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Still an island apart

Times Staff Writer

PERHAPS the most stinging rebuke to the big fall show at New York’s Whitney Museum came from a hometown magazine. The New Yorker review was devastating -- although more for what it didn’t say about “Picasso and American Art” than for what it did.

The show is billed as a landmark in the museum’s 75-year history and is among its most expensive offerings. The New Yorker dispatched the costly extravaganza in just 181 words.

Ouch. Sticks and stones can break your bones, but indifference is fatal.

Fittingly, apathy is pretty much what the show deserves. Why? Call it an eye for an eye. The myopia is breathtaking. We might be living in a new millennium, but this exhibition still thinks the only 20th century American artists of note are New Yorkers.

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This boring, repetitious lack of discernment might also help explain a rising tide of inchoate critical restlessness with Manhattan’s art museum culture. “New York’s big museums are in trouble,” Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz lamented in print the other day.

The show looks at the Spanish genius’ impact on nine artists, while an additional 14 are glimpsed in passing. Virtually all these Americans toiled primarily in the 212 area code (or what passed for 212 before 1947). “Picasso and American Art” would be more accurately titled “Picasso and New York Art.”

We’re not talking ancient history, either. The checklist’s earliest painting dates from 1910, the latest from 2003. The American Century, this lazy show presumes, belongs to New York artists.

And it hardly matters to the Whitney whether the artist who stepped into the studio ring to wrestle with Picasso’s achievement is a giant like Jackson Pollock or David Smith, or a second-stringer (or worse) like John Graham or Max Weber. Heck, the artist can be virtually forgotten, like Jan Matulka. Studio space in New York is criterion enough.

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For this I should put my toothpaste and hair gel in a plastic bag and stand in line at the airport?

Let me be clear: I have not seen “Picasso and American Art,” whose 400-page doorstop of a catalog describes the lavish event as an effort to examine “the fundamental role Picasso played in the development of Modern American art.” I have no plans to, either.

Sure, I’d take a look if I were to cross paths with it on tour (San Francisco in the spring and Minneapolis next summer). Picasso’s influence is hardly news, but no one who loves paintings passes up a convenient chance to see a bunch of good ones in a single show.

Overall, the critical reaction has been mixed. Yawning, the New York Times said the show is dull. Annoyed, the Village Voice dismissed it as a third-rate mishmash. Popping a vein, the New York Sun declared it infuriating.

The New Yorker’s frugally allotted words featured three summary adjectives: pathetic, exciting and pointless.

New York magazine split the difference. The sharp limitations of demonstrating artistic influence were acknowledged, since art is inevitably more than the sum of such describable parts. But it also tagged as brilliant several juxtapositions among Picasso’s paintings and those by Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky and Roy Lichtenstein.

I’m sure they are. But it isn’t just the Whitney that can’t tell the difference between New York and America. Apparently the local critical establishment can’t either.

Every one of the aforementioned reviews plays Whitney sock puppet, repeating the museum’s wheezing conflation of New York and America as if it were the most reasonable -- indeed natural -- thing to do. Even the Washington Post pays suburban deference, ignoring that profound 20th century American art born of inspired confrontation with Picasso’s Cubist juggernaut wasn’t all made within a several-mile radius of Rockefeller Center.

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My decision to forgo a journey across the country came long before the reviews were out. I decided to pass because the show takes its place in a long, tired line of provincial art-chatter. Especially in our global age, the East Coast habit of confusing a national agenda with Manhattan’s local brand is as quaint as hoop skirts and hi-fi.

Exhaustive oversights

THE list of obvious omissions is long. Pick your American candidate. For California, I’ll stick with John McLaughlin (1898-1976) and David Park (1911-1960).

Both painters burned through Picasso’s Cubism like a Santa Ana-fueled brush fire. McLaughlin was on his way to the metaphysical geometry of Mondrian and Malevich, which meshed with his fluency in classical Japanese art. Park was looking for ways to restore an edge to figure painting. Their Picasso encounters were crucial.

McLaughlin opened the door to Robert Irwin and the unprecedented legacy of Light and Space art, and Park paved the way for Richard Diebenkorn. Alas, unlike Matulka, none paid rent in New York.

Lately, Manhattan institutions have taken a drubbing for flubbing contemporary art. The Museum of Modern Art’s cavernous new second-floor gallery is a constant muddle. The Guggenheim is stuck on overheated spectacles. The Metropolitan thinks Santiago Calatrava, a brilliant engineer, is an artist who rivals Brancusi, rather than a talent-free sculptor. The Whitney -- well, contemporary art’s former flagship has seen better days.

Of course, curatorial careerists in San Francisco and Minneapolis are enabling this nuttiness, by signing up for touring shows to curry favor. But maybe the myopic conflation of New York with America is part of that citywide museum problem. Living in a clanging echo chamber can make you buggy.

The town’s fabled provincialism used to be funny -- a spur to memorable visual wit like Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World From 9th Avenue,” which famously collapsed the American continent into a Central Park-like rectangle that could fit inside one square Gotham block. But that picture dates to 1976. Steinberg died seven years ago. Funny then is just embarrassing now.

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Since Steinberg painted his urbane view, art’s biggest story has been internationalization. Europe, led by Germany, returned to booming prominence in the 1980s, just as L.A. was arriving as a new art powerhouse. Things have only accelerated since. Globalism, they call it.

Apparently, the Whitney didn’t get the memo. “Picasso and American Art” pretends the last quarter-century didn’t happen. It’s “That ‘70s Show” for snobs.

christopher.knight@latimes.com


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