Part of a visual pilgrimage toward Easter, this piece is the second in a series of spiritual meditations by Griffin Oleynick, who will visit a different art gallery each week through the season of Lent. Catch up on his first piece, on an exhibit at The Morgan Library and Museum here, and check back next Sunday, when Griffin vists the Frick Collection.
Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900-1960, on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City
In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, a theologian friend of mine quipped that Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton could best be described as “apocalyptic.” She didn’t mean that the world was ending. Rather, as a New Testament scholar with a keen ear for modern echoes of Biblical Greek, she was using the term in a way consistent with its etymological origin: an “apocalypse” is literally an “uncovering,” or “revelation,” a singular event that enables us to see the hidden things we couldn’t see before. In this sense, Trump’s election tore the wool from our eyes: no longer could we pretend to live in a country free of the social demons of racism, sexism, and xenophobia, nor could we continue to ignore the gaping economic wounds that further fracture our body politic. This Lent, our national political condition grimly mirrors our liturgical one: we find ourselves and our nation lost and broken, wandering through a tortuous and bewildering desert, with no apparent end in sight.
Where We Are, an ongoing exhibition that first opened at the Whitney Museum late last spring, offers a forceful response to the national sense of disorder and displacement that has come to define the Trump era. Its five sections flow like a visual essay, with clusters of paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures from the Whitney’s permanent collection narrating the complex history of twentieth-century America from a multiplicity of perspectives.
The exhibit takes its intellectual and spiritual cue from the impassioned, inspiring verses of a single poem, W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Written just after Auden’s controversial move from England to New York City at the outbreak of World War II (and just before his anonymous appearances as the Commonweal columnist “Didymus” — more on that below), the poem’s title recalls the infamous date of Germany’s invasion of Poland. The verses seem like they could have been written yesterday. Seated in a Manhattan dive bar as the “unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night,” Auden fervently excoriates the sins of greed, cowardice, and moral indifference that precipitated democracy’s decline and enabled Hitler’s rise. He then calls on his listeners, “Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair,” to join their voices with his and “show an affirming flame.” With the poem printed in its entirety on the entrance wall, Where We Are implies that as Americans we now find ourselves in an analogous situation, and demands that we take a stand.
Despite its clear frustration with our current political impasse, Where We Are remains cautiously hopeful about America’s future. Basic American values, like home and family, work and spirituality, are celebrated just as our historic injustices are identified and condemned. Iconic paintings by big-name artists, such as Edward Hopper’s 1921 New York Interior and his 1934 Cape Cod Sunset, are paired with lesser-known works by figures like James Castle, the deaf, self-taught artist whose graceful drawings of home interiors and landscapes, sketched with a mixture of soot and spit on the backs of discarded papers, share a similar reverence for silence and interiority. Equally moving are works grounded in a longing for social justice: Paul Cadmus’ 1951 painting The Bath, inspired by the naturalism and perspectivism of the Italian Renaissance, lends nobility and grace to erotic male relationships, just as James Van Der Zee’s 1920s group photographs of African-Americans, including the Harlem Swimming Team and attendees of a Marcus Garvey rally, reveal the dignity of black lives. Composed during a time when these groups were forcibly marginalized by the dominant American culture, such works inspire us to continue the fight for justice today.
The site and architecture of the Whitney Museum encourage visitors to step outside the exhibition gallery and look into the heart of the city. As we find ourselves standing upon a series of interconnected outdoor terraces that rise amidst the dramatic backdrop of the Manhattan skyline, our gaze is drawn to some of New York’s most iconic, historically significant structures. What values do the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the newly rebuilt World Trade Center communicate? What kinds of people inhabit these spaces?