25 SEPTEMBER 1993, Page 40


American Art in the 20th Century 1913-1970 (Royal Academy, till 12 December)

False gods

Giles Auty

Those who associate the worship of false gods exclusively with the Old Testa- ment could not do better than visit the Royal Academy at present where they will find the phenomenon as alive and vigorous as ever. The occasion for such worship takes the form of a survey of American art in this century which, rather oddly, does not begin until 1913. However, like the review of German art which opened the present series of national surveys at the Royal Academy in 1985, this exhibition is largely a reflection of the idiosyncratic predilections of its organisers.

We speak here of Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary of the Royal Acade- my, and Christos Joachimides, secretary general of Zeitgeist-Gesellschaft — an inseparable double act known to the art community as Rosencrantz and Guilden- stern. Last time, the pair docked merely 12 years from the German 20th 'century' — those tiresomely inconvenient years 1933-45 — while this time they have gone one better and snipped off 13. Any period or event which proves inconvenient to their joint artistic thesis is likely to find itself removed from the records. To me, such a habit has an unpleasantly totalitarian ring.

The organisers imply that nothing of sig- nificance happened in American art before the Armory show in 1913 exposed that nation to the latest avant-garde artefacts from Europe. Like its predecessors, the current exhibition is, in fact, largely a cele- bration of avant-gardism in 20th-century art, paying a minimum of attention to con- trary strains and arguments, and ignoring the stifling impasses into which art has been led by some of the more extreme forms of radicalism. One cannot help feel- ing that the whole event is intended as a kind of Nuremberg rally for the modernist faithful wherein the glazed eye and ability to ignore inconvenient facts signify mind- less assent.

Who are the false gods? Visitors to this exhibition and the simultaneous one at the Saatchi Gallery of later American art from 1970 to 1993 may sense nothing in the works of such as Twombly, Warhol, Rosen- quist and Lichtenstein at the one and Schnabel, Holzer, Koons and Basquiat at the other to justify their inflated art-world reputations. But the falsest of false gods is the figure paid abject homage to by the organisers at the very start of the Royal Academy show: the old French dancing- master himself, Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp is presented as a forerunner in creating art without substance: the wonder- ful world of floating but often glaringly fal- lacious ideas which those with no real feeling for art's more durable traditions are keen to promote. Duchamp mocked cer- tain bourgeois traditions deservedly but there is nothing in his largely nay-saying art which begins to stand comparison with the positive achievements of masters from ear- lier ages. Duchamp merely moved the goal- posts in a way which has enabled hordes of his untalented followers to appear to 'score' — so far as fashionable success goes, at least.

As with false gods from all periods, his legacy has been disastrous. Duchamp is the self-obsessed figure to whom the self- obsessed organisers have turned for justifi- cation of a theme which lacks historical perspective or validity. Indeed, many of the major names of American abstract art shown here set themselves consciously to emulate the achievements of the great European masters of previous centuries — if in their own singular ways. However mis- guided their means, their intentions were unquestionably sincere. Mark Rothko, for one, perished because of the agony of his self-perceived failure. But the trend in the art world which the organisers clearly favour is that of the self-styled, ironic bystanders who mocked because they could not or would not compete: shallow, white- blooded voyeurs such as Warhol and Koons. Perhaps this is why the core of the Royal Academy show which deals with the historic names of American abstract expressionism — Pollock, de Kooning, Newman, Still et al — is such a muddle of inexplicable omissions. While space may be a limiting factor, much more justice would have been done by limiting contributions by some to make space for the distinctive offerings of others, as was the case in the huge survey American Art 1930-70 which I reviewed some 20 months ago from Turin.

There can be no doubt that exhibitions such as the present one are very taxing to arrange. The organisers will surely have worked off any surplus fat to present their own, peculiar view of art history but will have been thwarted often by the non- availability of key works. Yet there is a danger also with frankly idiosyncratic selec- tions such as this that they may be dealer- driven, however unconsciously. Sagging reputations can be propped up all too read- ily by 'kind' inclusions — and it is not just the market which is manipulated here but what passes for history.

What are the pluses? Unfortunately, American figurative painting from earlier 'Live Ammo — Ha Ha Ha', 1962, oil on canvas, by Roy Lichtenstein

decades shows the weakness of fine art training there, which leant heavily towards illustration. Edward Hopper is genuinely grand sometimes, as in 'From Williamsburg Bridge', but was flawed by his clumsiness. However, largely because the organisers view perceptual painting more as an out- moded footnote than anything central to the history of art in this century, they advance the cause of a grossly overrated artist such as Georgia O'Keefe with a con- fidence which is truly blind.

Historical imbalance apart, what the Royal Academy show illustrates above all, if only by omissions, is the continuing valid- ity of traditions in art. We ignore or mock these are our peril and when we do merely erect false idols in their place as objects suitable for veneration. After all the ser- monising and theorising of American crit- ics and grandiloquent claims of American curators, the uncomfortable fact grows increasingly clear that American art did not supersede that of Europe in anything except the energy of its claims. The Ameri- can public acknowledged this fact tacitly in New York last year by the great enthusiasm it showed for the art of Matisse.

However, the Royal Academy show cer- tainly does no harm to the reputations of such committed and genuinely innovative American painters as de Kooning and Rothko. At Saatchi, meanwhile, the bom- bastic Julian Schnabel, who does not hesi-

tate to compare himself with Picasso, exhibits `Circum-Navigating the Sea of Shit'. But, as my review next week will show, far from circumnavigating anything, American art of his kind fell right in — about to the level of its armpits.