If the American century of art had a godmother, it was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an heiress and an artist in her own right. Her rebellious spirit was inspired by the social consciousness and the progressive views of the realist painters she collected.
But Mrs. Whitney found a way to put American art into a world class museum: she simply founded her own and put her name on it.
Maxwell Anderson is the director of The Whitney Museum. "The Whitney is the only museum in this country that's really devoted to asking the question, 'how can American art from 1900 to the present be best explored through works of art and through an understanding of American culture'?" says Anderson.
"The first period in the exhibition is 1900 to 1919, and it represents America in an age of confidence," says curator Barbara Haskell. "It's characterized for the most part by an embrace of urbanization, progress, industry, technology, a new America that's in the making that's reflected in painting, photography, film, by artists who are reflecting this vitality and energy of a new, youthful country."
Perhaps the best-known face of his time was an artist who conventionally wouldn't have been considered an artist at all. Matthew Yokobosky is the film and video curator for the exhibition, which includes Charles Chaplin in The Immigrant. "He's great because he really understood the language of trying to tell a story without words," Yokobosky says. "And hat's why he was so successful in early filmmaking that had no sound. What we're showing is that low art that was at the beginning part of the century today is considered high art."
More than 200 examples of the filmmakers' art are on display at the Whitney, and sometimes just a few seconds of a single film is all it takes to introduce a whole decade.
The '20s were a time of great prosperity, and to the artist everything was grist for the mill, from the mills themselves right down to the advertising for the products they produced.
When bust followed boom in the 1930s, American artists showed that too. "Artists in every discipline began to call attention to ills in order to promote change," Haskell says. "And the period is full of paintings, photographs, novels, that draw attention to a particular situation that was in need of drastic improvement."
The art and culture of the 1930s by and large portrayed domestic themes: economic distress, the devastation of the Dust Bowl, and the great migration of African-Americans from the South to the North.
Photography brought home the realities of war while artists such as Norman Rockwell showcased the struggle's ideals.
And though the end of war brought jubilation, it also brought new problems. "Postwar America is really defined by several things," says Haskell. "By on the one hand prosperity and a relief from the anxieties of the war and the Depression, and on the other hand by an anxiety that is a product of the bomb. Abstraction became the dominant art style in American artistsÂ…figures like Jackson Pollack, William de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Franz Klein. These are figures that really defined a new kind of American vision."
The exhibition remains on view unil Aug. 22. The second half of the century opens in late September. For those who can't make it to New York, the Whitney exhibition can come to you on an innovative Web site.
Andrew Grove is chairman of Intel, the exhibition's corporate sponsor. "We can give a little bit of a feeling for what must have gone through the heads of the artists. And we can bring it into your home at your leisure," says Grove. "You don't have to elbow people around or fight crowds. You can do it at your time."
Perhaps it is fitting that at an exhibition in which so much of the art embodies images of changing technology, the changing technology now embodies images of the art.
Whether one visits the exhibition by computer or in person, for curator Barbara Haskell, the art is the only thing. "I think one of the things the exhibition does is to describe the vitality and the beauty of American art," says Haskell. "And I think no viewer can come to this exhibition without being convinced about the quality of American art."