At some stage every major museum of twentieth-century art has had to reconcile its duty to the past with its need to be of the moment. New York's Whitney Museum of American Art has always seemed more troubled by this task than most. It was originally founded by the heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, in 1914, as a studio club with an admirably populist mandate: to promote American art and provide a gathering place for American artists, at a time when both were pretty much regarded as Europe's embarrassingly tatty country cousins--that is, when anyone bothered to look. The museum proper opened in 1931, to house Whitney's own collection of American art after the Metropolitan Museum summarily rejected it. Today the Whitney's holdings make up the world's pre-eminent collection of twentieth-century American art. The museum also remains actively caught up in New York's downtown gallery world--by now a fashion-conscious, moneyed, internationally influential scene that helps keep the museum controversial.
In the 1980s the Whitney raised critical eyebrows by leaving off regular displays of the permanent collection for large mid-career retrospectives of such art stars as Cindy Sherman and David Salle, whose work its trustees were also acquiring--arguably the art-world equivalent of insider trading. Under a new director, David Ross, in the 1990s, the museum has often seemed bedeviled by a current bugaboo--the ceaseless search for a relevant spin. Who can forget the museum's politically correct 1993 biennial, whose artists alerted gallery-goers to the evils of sexism, racism, capitalism, traditional aesthetics, and child abuse? Who wants to remember the mind-numbing wall texts and hipper-than-thou video displays that have so often attended historical work, the better to recontextualize it? The museum's latest tack has been a kind of sexy globality: parts of the permanent collection will soon travel to Prague, where Eastern bloc creative types can commune with them; and the museum's site on the World Wide Web allows anyone anywhere with a jazzy enough computer to access Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe.
Unfortunately, this relentless trend-mongering undercuts the fact that many of the Whitney's ideas are good ones--precisely the sort that the behemoth it has become must try if it is to remain anywhere near the cutting edge. Yet the museum's mission is also to talk about America to America, a task that is increasingly fraught with danger for anyone who tries it. And it's doubly tough to sound convincing about Peoria when one speaks with the forked tongue of today's academe--in other words, when one's vocabulary is restricted to artspeak.
Strangely enough, learning to communicate with Peoria--or a West Coast facsimile--is precisely what the Whitney has done. In 1992 it entered into an agreement with the San Jose Museum of Art, in California's Silicon Valley, to provide enough work--about four percent of its collection, all told--to fill four eighteen-month-long shows in exchange for about $4.4 million.
The idea of collection-sharing, as the art world calls it, on a long-term basis between two independent museums is new, and therefore controversial. Those who are against it say that collections shouldn't be farmed out at all, and certainly not for profit; those who are in favor point out that museums make short-term exchanges of art and exact touring fees all the time--and usually keep nearly all of their holdings in storage. As Stephen Weil, the deputy director of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C., has pointed out, much of the country's art is held east of the Mississippi whereas population centers are moving west, and thus collection-sharing seems like an idea whose time has come. For New Yorkers, that may not ease the pain of seeing works so closely associated with the city shipped off to what might as well be Podunk. (It must have rubbed salt in the wound when Josi Callan, the director of the San Jose museum, ballyhooed the deal as a "world-class collection" coming to a "world-class building.")
None of this had much to do with why I wanted to see the Whitney art in its temporary home, however. I grew up twenty minutes from San Jose. From the perspective of the Stanford campus, where I was raised, San Jose is an area looming at the other end of Silicon Valley--an endless cheesy vista of shopping malls, multiplexes, housing developments, and mirror-eyed convention centers. San Jose's local reputation is so glum, in fact, that for years I prided myself on never having been there. But I knew the area to be pragmatic, progressive, and creative--high tech flourished there--and I was curious to see how those characteristics might be applied to presenting American art. The experiment I found seems oddly in keeping with the Whitney's populist roots.
The first show, which opened in May of last year, was surprisingly straightforward. "A History Reconsidered," it was called: a few more than a hundred works, mostly on canvas and paper, marshaled in a survey of artistic movements from 1900 to 1940. In terms of the Whitney's collection, that meant works by artists who were striving to define a visual vernacular--a look that would cry "America" loud and clear at a time when it appeared that there was only Europe to react to. The artists included coteries like the Ashcan School, painters devoted to realism and the depiction of urban life; the Regionalists, who settled on the beau ideal of the midwestern rural scene; and the Precisionists, whose geometric aesthetic was inspired by American architecture and machinery. The show was chockablock with paintings that, however outré they may have looked in their time, are today familiar, and in some places worn, icons: Georgia O'Keeffe's The White Calico Flower, Charles Sheeler's River Rouge Plant, Edward Hopper's Railroad Sunset. Yet the viewers seemed to be regarding everything with equal attention, from lithographs to pencil sketches, holding companions back to look at things they might have missed, and commenting on wall texts to strangers. Even the guards seemed excited to have the art there. One of them planted himself in front of George Bellows's Dempsey and Firpo and held forth, at some length, about the original fight.