Andrew Graham-Dixon puzzles over the inclusions and exclusions from 'American Art in the 20th Century' at the Royal Academy
Jasper Johns painted Target in 1958 and hit the bull's eye. Pollock? Rothko? Newman? Forget them (at least for the time being). Modern American painting had been reinvented yet again.
The picture remains one of the purest examples of Johns' more-than-meets-the-eye manner, as well as a demonstration of his ability to balance on several knife edges at the same time. The image itself is banal, but Johns' handling of paint is fantastically intricate, a veil of oil and collage that flickers from opacity to translucency and back again. Dumbness and profundity coexist uneasily on a three-foot by three-foot canvas; null-and-void subject matter is given inexplicably Old Masterly treatment. If Cezanne had painted dartboards instead of apples the result might have looked something like this.
It is hard to say what Johns was aiming at, exactly. An assertion of the artist's divine right to make a painting out of what the hell he likes? A reminder that paintings (like targets) are always a form of visual code, their meanings a matter of social convention? Johns leaves his audience guessing. The concentric circles of the painting also look like ripples spreading outwards. Target was a large stone thrown into the waters of 20th-century American art.
Johns' painting is encountered roughly half-way through ''American Art in the 20th Century'' at the Royal Academy, and it could stand as the exhibition's emblem: a thing of uncertain meaning to be puzzled over (and shot at). Norman Rosenthal and Christos Joachimedes, who have organised the exhibition, clearly see themselves as agents provocateurs and their show amounts, by definition, to a calculated act of presumption: an exhibition of American modern art selected and hung, for Chrissakes, by European curators.
''American Art in the 20th Century'' will upset lots of people for lots of reasons but most of all it will upset people by its omissions. The organisers' apparent conviction that most pre-Second World War American 20th-century art is of little more than academic interest is reflected in the opening sequence of rooms. Here you encounter a version of the past seen, extremely partially, through the eyes of the present, American art between 1900 and 1940 carefully sifted for portents of what is to come: Charles Sheeler's Precisionist paintings of power stations seen to prophesy the fascination of a much later generation of American Minimalists with the machine-tooled form and the spray-painted finish; Stuart Davis' paintings of detergent bottles and cigarette packets or Edward Hopper's painting of the contents of a drugstore window seen to prefigure the Pop Artist's fascination for the products of American consumer capitalist society.
This tells one kind of truth about American 20th-century art but it also, inevitably, tells a number of lies. Stuart Davis is considerably more than the Neanderthal Pop Artist which the evolutionary curve plotted by the exhibition might suggest, while Hopper belongs to a completely different painting tradition altogether, an artist who invested an existing tradition of American genre painting with a new and gloomily existential weight of feeling.
The exhibition argues that what American modern artists inherited primarily from European art in the aftermath of the Cubist revolution was a form of materialist obsession with the visible facts of the modern industrial and commercial world: an intense need or desire to find meaning or beauty in mass-produced objects and shop window displays, billboards and street signs. This is given additional weight by the organisers' decision to devote the opening room of their show to the work of Marcel Duchamp (the implication being that his work, seen in the 1913 Armory Show, was the prime catalyst for American modernism), who was one of the great exemplars of what might be crudely designated the materialist-conceptualist wing of European modernism in the first half of this century: the man who decided that a urinal or a coat-rack might, if transplanted to an art gallery, be designated as a work of art.
But in order to stress one kind of continuity in American art, this show chooses to ignore or suppress others almost entirely. ''American Art in the 20th Century'' makes out that 20th-century American artists have mostly been tough rational types rather than seekers after beauty or sensuality. At the level of influence, this translates into the argument that the modern American painter has been either plain ignorant of or entirely indifferent to the giant of French modern art, Matisse, when nothing could be further from the truth. An entire tradition of Matisse-obsessed American painting, which might be said to run from John Marin's paintings of the early years of the century to the works of Helen Frankenthaler, on to the Colour Field paintings of Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski and, beyond, to the works of Richard Diebenkorn, has simply been left out of the show. This particular pattern of exclusion may, in fact, be the most consistent feature of the exhibition and it extends to the editing of the work of painters who have been included: Stuart Davis's later paintings, which pay homage so evidently to Matisse's cut-outs, are another striking omission.
This tends to store up problems for later, so when the show reaches its climax, the art of the New York School, there is precious little sense of its history or of how it came into being. The most extraordinary feature of American painting of the 1940s and 1950s is its sheer adventurousness with paint, scale, colour and space: yet by failing to establish any sense of Matisse's place in the American painter's consciousness, this show necessarily ignores the tremendous significance his painting had for artists like Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko. It was Matisse who had proved that a large expanse of colour can stun the senses, can overwhelm the viewer in ways not possible in painting on a small scale.
Although this show contains some tremendous New York School paintings (the Rothkos, in particular, are truly great pictures) the hang suggests that its organisers do not really understand these works of art. What makes Pollocks or Newmans or Rothkos so radical is the fact that they are not really paintings at all in the way that the paintings done before them are: they do not offer images but environments; they are pictures that want to envelop you in their abstract immensities, which is why they had to be painted to a scale that exceeds the human frame of vision when the spectator stands at a normal viewing distance from them. This also makes them unusually fragile paintings, that need to be seen in exactly the right circumstances. They need whole walls (or preferably whole rooms) to themselves.
At the Royal Academy, the larger pictures of the New York painters have been hung much too crowdedly, so they tend, sadly, to cancel one another out. The strangest thing about the whole hang is the fact that a small and evidently chapel-like space has been devised to house the Rothkos and Newmans which have then been hung too close to each other. This looks like the decision of men who know what these paintings are supposed to be all about (spirituality, a certain metaphysical ambition for art) but who may never truly have been moved by one.
The same ingrained reluctance to hang sparsely has also resulted in a fairly peculiar presentation of American Minimalism: an art movement dedicated to purity, to an absolute and stark asceticism that also but for different reasons demands the isolation of the art object in acres of space. The maximalist Minimalist display at the Academy manages the not inconsiderable feat of giving the impression that this was an art conceived in an almost Rococo spirit of decorative playfulness. Donald Judd looks more and more overrated as the years go by, and his vertical row of gold boxes represent anything but the Minimalist spirit. They should have just had an empty room with a pile of Carl Andre's bricks on the floor. The impact that could have been achieved by a spare selection seems to have been dissipated by the anxiety to include a lot of stuff, to get through the roll-call.
Omissions have to be made, but one of the flaws of this show is that it omits unnecessarily and includes much too indiscriminately. This is particularly apparent when it comes to the Saatchi Gallery annexe of the exhibition, whose primary theme appears to be the decline of American art since the early 1970s: whether it was necessary to make the point by including quite so much witless trivia (two Jonathan Borofskys?) is debatable. And it might have been better to be far more rigorous and confine this whole section to the few works in it of genuine interest and intelligence (Bruce Nauman, Bill Viola, Jeff Koons). The wide open spaces of the Saatchi Gallery might, in fact, have been the best place to see the New York School paintings, whose scale is better suited to the purpose-built modern art gallery than to the salon-like Academy.
The exhibition does, however, do some things very well, and it is at its best in the four galleries that follow the large space devoted to Pollock and company. Here, the curators' tendency to pit dissimilar works against one another produces not mess but a genuinely fascinating dialogue between what may be the two great conflicting impulses within the soul of modern American art: the quest for purity, for an art that works its effects by exclusion, by paring down and leaving out; and the contrary quest for inclusiveness, a crazed hunger for life, for food and sex and (you name it) all the things of this world. Ad Reinhardt's glimmering black nothings reprove Robert Rauschenberg's bawling collages and assemblages; Robert Rosenquist's powerfully strange paintings of jumbled sensual impressions (a girl, a comb, legs in black stockings) are silenced by Brice Marden's and Robert Ryman's densely worked white voids. And the young Jasper Johns - who may never, oddly enough, have been as well or as sensitively located at the heart of American painting - treads the fine line where both tendencies meet. His pictures are sexy but cerebral, poised between figuration and abstraction, hungry for the world but filled, too, with a kind of ironic distaste for it. What this show proves, more convincingly than anything else, is that Johns' aim was true.