“American Legends: From Calder to O’Keeffe,” a yearlong, changing exhibition, helps restore my faith in the fashion-conscious Whitney Museum of American Art.
This is a big deal, especially when you consider the Whitney’s recent efforts to pass off Wade Guyton’s overhyped technological accidents as furthering the tradition of painting.
Though generally safe and far from perfect, “American Legends” is a smorgasbord of works by 15 artists, culled from the Whitney’s permanent collection. Amounting to a series of mini-retrospectives, it should appeal to just about everyone.
Upbeat, bright and breezy, “American Legends” begins just off the elevators with a career-spanning range of pictures by Stuart Davis.
His landscapes, still lifes and Pop-colored, abstract jumbles of letters and shapes are an excellent introduction to this show’s variety.
Seen in the distance is Elie Nadelman’s masterpiece “Tango,” a carved and painted, cherry-wood sculpture portraying a pair of dancers as graceful adversaries.
Nadelman was among the first artists to blend lowbrow and highbrow. He conflated everything from Hellenistic sculpture to American folk art, an otherwise untapped genre he brought to our attention.
Here is a full range of Nadelman’s work, including wood, marble, ceramic and bronze goddesses, animals, women and circus performers. Some, in paper-mache and the mysterious substance galvano-plastique, are as whisper-soft as Seurat drawings.
There is also a large, bittersweet grouping of Nadelman’s white plaster, doll-sized female figurines. Crude, childlike, sexy and coy, these late, rough-hewn sculptures are as enigmatic as they are beautiful.
Nadelman shares space at the Whitney with the tawdry and homoerotic pictures of Paul Cadmus. Better juxtapositions would have been with the show’s other classicists, Joseph Cornell and Alexander Calder.
Cornell’s magical boxes close the exhibition and, midway through, a selection of Calder’s inventive wire portraits, mobiles, stabiles, drawings, jewelry and “Circus” props and characters comprises one of the most enthralling areas of the show.
Ranging from Edward Hopper’s melancholia to the sensuous work of Georgia O’Keeffe, the exhibition offers an extraordinarily wide view of 20th-century American art before Abstract Expressionism.
And with half of its artists shown originally in the 1913 “Armory Show,” the show will complement many upcoming 2013 events devoted to the centennial.
Other hallmarks in “American Legends” are Joseph Stella’s nighttime “Luna Park” -- an ecstatic celebration of electricity -- and “The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme.” This dark, silvery portrait of a New York City landmark is as iconic as Hart Crane’s poem.
Renzo Piano’s new building is slated to open in 2015 with two floors dedicated to the permanent collection. The Whitney’s galleries will increase by 60 percent and space will triple over all.
Of course, extra room is no guarantee of success (look at what happened to MoMA), but I am hopeful that, with additional curatorial room to stretch out, the Whitney will mount more scrappy, revelatory in-house exhibitions like this one.
“American Legends: From Calder to O’Keeffe” runs through Dec. 2013 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212-570-3600; http://whitney.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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