At its beginning, this past exhibition season held out great promise for anyone interested in American art. With separate shows planned for Charles Demuth, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, and John Marin, the prospects were especially good for a serious treatment of early American modernism—a period that is only now beginning to receive the kind of scholarly attention it deserves. Yet at least two of these shows turned out to have serious, and disturbing, flaws. What is more, the horrifying spectacle of the Wyeth affair—in which prestigious American institutions lent their space, and their reputations, to showing the famous “Helga” pictures—cast an ominous shadow over everything to do with American art. One ended the season less with a sense of exhilaration than with a sense of doubt about the state of our museums and the direction they are taking.

Since there is much to criticize, we should...


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