Up, Up, and Away: Bill Viola's Going Forth By Day.Photo: Darin Moran

Crowd-pleasing shows usually have a sharply defined angle. They highlight a theme (“Surrealism: Desire Unbound”) or focus upon an artist (“Thomas Eakins”). But less-cohesive exhibits – the grab bags – have a virtue that’s often overlooked. They leave art alone. Unburdened by the cult of personality found in retrospectives or the lead-’em-by-the-nose organization of thematic exhibits, such shows let the art speak for itself and may inspire viewers to think for themselves. An American Legacy, A Gift to New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Moving Pictures at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum are two exhibitions of this kind. Each gathers together a wide range of works and, while making a few thematic noises, does not marshal the art into a grand design. But in these shows, you can discern for yourself provocative, first-draft outlines of late-twentieth-century art.

“An American Legacy” marks the gift – by members of the Whitney’s Board of Trustees – of 87 works of postwar art that are entering the collection thanks to what’s being called a “gift initiative” by the board chairman, Leonard Lauder. No doubt Lauder hopes to fire up the collecting ambitions of his sometimes troubled museum, which must compete for blue-chip art with many other powerful institutions. People outside the museum world too often assume that curators and directors pass their days contemplating the deeper meanings of art. In fact, they spend an ungodly amount of time shaking down the rich, listening intently to the malformed opinions of young collectors, and expressing concern over the physical ailments of elderly people who happen to have a Pollock. The current gift includes significant works by many of the best-known artists of the postwar period – among them, Newman, Rothko, Johns, Rauschenberg, Twombly, Oldenburg, Judd, LeWitt, and Ryman – and sends the signal that the Whitney intends to do what’s necessary to put together a comprehensive collection of postwar twentieth-century American art.

There are not many quirks or unexpected choices here. That will presumably come later, as taste changes and opportunity permits. Instead, the museum is concentrating on foundation figures who came of age in the fifties and sixties and on enriching its holdings of the work of certain especially favored artists. For example, it is deepening its collection of Johns’s prints and strengthening its position in the early work of Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Lichtenstein. (For most people, the showstopper will be Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble, a brilliant architectural fantasia that captures – with dead-on perfection – the tigerish pizzazz of California in the fifties and sixties.) What makes “American Legacy” seem so promising, however, is its proximity to the rest of the Whitney’s permanent collection, notably the installation of earlier American art on the upper floor and the recently opened survey “De Kooning to Today: Highlights From the Permanent Collection.” If you put these three collections together in your mind’s eye, you will have an exciting first glimmer of the museum that the Whitney will eventually become when it moves into a larger space.

“Moving Pictures,” in turn, fills the Guggenheim with the kind of video and photographic work now dominating the gallery scene. Because such art is often ungainly, museums have heretofore found it difficult to present to the public – except in bits and pieces – and viewers generally appear confused about its character. This show provides an excellent chance to gain an overview of a large and sprawling field. Drawn from the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, it includes 150 works by 55 artists in what the show’s organizers call “reproducible mediums.” Recent work is emphasized, though the exhibit begins with influential art from photographers and video artists who emerged in the sixties and seventies, such as Nam June Paik. The main themes from the period, such as the obsessive questioning of “representation” and “originality” and the use of digital technology to recast the documentary world, come clearly into focus. Those who hate video art will find plenty to confirm their prejudices, as much of the art has the wan, depressed, pleasure-hating, and self-conscious air of the academy. It appears deduced from seminar rooms.

And yet something rich and visually exciting is emerging in recent photographic and video art. Digital manipulation has opened a new world, one enhanced by evolving technological opportunities in color and scale. Some artists – whether or not they work digitally – appear intoxicated by the possibilities and are making increasingly complex and inventive work. If you look at the images in this show by Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Shirin Neshat, or Rineke Dijkstra, to cite just a few, you will find savvy artists who are knowledgeable about art history and fluent in the conventional ironies of our time. But they nonetheless make extraordinarily lush images that cannot be reduced to academic platitudes. There is an interesting temperature to their sensibilities. They appear simultaneously warm and cool. They do not appropriate past art in the intellectually condescending manner of earlier postmodernists but instead seem challenged by its example.

Crowning the Guggenheim’s spiral is an exhibit – Bill Viola: Going Forth by Day – that embodies this direction in contemporary art. In a piece commissioned for the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, Viola, one of the best-known contemporary video artists, has created a space that contains five different digital projections. The room evokes the great religious frescoes of the past, those cycles of imagery in which an artist depicts the progress of a soul. At one end of Viola’s work is “Fire Birth,” which shows a human form emerging from the undifferentiated mass. At the other is “The Deluge,” which presents a casual urban scene eventually overwhelmed by an apocalyptic flood. Along one side of the room we see a line of people walking endlessly along “The Path,” which has no beginning or end. Facing them are two scenes: In “The Voyage,” an old man dies as his earthly possessions are packed onto a boat; eventually, he sets off on the boat toward the distant mountains. In “First Light,” rescue workers pack up after a night of trying to save flood victims. They occasionally comfort a grieving woman; as they stand around, a soul suddenly seems to leap skyward from the water. In my experience, people rarely watch a work of video art from beginning to end. For Going Forth by Day, however, most people stayed. And some were transfixed.

Art Listings
Openings & Closings

An American Legacy, A Gift to New York
At the Whitney Museum of American Art; through 1/26.

Moving Pictures
Bill Viola: Going Forth by Day
Both at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; through 1/12.