Review: ‘American Visions’

Time mag's art critic Robert Hughes, whose 1981 "Shock of the New" TV series summed up and illustrated a century of modern art, now brings a weekly, selective, beautifully-produced account of American artistic expression from settlers' first snapping twig to, finally, minimalism. Sure to garner raves, the eight-hour series hops down a long, often gorgeous, often bumpy road to what looks, chronologically, like zilch.

Time mag’s art critic Robert Hughes, whose 1981 “Shock of the New” TV series summed up and illustrated a century of modern art, now brings a weekly, selective, beautifully-produced account of American artistic expression from settlers’ first snapping twig to, finally, minimalism. Sure to garner raves, the eight-hour series hops down a long, often gorgeous, often bumpy road to what looks, chronologically, like zilch.

Told mostly from an NYC viewpoint, “American Visions,” failing to define its limits, ranges from Jefferson’s Monticello to Jeff Koons’ ceramic “Michael Jackson” — both were physically created by artisans. Hughes admirably ties samples of the works together with historical viewpoints until the final rounds, when there’s a feel of scrapings.

In its first three hours, series uses dependably sure-handed topics — Founding Father portraits and monuments — countered by Maya Lin’s serene, humanistic Vietnam War Memorial. The production surges after 1860 into a brilliant, electrically charged display in the fourth through seventh episodes. Then, with names of movements proliferating, and after modernist masters make their statements, “Visions” slips into what might become non-existencism.

In earlier chapters, more imposing subjects are relieved by the glorious interior of the Capitol dome or descendants of Shakers (in Maine, eight exultant spirits still live) who provide a solid look not only at their classically simple furniture but at their hearty, joyous life system.

By the 1830s, scouting Western regions, Audubon was producing his portfolio of jewel-like prints of birds in their natural habitat — well, maybe not so natural. The artist usually killed his subject, mounted and arranged its parts, and drew it. Samples are stunning.The West beckoned with myths, legends and enormous oil paintings representing benign forests, rivers, mountains and valleys — some of it kitschy indeed, some bases for eventual gas-station calendar art.

If there’s a lack of excitement in the earlier hours of the series, the impact of the fourth and fifth hours counteracts that. Picking up on post-1860, the touching opening seg centers on the Civil War and its monuments — the recumbent Robert E. Lee in white marble, Augustus St. Gaudens’ frieze of marching soldiers, his sad-faced, 18-carat gold-leafed Gen. Sherman in Central Park win the day.

Hughes investigates Manifest Destiny and the sale of the West by real estate brokers, sharpies and blown-up heroes.Matthew Brady and other photographers are recognized as artists, though they’re given small comfort in the eight-hour series. Civil War photographer Brady was known, like Audubon, occasionally to “rearrange” his dead subjects — fallen soldiers.

As for film as another art form, there’s hardly a mention — a clip from a Chaplin silent is glimpsed. It seems chary, what with N.Y.’s Museum of Modern Art, the L.A. County Museum of Art and other museums regularly exhibiting films as artistic achievements.

Hughes investigates the rich period of the Hudson River School of painting and of Winslow Homer andThomas Eakins. It’s here that Hughes establishes a sense of American art, though he pointedly doesn’t use the term.

The arrival of the machine age and the creation of the Roeblings’ stunning Brooklyn Bridge tell of the impact progress was making on both the nation and on art. Money poured into northern coffers, and multimillionaires were trying to live up to the role as art connoisseurs.Immense fortunes demanded more artworks and furnishings, fashions and tapestries, as newly minted Pittsburgh and New York millionaires displayed gold flatware and silver frames in enormous, unerringly correct homes. No one could foresee that someday, barely a century away, soup cans and repetitive, silk-screened film star repros would bring in more than what was then hanging on the walls of estates.

The Ashcan School of Art, protesting ephemeral art posturings, was led by Robert Henri and seven other N.Y. artists who would, in 1913, mount the N.Y. Armory Show, the largest and most innovative art exhibition. It showed Cubism and Picasso, Matisse, Rodin, Gauguin, van Gogh, Picabia, Cezanne, Kandinsky, and the show’s razzledazzler, Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”The average American could but shake his head — if he even heard of the Armory. “Modern art,” comments Hughes, “became an issue for the first time in America.” Well, in some parts.

In Taos, N.M., painter Georgia O’Keeffe visited heiress Mabel Dodge Luhan. After the experience, she traded in N.Y. and her chum, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the wealthy gallery owner, for the sparkling air and welcoming airs of the West. Hughes isn’t sure she was a “great artist,” and points out that she was “the most famous artist that America ever produced.” A problematic virtuoso, she did handsomely with what talent she had; her work still sells greeting cards.

Wall Street collapsed, but the sixth hour maintains the high-energy level, as Hughes shows off that “palace of vertigo and vainglory,” the Chrysler Building and its topper, the Empire State Building, which is less artful, but higher.

FDR, faced with the Great Depression, helped artists and painters in a smart account of the Works Progress.Hughes examines an era in which Edward Hopper exquisitely rendered lonely America, Stuart Davis Lawrence harnessed electric, non-objective visions. Missourian Thomas Hart Benton’s middle-American art includes his dizzyingly brilliant mural smothering the interior of a Jefferson City Capitol Building’s lounge. Casting an unnecessarily, provincially personal remark about Grant Wood, Hughes does praise the Iowa artist’s “decorative design” and his celebrated “American Gothic.”

As Pearl Harbor looms, America’s place in post-WWII art seems at first to amuse Hughes. Enthusing over abstract expressionism, he explains, “Pollock was born in the West, in Wyoming, and the sense of large space, of epic landscape, had enormous meaning to his work as an adult.” While Hughes does term Barnett Newman’s “Stations of the Cross” “utterly absurd,” he’s pleased with David Smith’s welded-iron creations.

Hughes talks of “imperial America,” “capital paradise” and “luxury for the masses,” sneers at American fondness for large, gaudy cars and gadgets — in fact, Americans come off as Babbitts and no-faced baboons. He makes no mention of the Iwo Jima photo of U.S. Marines raising the American flag and the subsequent statue (there’s a wry slight about the bombing of Dresden), but there’s minute examination in the eighth hour of a parody of the flag raising, Ed Kienholz’s bitter, exacting “The Portable War Memorial.”

The series dwindles during these final two hours. While the Wyeths are unrepresented, Hughes shows off pop art’s Andy Warhol and several such major non-objective expressors such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko. As he notes, celeb status was taking over.

Hughes examines an Arizona volcano crater being developed into a visual treat by James Turrell, who plans interior tunnels, a giant lens and viewing chambers. Hughes demonstrates the point by lying down at Roden Crater’s edge and peering upside down at the sky. With the camera in place, the viewer gets the distinct sense of blue serenity. Turrell and Hughes are on to something. It’s called “a spiritual experience.”

American Visions

Weds. (28, 6/4, 11, 18, 25, 7/2, 9, 18), 9-10 p.m., PBS


Filmed by Planet 24, BBC-TV, Time Inc. and WNET N.Y. Executive producers, Nicholas Rossiter (BBC), Liz McHaney (Time), Jac Venza (13/WNET); producers-directors, James Kent (I, VI), Christopher Spencer (II, III), David Wilcock (IV, VII), Julia Cave (V), John Bush (VIII); writer, Robert Hughes;


cameras, Dave Bennett, Allan Palmer, Jeremy Pollard, Richard Numeroff; videotape camera, Steve Jamison; aerial camera, Jim Dirker; editors, Colin Minchin, Leila Farag, Julia Meadows, Guy Crossman, Robyn Rogers, Paul Binns; sound, Paul Rusnak, Merce Williams, Bob Briscoe, Jerry McClure, Rick Patterson; music, David Ferguson.


Host: Robert Hughes.
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