As New York's Whitney Museum of American Art prepares its last exhibition of this century, Guy Trebay reflects on the pictures of the place we call home, of the wide-open spaces and machine-age cities we travel to see.
Are you headed somewhere?Is there a glass-bottomed boat in your immediate future?Will you be using plastic puka shells to buy Technicolor cocktails at a poolside bar, indulging a fantasy of being Baroness Blixen on a lion safari, cruising in luxury along Norwegian fjords?Do you have plans to feed the pigeons in St. Mark's Square, or to work on a tan while eco-trekking in Costa Rica?No?
Then how about a trip to America?Consider the images on these images and objects is meant to invoke a whole. Each acts as a threshold to what you'd have to call an imaginative journey, a trip into America.
It's a conjurer's trick. We all know there is a real place called America. But there's also another, almost phantasmal country that exists most powerfully as an idea. Headed for America?Which one?You choose.
Is it the America of John Ford's classic western, The Searchers, set in the illimitable red expanse of Monument Valley--a landscape that is, in fact, a separate nation under Navajo sovereignty?Is it the Jazz Age America of Harlem jitterbugs apotheosized by James VanDerZee at their moment of raccoon-coated glamour?Is it the America of Elsie Driggs's monumentalized Pittsburgh steelworks, or Edward Hopper's elegiac chop suey house, or Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a work made from granite riprap unwinding in a question mark into Utah's Great Salt Lake?
"THE AMERICAN CENTURY," which opens at the whitney Museum on April 23, is organized along Solomonic lines. Faced with a staggering volume of "painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, and design," together with "related materials in music, dance, literature, and film," the curators cleaved the past century in two. On the way, they redrew the formal boundaries of the culture so that the genteel America of Charles Dana Gibson now meets the rude boys of Dada; the "immigrant experience" morphs into the social reform of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange; the WPA heralds the art of social protest, which somehow begets the 1939 World's Fair; small-town America sits cheek by jowl with the ironies of Pop; consumer culture is seen in formation and then in some of its odder permutations-the image, say, of Josephine Baker clad in nothing but a string of pearls.
Any show of this scope is bound to have bloopers, and using George Gershwin music to illustrate the rise of an African-American consciousness may strain credibility, not to mention tolerance. Yet what makes "The American Century" enticing in concept is its crazily ambitious pluralism. That, and the promise of access to artworks rarely seen at all, much less all at once and under one roof. For nine months, the Whitney will be transformed into an Ali Baba's cave of disparate, brilliant, ill-assorted, and, in some cases, unassimilable visions of a land and a landscape that hangs together best when you project yourself into it. It's tough getting to Robert Smithson's remote Spiral Jetty. Hardly anyone tries. But placing yourself in the position of the solitary figure in the classic image is a simple act. Try it. See what the American century looks like from there.
"THE AMERICAN CENTURY," Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave., New York; 212/570-3676; http://www.whitney.org. Part one, 1900-1950, will be on view April 23-August 22; part two, 1950-2000, September 26-January 23.