Art from the Heart: Suburban Kitsch, Immortalized in an ’80s Art Review

Eric_Fischl_Dining_Room_Scene_2_2003 While researching my next novel, EXTRACURRICULAR, I came across a fabulous review that ran in the New York Times about the same time my protagonist in that book would have been growing up and reveling in the kind of life that, she hopes,  moves beyond suburbia and its aspiring classes.

The book warps speeds into the present. Have we really changed that much? If you want my opinion, you'll have to read the book to find out.

Of course, I'll want you to read Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives first.

In the meantime, enjoy this blast from the past: 1989, to be exact. Or, as those of us who lived through it, we remember that it was more than just Madonna, mullets and John Hughes movies that idealized the essence of teendom.

There was Seinfeld too.


SecretLivesCoverFinalWeb   Josie's
Next Book: Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives

Simon & Schuster/Downtown Press

(ISBN: 9781439173176)

In bookstores June 1, 2010. Order it

"Hollywood's got nothing on the cast of characters living in
bedroom community of Paradise Heights, who have the secrets, sex, money
and scandal of an OK! Magazine cover story. Josie Brown is a skilled
observer whose clever dialogue and feisty style make for truly
entertaining reading."

, bestselling author of Hollywood Wives and Poor Little Bitch Girl

July 23, 1989

IDEALLY, suburbia is a place that has the benefits of both rural
and city living but none of their drawbacks. Books taking issue with
that run from the socially scientific to the comic, and there are many
of them. But even more abundant is art about the subject, which
invariably takes the form of caricature, be it an affectionately witty
cartoon in The New Yorker or a cruel photograph by Diane Arbus.

But an entire exhibition about suburbia – this is almost unheard
of. Yet, at the Whitney Museum in Stamford, is ''Suburban Home Life:
Tracking the American Dream,'' a show that made its debut in Manhattan
at another Whitney branch.

Assembled by five Helena Rubinstein Fellows in the Independent
Study Program of the Whitney, this selection of roughly 70 paintings,
sculpture, architectural visualizations and video commemorates well
enough the surge to the suburbs after World War II. But the catalogue is
a problem: the discourse is glib and a bit smart-alecky.

Apparently, suburbia is an exclusively American manifestation for
the curator, Miwon Kwon. She writes as if it had nothing to do with the
European Romantic movement, itself a byproduct of and a reaction to the
Industrial Revolution. Nevertheless, she itemizes the familiar pros and
cons: peace and quiet versus the monotony of look-alike housing (as
opposed to the infinite variety of, say, high-rise living in Manhattan);
serenity on the surface versus abnormality below (see Eric Fischl's
painting of hanky-panky by the swimming pool), and so on.

At the same time, Ms. Kwon makes it clear that for all the
criticism leveled at it – mostly by intellectuals and artists – suburbia
continues to flourish. The curator takes the conventional view of the
development as the realization of the American Dream (as if the desire
to own a house and the land it stands on were peculiar to this country)
but does not touch on the almost cicadian regularity with which it is
enacted. After all, countless couples settle in the suburbs in order to
rear children, only to have them bolt for the city at their earliest
opportunity. Those children go back, of course, when the time comes to
rear children of their own who, in turn . . .

In her essay, Sarah Bayliss, a Rubinstein Fellow, probes suburban
domestic life for materialism, hypocrisy and the oppression of women,
citing as evidence advertising from the 1950's on, the photo-realist
Robert Bechtle's painting of an average American family posing with its
Pontiac, and more recent ironies by the photographers Judy Dater and
Sandy Skoglund. All highlight, Ms. Bayliss says, ''the need for an
alternative way to perceive women and home life; one that exists
independently of material domestic conventions.''

Counting the psychological cost of the good life, Christopher
Robert Hoover's essay attributes to suburbia a failing that is endemic
in egalitarian societies: to revere the theory of individualism while
recoiling from its practice. In any case, Mr. Hoover sees proof of the
suburban pudding in movies like ''A Nightmare on Elm Street,''
''Poltergeist'' and ''Dawn of the Dead.'' Five hours of horror
transferred to tape, the films go with the show and, taken with the
tapes by contemporary videoists and a few documentaries, the total
viewing time is close to nine hours. (The museum is open from 11 A.M. to
5 P.M.) Equally obvious is the collective bias of the curators, but
though they are against capitalism, they subscribe to its class system.
For example, there is a model of Frank O. Gehry's house in California, a
large, rambling lean-to where the walls are as likely to be made of
corrugated metal and chain-link fence as of wood. The architect is
quoted expressing disingenuous surprise at the smugness of neighbors who
do not like his structure. He notes that when he points out to them
that he uses the same industrial materials that they keep lying around
their backyards in the form of boats, campers and the like, they reply,
''Oh, no, that's normal.''

Then there is Diane Arbus's famous black and white photograph, ''A
Family on Their Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, N.Y.'' – a litter-strewn
lawn that looks more like a picnic ground. Suburbanites or not, the
movie-star type blonde and her distracted man would doubtless seem as
bored and estranged if they were at Coney Island for the day.

With their poker-faced renderings of houses in color, the
photographers William Eggleston, Tom Bernard, Steven Izenour and Stephen
Shore hold suburbia at arm's length for a more clinical investigation.
The architectural firm of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown offers color
pictures of Levittown housing with a caption that, in effect, advises
the cognoscenti to grin and bear it. The residents, they say, are happy
with their homes and the improvements they make are consonant with the
designs. Incidentally, when compared with the chip board structures seen
recently by the reviewer in New Jersey, the show's houses look pretty

Outside of Mr. Gehry, the show ignores the suburban upper crust;
splendid villas are nowhere to be seen. Aside from the aerial view of
Levittown taken by an anonymous photographer, beauty tends to be in the
eye of the artist – Ed Ruscha's nocturnal view of a shadowy black
mansion with a large red ''F'' plastered to its facade; the terrace of
toy houses made by James Casebere and photographed by him in black and
white, along with a similarly staged scene of mock toys filling a room.

James Wines, who heads Site, the architectural collective
responsible for the Best Products Company showrooms, is represented by a
mysterious charcoal drawing of skyscrapers standing beside water. The
facade of one has been removed to reveal landscapes within studded
mansions. An architectural whimsy? A proposal for saving nature from
developers by keeping it indoors? Never mind, the image is the ''after''
to Frank Lloyd Wright's ''before'' – two views of an urban fantasy
where the automobiles look like miniature paddlewheelers and the
helicopters like U.F.O.'s.

Doubts as to the show's mission should be resolved by Jeff Koons's
ghastly ''Winter Bears.'' A boy bear and a girl bear carved by another
hand, the two evidently stand for the kitsch preferred by suburbanites.
This highlights the production's greatest weakness, which is to imply
that suburbia is a lower-middle class enterprise when in fact it has all
the usual social gradations.

There is, however, a problem and Mr. Hoover comes the closest to
identifying it when he observes that the planned communities formerly
regarded as an ''attractive alternative'' to rural and urban living are
now seen as a ''homogenizing growth over the entire social sphere.''

''Suburban Home Life: Tracking the American Dream'' will remain at
the Whitney Museum, 1 Champion Plaza, Stamford, through Sept. 6.

Photo of work by Eve Arnold; work by Stephen Shore

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