The Whitney Museum of American Art’s inaugural exhibit America is Hard to See could not have come at a better time. The title of the exhibit comes from a verse of Robert Frost’s poem “All We Call American” The poem confronts the ideology of Christopher Columbus’s heroism and instead paints the picture of a man who stumbled upon America and stole the land from its Native American inhabitants. In the way that America was “discovered”, it’s impossible to ignore the flaws that make up this country. Unfortunately, this is wasn’t told to us during our American History classes.
The title of the exhibit alone gives rise to an interesting dialogue to be had. To celebrate the opening of the thought-provoking exhibit, First Lady Michelle Obama was on hand to give the opening address. Regarding the exhibit she begged the question ““How can we truly, fully witness the melting pot of cultures and sensibilities and struggles that make America unlike any other country on Earth?” While the exhibit begs the question, the mission is not to answer it. As patrons, it is up to us to analyze our assumptions and attempt to answer that question for ourselves.
600 works of art are organized chronologically throughout the levels of the museum. As one moves through the modern space, they are guided through twenty-three chapters of American History. Various controversial topics are explored from the Reagan years to lynchings in the south. Topics range in light subject matter from pop culture to complex and serious undertones with political themes. Each of these topics transformed across various mediums ranging from installations, sculptures, and paintings. Nooses can be seen hanging from the ceilings, a bright neon sign boldly declares Negro Sunshine, and giant cigarette butts are strategically placed in the center of a room.
Contradictory to the traditional museum exhibit, what I admired about America is Hard to See is that it was more than just paintings and sculptures. The artists and works featured may not be household names that traditionally line the walls of museums. Instead, the exhibit challenges the notion of who is to be considered an artist in America and what is considered art. One such exhibit even encouraged viewers to sit back and watch America through the giant windows of the Whitney overlooking the Meatpacking District.
As we ventured across the 8 levels, there were many works that were striking and some were quite complexing. My mother who accompanied me even boldly declared that some of the works she could have made herself. From her bold declaration, the intent of the exhibit became clear as it was supposed to not provide a black and white answer to the definitive nature of art.
While covering a wide range of topics, the exhibit, did not shy away from controversy. Everything in art isn’t meant to be beautiful and pleasing to the eye. Some exhibits were rather disturbing, making viewers a little uncomfortable with confronting the subject matter. Scanning the room I could see a wide range of emotions elicited from the patrons ranging from gladness to sorrow. These emotions are what make up the complexities of living in life as an American.
While America has a past rife with sorrow and injustice, America is Hard to See allows the viewer to confront that past, and ignore what we learned in our history classes for a moment. At the inauguration of the exhibit, First Lady Michelle Obama made this bold declaration stating that “I think that will be an incredibly powerful experience for anyone who comes here to visit. But it will be particularly powerful for our young people”.
I agree with the First Lady’s sentiments, that this is an exhibit that will be great for the younger generation. As evidenced by social media, the younger generation is eager and ready to understand the complexities of our Nation. Because of this new modern age, we are finally having conversations and making strides in the right direction. While the past cannot be erased, all we can do is focus on improving the future. I admire that America is Hard to See both analyzes the past and sheds light without sugar coating it. This is not what you see in the history books and we are seeing a different story told from the perspectives of the artists. That is what makes this exhibit so refreshing.
I highly recommend checking out this exhibit if you plan on visiting NY. America is Hard to See will be available for viewing through September 27th. Some of the floors will not be viewable so be sure to visit as soon as possible.