Hanging Offence

David Sylvester at the Royal Academy

The Royal Academy’s exhibition of ‘American Art in the 20th Century’ at Burlington House and the Saatchi Gallery is a honeymoon with a marvellous girl who has been stitched into her nightie. No less than one in three of the 230 works arouse a desire to have them in a permanent collection here, but no more than three of the rooms in the show give a feeling of satisfaction.

The first is Gallery Nine at Burlington House, a square room where superb Frank Steallas of his black period confront us from the back wall while in the middle of the floor, humped in silence, is Robert Morris’s big low cage of a steel sculpture of 1967 and to either side whitish paintings by Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin. No self-respecting museum would present a combination which was so insouciant art-historically, but it does look very good.

The second room is Gallery 12 nearby, diagonally traversed by Dan Flavin’s 1968 piece, knee high and fifty-odd feet long, coolly dazzling and hotly blazing, An Artificial Barrier of Blue, Red and Blue Fluorescent Light (to Flavin Starbuck Judd), and with word pieces by Lawrence Weiner on two of the walls. The ghostly lunar light fills the coved ceiling of the room and caresses the gilded ornament, while in Gallery Nine the shape of the coved ceiling is perfectly echoed by that of the Morris cage. Both rooms provide an exhilarating harmony of rampantly Modernist art with emphatically traditional architecture.

The third efficacious room is the long narrow gallery at the west end of the Saatchi once we’re a quarter of the way in (so it’s not quite a room, because the chosen Basquiats are dullish and Haring is redundant) and the works before us are those by Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, a series of Cindy Sherman photographs which include a black-suited blonde-wigged creature whose one visible eye is also a mouth and a nostril and a wound, and a stunningly handsome and inventive example of Jenny Holzer’s electronic signboards. Women artists are at last beginning to be gold medallists rather than bronze medallists among their generation, like Jewish artists fifty years ago.

Those moments of pleasure and excitement, with their play between the works and two nicely contrasting contexts, one very much of, one very much not of, their period, underline the loss of an opportunity to do a great bipartite exhibition, had it been given greater thought and care. I cannot further delay declaring an interest. Early in 1990 the Royal Academy invited me as a student of American art of the 20th century, to co-curate the present exhibition with the old firm of Norman Rosenthal and Christos Joachimides. After three meetings – which were very enjoyable though they threatened squalls ahead – and some subsequent interchanges with Rosenthal, I realised that I had to resign rather than go on taking up a great deal of their time and my own to no useful purpose. I was not replaced. Evidently no other student of the subject could bear to work with them either or they couldn’t bear to work with any student of the subject or else they didn’t feel they needed to.

Several matters were making me feel I should leave, but I see from the correspondence that the insurmountable problem, because I took it to be symptomatic, was my inability to convince Rosenthal that you simply cannot do an exhibition called ‘American Art in the 20th Century’ without including at least one of Arshile Gorky’s portraits or double portraits of the Thirties (and, if there were more space, a related de Kooning and ideally a John Graham too, but at all events one such Gorky). Rosenthal’s view was that ‘in no way’ could such a painting be ‘described as one of the most central works of 20th-century American art. Gorky’s significance was to come later, in the last few years of his life.’ For me the absence of such a Gorky seemed like a British social history of the period that made no mention of the Jarrow March. It turned out to be a venial sin of omission by comparison with some of the total exclusions of significant artists in the finished exhibition.

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[*] American Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1913-1993, edited by Christos Joachimidis and Norman Rosenthal (Prestel, 490 pp., £45, 13 September, 3 7913 1261 8).