Seeing Aspen in ‘America is Hard to See’ at the new Whitney
On a recent visit to the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, I expected to be impressed and surprised by the 600 works in the vaunted institution’s monumental opening show. I expected to be wowed by its $422 million new home in the Meatpacking District. And I expected a touristy afternoon walk on the adjacent High Line.
What I did not expect was a re-enforced appreciation for the Aspen arts scene (as this was technically a vacation, I was actually kind of aiming to avoid the Aspen arts scene). Yet, making my way down the museum’s eight floors through its inaugural exhibition — “America is Hard to See” — I found myself whispering to my wife about the time this artist was in town at Anderson Ranch, the show that one did at the Aspen Art Museum, and sharing stories from Aspen lore about iconic artists retreating to the resort to make new work.
The show moves mostly chronologically through 20th- and 21st-century American art, from top to bottom — with digressions large and small through the fractious movements and moments of American art. In the period beginning after World War II, you start to see a lot of Aspen connections in “America is Hard to See.”
A section on abstract expressionism is titled “White Target,” for a Jasper Johns piece of the same name, which made me grateful for John G. Powers bringing Johns and his work to the Aspen Center for Contemporary Art (the “Museum Without Walls”) in the 1960s and for the Johns collection just down the road at the Powers Arts Center in Carbondale. Nearby, Frank Stella — who will speak at the Hotel Jerome in July when he receives Anderson Ranch’s National Artist Award — has a black enamel painting on canvas, “Die Fahne Hooch.” Steps away is Agnes Martin’s “This Rain, 1958,” which reminded me of the selected survey of her work at the Aspen Art Museum that just closed in March.
Walking through the section of the Whitney on pop art, there’s work by greats like Andy Warhol (who guest-edited Aspen: The Magazine in a Box in the 1960s and turned his camera lens on Aspen in the early 1980s) and Roy Lichtenstein (who once painted the interior of the Brand Building in his signature faux comic strip style) and Ed Ruscha (who showed work early on here through Powers and who, in 2008, was the recipient of the Aspen Award for Art at the Aspen Art Museum’s Art Crush).
A bracing chapter on politically charged art of the 1960s and one called “Rational Irrationalism” on minimalism includes works by avant-garde stalwarts of the day who came to Aspen to show their work back then: Claes Oldenburg, Donald Judd and Cy Twombly (whose untitled oil on crayon reminded me of his piece included currently in the Aspen Art Museum group show, “The Blue of Distance.”)
Making my way down to street level on the museum’s outdoor staircases, I was surprised by how many of today’s artists included in the Whitney’s opening show have also left their fingerprints on Aspen. Photographer Catherine Opie, who spoke last summer at Anderson Ranch and also has a series of landscape photos in “The Blue of Distance,” offers “Self-Portrait/Cutting,” an emotionally charged shot of her back with stick figures carved into it. On the same wall, Lorna Simpson, who lived and worked in Aspen during summer 2013 through an Aspen Art Museum residency, also offers a self-portrait with her back turned to the camera. David Hammons, whose joint show with Yves Klein opened the Aspen Art Museum last summer, has a sculpture made from human hair nearby. Lutz Bacher, whose sculptures and drawings were showcased at the new Aspen museum this winter, has a playful drawing of a Playboy model. And Ryan Trecartin, the young video artist who will speak at Anderson Ranch July 23, has his absurd carnival of domestic life “A Family Finds Entertainment” included.
Herbert Bayer, the artist with the biggest imprint on post-war Aspen, whose design still defines the Aspen Institute, doesn’t have anything in the opening show. The Whitney does own one of his works, an oil painting on linen from 1955 titled “Heated Calm,” in its 21,000-piece permanent collection, but it didn’t make the cut for “America is Hard to See.” Likewise, iconic Aspen photographer Ferenc Berko didn’t make it into the show, though the Whitney owns three of his pieces.
Of course, like much of the American art world, this is undoubtedly a New York-centric show. And maybe people walking through “America is Hard to See” from all over the U.S. will see glimpses of their hometowns in the works at the new Whitney. But it’s hard to imagine those from many towns with a population topping out at 7,000 will see as much of home here as an Aspenite.
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