many dealers hope will be another season of full-tilt feeding frenzy. Chelsea, the neighborhood of more than 300 slick, wanton, wonderful, or whatever galleries—the boomtown or Babylon everyone loves to hate but goes to anyway—is being jazzed up as well. That strip of Niketown-like galleries on West 24th Street—where behemoth gallery-palaces account for more square footage of exhibition space than probably exists in the Copenhagen, Lisbon, and Oslo art worlds combined—has a new look. Marianne Boesky has built herself a snazzy building next to Barbara Gladstone, and down the block Andrea Rosen and Luhring Augustine are reopening in totally redone digs. The sight of dual cement trucks inside these two spaces this summer while girders were hoisted atop Boesky’s building was only further proof, if any were necessary, that money is plentiful and ambition is in overdrive in Gomorrah-on-the-Hudson.

Meanwhile, mega-players like David Zwirner and Larry Gagosian, who rent and own galleries in the district, haven’t been idle. The former just opened not one but two new spaces on either side of his already large 19th Street gallery; the latter is not only building a large structure on land he leases on 21st Street, he’s becoming an ecosphere unto himself—an empire that operates in more cities than the Guggenheim and that emits a honey-money scent enterprising artists apparently can’t resist. At the rate he’s growing, it sometimes seems like Gagosian might be the only gallery of contemporary art anywhere in ten years.

Elsewhere in the food chain, Michele Maccarone is moving from Chinatown to a new ground floor space a few doors north of Gavin Brown in the West Village, and Reena Spaulings is relocating from its storefront on the Lower East Side to a larger space nearby. Whatever you think of an art world that operates on appetite, acumen, and ruthlessness as much as vision, whimsy, and good timing—to say nothing of money, clout, vanity, and insanity—it’s here, it’s queer, get used to it.


The Art of Effacement

When artist Ray Johnson walked off a Sag Harbor bridge in 1995, and began backstroking through the frigid waters of Sag Harbor Cove, there was little reason to suspect that death would bring the recognition that had proved so elusive in his lifetime. Johnson was found floating 50 feet offshore with $1700 in his wallet, an apparent suicide. The man who had always feared water and obscurity achieved instant fame through death by drowning. Thousands suddenly encountered this anonymous figure whom art world cognoscenti knew well as a perennial enigma and gadfly.

Now, nearly four years to the day after Johnson’s death, the Whitney Museum of American Art is opening a full-scale career survey, the first in over two decades. Beginning with his early Pop works and moving on to his lapidary later collages (dubbed “moticos”) and his Dadaist silhouettes, the show also includes snippets from the far-flung archives of his best-known project, the New York Correspondance [sic] School.

As a cultivator of symbols and of his own mythology, Johnson would surely have been amused by attempts to read clues into the numerical trivia of his last day. He was 67 (6 + 7) when he died on January 13; his final lodgings were room 247 (2 + 4 + 7) of the Baron’s Cove Inn. One of Johnson’s favorite movies, as the late critic David Bourdon once pointed out, was Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning, in which a tramp jumps off the Pont des Arts in Paris with every intention of killing himself, only to be rescued by a kindly bookseller. Boudu repays the favor by wreaking havoc in the bookseller’s life.

Havoc was a constant in Johnson’s life, but not the farcical Jean Renoir sort, in which lovable hobos sleep with other people’s wives and maids. Johnson’s domestic life was prosaic to the point of tedium. He lived modestly in a frame house in Locust Valley, Long Island. His sorties into the official art world were rare. But, from inside his house, Johnson generated his own brand of aesthetic havoc, a seductive lifelong guerrilla campaign of messages, mailings, and collages sent in flurries to hundreds of people throughout the world. Small in apparent scale, Johnson’s work had ambitions that in many ways prefigure the random-seeming but densely organized, network-based art of the Internet. His New York Correspondance School art mailings appeared unprompted, from out of nowhere (well, Long Island). They employed found images and mechanical techniques. Chance, to Johnson, as to the Dadaists, was a system. His correspondences were e-mail (and sometimes spam) with a stamp.

“You were always a mysterious personage, resolutely withholding information on what made you tick,” Bourdon wrote after the suicide. As Donna De Salvo, the Wexner Center for the Arts curator who organized the current Johnson show, adds, “He subverts the curatorial process at every turn. He’s in control.”

De Salvo notes the difficulties of even compiling a thorough survey (“I’m deliberately not saying retrospective”) of work by a man who critiqued celebrity even as he courted it. And Johnson sought his own fame in the oddest possible way, through effacement. As formally beautiful as his collages are, their real interest lies in the way the surfaces are worried, erased, abraded. He was, in a sense, the anti-affichiste. “Ray just adamantly refused to show,” explains Frances Beatty, vice-president of Richard L. Feigen & Co., Johnson’s putative dealer during his lifetime and currently the representatives of his estate. “I tried for 17 years. When I finally got him to agree to a show, he said, ‘You know what we’ll have in the gallery?’ I asked, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Nothing.’ ”

What De Salvo aimed for was to “get past” the suicide and “open up the question of the work because so few people have actually seen it. He didn’t let people see it. There’s a tremendous amount of work people never had an opportunity to know.” There are, for instance, the early Pop collages, created after the artist first came to New York in 1948, as a recent alumnus of the fabled Black Mountain College. There are chopped-apart paintings, reformed as collages, or moticos (the word is an anagram for osmotic). There are documentary reminders of his participation in early Happenings. There are his silhouette portraits of the celebrated (one, labeled with Jackson Pollock’s name, slyly depicts Gertrude Stein instead). And there are the mailings, of course.

Johnson, claims De Salvo, would have resisted any attempt to assemble a biography. “I’m the first to say it. He’s a difficult figure to place.” That Johnson has never been properly established in the context of postwar art is not merely “too bad,” as De Salvo remarks, it’s distorting. “So many contemporary ideas about history, mythology, celebrity, the mutability of meaning are all there. From the beginning, he was working toward an art form that remained in flux.”

Some of the earliest uses of Pop imagery were Johnson’s. A New Directions book jacket he designed (Andy Warhol got him the job) used a photograph blown up, Lichtenstein fashion, so large that the image was reduced to its component benday dots. The cartoony figurations of the marks he made were no less the evidence of a personal lexicon, as De Salvo suggests, than Cy Twombly’s more celebrated scrawls. Certainly Johnson was quick to see the uses of text. “He reflects the systems of pop culture so beautifully,” explains De Salvo. “There is loads and loads of cultural information. What does it amount to in the end? It amounts to beautiful abstraction.”

One of Johnson’s recurrent phrases, “Failure/Failure,” seemed to characterize him. When Frances Beatty mounted a 1995 memorial show of Johnson collages at Feigen, “people were coming in and out of here like it was Grand Central Station.” The crowds were drawn by the rave reviews Johnson’s work never received in his lifetime. “Jasper Johns came in and spent an hour and 15 minutes,” Beatty explains. “I clocked him. On the way out, he ran into [former Whitney director] David Ross and he said, ‘This is something you’ve got to see. You have got to give him a show.’ I mean, double, triple irony.”

As De Salvo explains, “I knew going in that, no matter what I did, to some extent, I would be operating at a level of failure.” For starters, “to put Johnson’s work in a vitrine is to stop it being in flux.” This most secretive of artists once revealed to critic Henry Martin his ambition to make a form of art that remained continually in transition, “like news in the paper or images on a movie screen.” What the Whitney show seems to ask is whether it was “transition” he was concerned with or the shrewdest of deconstructions. At his Pink House (it was white) on a Locust Valley side street, Johnson conducted his artistic life as chastely and intently as some suburban Penelope, staving off suitors and unraveling as he wove.