After my mother died, my siblings and I took on the job of clearing out her house. Among the items I brought home with me was a pile of old museum catalogues. Many of them were for one-person exhibitions, but there was also a sizable group that sought to memorialize en masse the then-most-notable art of the day. The oldest of these catalogues was for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s first biennial in 1932, but quite a few American museums tried their hand at identifying trends and champions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art took a whack at it in its 1950 “American Painting Today” exhibition, employing twenty-six jurors from five regions in the country, who selected 761 paintings by several hundred artists—some you have heard of, most you haven’t. When we now think about American art in 1950, we are most likely to recall the names Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, and others pursuing what already was being called “Abstract Expressionism,” but you won’t find any of those artists in this exhibition catalogue. Will Barnet made the cut, as did Andrew Wyeth.

My mother didn’t save reviews, but what is typically said about these sorts of exhibitions has remained remarkably consistent through the years. Some reviewer takes umbrage at something. The best people are left out; the same people get all the attention. Surveys of the contemporary art field have always offered critics the opportunity to exercise their indignation. Nevertheless, these trade association shows are lightning rods for everything good and bad that takes place in the art world—among artists and museums and in the commercial market—and can thus tell us much about how that world has changed over the years.

The earlier exhibitions at these institutions reflected a large measure of curatorial control and attempted to make a “statement” about art. Lloyd Goodrich was the curator at the Whitney from 1935 to 1968. Alfred H. Barr, Jr., held top curatorial positions at the Museum of Modern Art from 1929 to 1967. Both had clear ideas about what was the major art of their time, and their exhibitions were monuments to their vision.

These early surveys, which took place when contemporary American art had little to no gallery representation (in New York City or elsewhere), were efforts to bring the art of the present day to a public that was largely unaware of it. The “statements” of these exhibitions—indicated by choices that emphasized American scene painting or abstraction or something else—were attempts to educate, through strength of numbers, the public about what most of the important artists of the day were doing. The curators perceived that as one of the modern art museum’s duties. The statements also reflect the historical positivism of an earlier age: art is this way, these shows seem to say, because of a clear line of development, from this movement to that, propelling it in a certain direction.

In the catalogue foreword to the moma’s 1952 “15 Americans” exhibition, Dorothy Miller, who curated the sporadic series of exhibitions of emerging artists that were held at the museum between 1942 and 1963, united the disparate artists in terms of a continuum of less to more abstraction:

In the work of certain artists in “15 Americans”—Dickinson, Rose, Katzman—experience and its expression are related to the world the artist sees about him. Others—Baziotes, Kiesler, Ferber, and Pollock, in some of his latest pictures—even when dealing primarily with abstract forms, evoke vivid associations with the objective world. The work of Glasco and of Kriedsberg seem to fall between these two groups. Rothko, Still, much of Pollock, Tomlin, Corbett, Lippold, and Wilfred fall within the category usually called abstract, which, as many competent observers have remarked, is the dominant trend in mid-century American painting.

Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney at the time of its first biennial, wrote in that show’s catalogue that “To make this exhibition representative of the various trends in painting throughout the country, one hundred fifty-seven artists have been invited to contribute canvases of their own selection.” Dorothy Miller emphasized fewer artists and more works by each. “The number of artists in the exhibition has been kept small in order that each might be represented by a group of works sufficient to give an indication of style and personality,” she wrote in the catalogue for that first show.

Installation view of the 1952 MoMA exhibition “15 Americans.” Photo: Soichi Sunami.

Goodrich, Barr, and Miller knew artists, talking with them and picking up ideas and information that they could then share with the public through their curatorial efforts. Miller’s husband, Holger Cahill, ran the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, through which he came into contact with numerous painters and sculptors. That source of knowledge informed many of the selections made by his wife.

moma reinforced its outreach to new, contemporary artists with its weekly program that allowed artists to come by the museum with their work—an activity now only associated with commercial art galleries. Elodie Courter, who ran moma’s Department of Circulating Exhibitions from 1936 to 1947, recalled that the painter Morris Graves was discovered this way. “There was a staff of artists handling the artists who would drop off their work,” she said. “When Morris Graves brought in his painting, everyone was just bowled over, and Dorothy was called down to take a look.”

All this interest and outreach did not necessarily make for fully representative exhibitions, however. moma’s exhibitions were regularly picketed by artists who objected, for instance, to shows of abstract art that excluded American artists’ work. For quite a long time, both Barr and Goodrich believed that American art was not at the level of European art and that American art should concern itself more with representation and facts and less with abstraction, leaving that field to the Europeans. The earliest exhibitions at both moma and the Whitney featured American Scene painting and other forms of realism in their shows of domestic art, paying scant attention to the work of America’s abstractionists. Further, moma was laden with trustees who generally discounted abstraction. Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was president of moma for most of the 1940s, was an avid devotee of Latin American art, which was largely social realist in style. Alfred Barr was forced to resign in 1943 by then-chairman Stephen Clark, whose own taste was for Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. (Clark himself resigned from moma’s acquisitions committee in the early 1950s over the purchase of a Jackson Pollock.)

These early exhibitions were not created for the ages but, rather, as an identification of what the curators felt was most important at that specific moment. “The Modern was always careful to state that this was just our view of who we happen to think was worthy of attention,” Miller said. “We knew we were making choices that not everyone at the time agreed with and which, in looking back, we might ourselves find fault with.”

These early exhibitions were not created for the ages but, rather, as an identification of what the curators felt was most important at that specific moment.

No reason to find fault. Without a real market for contemporary American art to counterbalance the tastes of curators and trustees, certain artists and styles of art were omitted from these early exhibitions. The catalogue for that 1932 Whitney Biennial informs readers that “most of the paintings in this exhibition are for sale. For prices and information, visitors are requested to apply to a sales agent at the desk in the entrance gallery.” Imagine the Whitney acting as a conduit for sales now!

Change in this regard arrived in the post-war years as the market for contemporary art grew. Decisions made by curators began to be aided and informed by commercial dealers, such as Charles Egan (Philip Guston, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning), Samuel Kootz (William Baziotes, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell), and Betty Parsons (Barnett Newman, Pollock, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still). It was through her upper-class family connections that Parsons knew many of the trustees and patrons of moma and was able to convince Alfred Barr to give the abstract expressionists a look. The museum began to purchase works by these artists and, in its 1952 “15 Americans” show, displayed works by Baziotes, Herbert Ferber, Pollock, Rothko, Still, and Bradley Walker Tomlin. But there were still no works by de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Kline, Newman, or Jack Tworkov, and some holdover types were included. These latter, more figurative artists don’t match up in interest or quality to the abstract expressionists and suggest by their inclusion that there still was only a grudging acceptance of the “new” American art.

Installation view of two Jackson Pollock paintings in the 1952 exhibition “15 Americans” at MoMA. Photo: Soichi Sunami.

Through the 1950s, a pattern can be detected wherein moma and the Whitney tended to include, and overlook, many of the same sets of artists. The museums tended to be a step behind in picking up new innovators but would catch up in the next go-round—kind of like the Academy Awards. Dealers, who had proven helpful in convincing the museums that new and different artwork was valid, began to exert more control over these exhibitions, especially at the Whitney, which has publicly thanked dealers in its exhibition catalogue acknowledgments for their help.

After 1963, the Museum of Modern Art dropped out of the contemporary art survey business. Barr resigned in 1967, and the resources to stage these productions were shifted by his successor, William Rubin, to large-scale historical exhibitions. John Hightower, who tried during his twenty months as director of the Museum of Modern Art (1970–72) to orient the museum to some of the interests of the contemporary art world, was fired. The Whitney was soon left, at least in New York City, to continue this tradition on its own.

Annual and biennial surveys of contemporary art from the past two generations have had a raison d’être that is quite different from the mid-century standards set by the likes of Barr, Goodrich, and Miller. With a flourishing art market and a growing audience that is knowledgeable about many of the major and even minor names, these newer exhibitions have aimed, not to teach the public about what’s new, but to freeze a moment in time when various artists are already publicly known. Detecting currents has been replaced by documenting them. Before, exhibitions tended to shock museum visitors who often wondered why this stuff (non-figurative art, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, and Minimalism, for instance) is even thought of as art. Now, survey biennials don’t surprise anyone, because we’ve been seeing this stuff and these names touted for decades.

And instead of targeting single trends, the newer shows have institutionalized pluralism, the big smorgasbord from which everyone picks and chooses for himself. Curators freely pursue their own interests and tastes, aware that whoever curates the next edition (and every show gets a new curator or two—no more Dorothy Millers to dominate the conversation) also will promote their own preferences. The sense of a discernible line of historical development, and with it curatorial control, has evaporated. There is no center to the art world, which is probably all for the good, and if your goal is to learn something, it is probably wiser to just focus on the permanent collection.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 54
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