The Whitney’s American Revolution

Art | Apr 2015 | BY Ian Volner

The Whitney Museum of American Art is New York’s essential institutional oddball. The stately Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its grand Beaux Arts palace on upper Fifth Avenue, stands for history and permanence; the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in its coolly elegant Midtown digs, speaks for svelte, cosmopolitan sophistication and blockbuster artistic spectacles; but the Whitney is a thing apart, a cultural anomaly that’s managed to soldier on, decade after decade, propelled by little except its own dogged eccentricity.

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Whitney Museum of American Art. Photograph by Ed Lederman

Since 1966, the collection has been housed in a building that seemed, and still seems, a perfect expression of its offbeat character—the leering, granite-clad Madison Avenue pile, just steps from the Met, designed for it by famed modern architect Marcel Breuer. Inside, the museum founded by millionaire collector and artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney has continued to pursue the same course she first charted for it back in 1931, exhibiting the work of primarily living artists based in the United States at key junctures in their career, a kind of curatorial antidote both to the Euro-centric MoMA and the canon-driven Met. From retrospectives on figures as diverse as Sol LeWitt and Buckminster Fuller, to its often-contentious Biennial, to performances and evening events in the peculiar moat-like space on its lower level, the museum’s Breuer building has played witness to the Whitney’s improbable progress through the American art world of the last half century, a darkly brooding workshop for some of the most challenging sculptures and paintings of our time.

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Sketch by Renzo Piano

And now, it’s empty. After 50 years, the Whitney is moving to newer and far more commodious quarters at the bottom end of the Highline Park on Manhattan’s West Side. The area has become a kind of outdoor cabinet of architectural curiosities, as big-shot designers like Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Shigeru Ban have all completed projects in the near vicinity of the elevated greenway. The Whitney has added Italian master Renzo Piano to the mix, and its new home—a steel and concrete slab of a building that looks like nothing so much as the conning tower of a small aircraft carrier—is open to the public as of May 1 of this year.

Adam Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown Director of the Whitney for the past years, is only slightly nervous. “Imagine redoing your house,” he says, “and the first night after you’ve finished, you invite thousands of friends to come over for dinner.” Weinberg has overseen the transition process, which began in 2010 when construction started on the Piano building and reached an emotional crescendo with the former building’s last hurrah, a blowout show on Pop maximalist Jeff Koons. After all that, and the mad scramble to complete the new structure, Weinberg and his staff are just now starting to regroup and take stock. “I think people here are both exhilarated and exhausted,” says the director. “We want everything from the point of view of the art and artists as perfect as we can make it.”

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Photograph by Karin Jobst

When their guests arrive, the meal that the curators have prepared for them will be what Weinberg calls the Whitney’s “classic dish”: a full-spectrum review of the museum’s permanent collection, from ’30s Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton straight through to the glowing neon provocations of contemporary multi- media master Glenn Ligon. “America Is Hard to See,” the inaugural exhibition show of the Whitney’s new home, has been spearheaded by Whitney Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs Donna De Salvo, a 12-year veteran of the institution. She explains that the title—a reference to a poem by Robert Frost—sums up the difficult process of trying to discern a clear image of American art as it appears over the century-plus time span of the Whitney collection. “It started three years ago,” she says, “when we put together a team to really start an analysis of the collection.” The more they looked, however, the more the researchers found that the sheer complexity and diversity of the art on hand confounded any efforts to “tell a story that was too neatly packaged or had a linear view.” America, and the Whitney, contain multitudes.

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A view from the inaugural exhibition, “America Is Hard”, which opens on May 1. Photograph by Nic Lehoux

Accordingly, “America Is Hard to See” unfolds in kaleidoscopic fashion throughout the new structure, with each floor dedicated to a particular date range and then subdivided by specific themes. Again and again, De Salvo and company eschewed purely conventional chronologies and art-historical categories in divvying up the work. “We wanted to introduce new stories, new approaches,” she says. “We’ve expanded things like Pop Art to include photographers like Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand, who were all inspired by the American landscape.” Visitors will find familiar artists represented by unfamiliar work, as well as relative unknowns sitting cheek-by-jowl with household names—a Japanese-style woodblock of Yosemite by Chiura Obata right next to an Ansel Adams view of the same scene, for instance. “We felt we had to take some risks. Be bold,” says the curator. “I think the new building has inspired that.”

Little wonder: At 200,000 square feet—as compared to the Breuer building’s 85,000—the Whitney team now has a lot of room to stretch their legs. Massive glazed walls bookend the main exhibition spaces, with views to the west across the Hudson River and east to the Manhattan skyline. “The Breuer enveloped you,” says Weinberg. “You could have been in Chicago or Berlin. But this building is about being connected to New York City.” Extensive outdoor platforms, cantilevered daringly over the Highline, will allow fully for 13,000 square feet of outdoor exhibition space, a constantly revolving public display directly adjacent to what has fast become one of New York’s favorite playgrounds. “Our job is to slow people down, get them to sit and linger,” says Weinberg; the museum’s prominent site, and the presence it exerts over it, should make them stop in their tracks.

In a way, the move downtown is a return to the Whitney’s roots. It was only a little further west, after all, where the museum’s eponymous patron first opened her space before it shifted to Madison Avenue. Now, nearly halfway across the city from the Breuer (which the Whitney is leasing to the Met), and at a comfortable cross-town remove from MoMA, the Whitney is well-poised to continue along its always-singular path, spotlighting artwork as varied and surprising as America itself.

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Photograph by Timothy Schenck

We asked the curators to share a little about their new home and what they dream about filling its Renzo Piano-designed galleries with. Here’s what they had to say:

Scott Rothkopf, Nancy and Steve Crown Family Curator and Associate Deputy Director for Programs

“I love the character of the gallery space, which has such a great tension between design details that feel really industrial yet refined, elegant but warm…. I dream of doing an exhibition of David Hockney’s paintings and drawings from LA in the 1960s, which really show his encounter with American art and culture, the people, even the light.  This work hasn’t been seen in depth in New York for decades, and it connects to so many amazing artistic and social circles.”

Carter Foster, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing

“I’m very excited about the Sondra Gilman Study Center, devoted to works on paper. For the first time, we’ll be able to easily access our stellar collection of prints, drawings and photographs. It’s a huge change for us, a greatly positive one, allowing us to research our holdings more deeply than before. “

Barbara Haskell, Curator

“My dream show is the one I’m working on now, which will introduce early American modern art to the vast new audiences who will come to the Whitney Museum for the first time because of our new location.”

Dana Miller, Curator, Permanent Collection

“Compare the Upper Eastside and Meatpacking? Fewer schoolgirls, doormen and dog walkers—and, better sunsets.”

 

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