By Franklin Hill Perrell
From the moment you arrive at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, you can tell that this is unlike any museum you’ve previously visited. The new building looks like a gigantic twisted ship- container ship or ocean liner variously, berthed in the Meat Packing District. The nautical theme is no accident:
Renzo Piano was commenting not only the site itself and its splendid river exposure and views, but also the old sail makers lofts that dominated the area in the days when Herman Melville earned his living as a scrivener in the customs house.
Outstanding Architecture and NYC Locale
The location is serendipitous: the area- at the edge of the historic row houses of the west village and centered in its own milieu of dramatically re-purposed nineteenth century warehouses and wholesale butchers, which exudes unexpected charm, with cobble stone streets, the Standard Hotel (like a leisure-themed version of Le Corbusier’s UN) and its outdoor dining under the Pergola, and the Highline itself, whose very base is the Whitney’s plaza. Serendipitous as well, the proximity to Chelsea doubles the potential action.
When you arrive at the Whitney, you see a plaza occupying almost half the block and an open expanse westward toward the Hudson River. The first floor is see-through, and Renzo Piano’s concept is that this space would be like an Italian city square enabling potential engagement for all.
Arriving visitors can choose between walking the steps up to the highline, sitting in yellow metal chairs, patronizing food trucks and cold drink vendors, dining at the Latin themed restaurant next door, or going into Danny Meyer’s Untitled restaurant – all before entering the museum’s lobby which is clearly visible from all around. Inside, there is a book-shop gift store, and the first gallery – which, I suppose because it is free, is scantily patronized, though seeing it is an excellent way to be oriented as to the history of the museum and its origins.
The lobby space, like everything else about this place, is welcoming and youthful. Tee shirt clad attendants take tickets and advise visitors. Though one pays admission, the way to go here is to join: you will want to come back many times, and membership, as they say, has its privileges.
Welcome to the Galleries
The first floor gallery, I suppose, may be thought of as a tease. The casual visitor can walk right in without a ticket, but it really is quite enticing. You are greeted by Robert Henri’s spectacular 1916 portrait of the Museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, attired in Chinese silk pajamas, reclining on a velvet couch like a Goya Maja or Manet Olympia. Though she’s clothed, quite elegantly at that, her husband Harry Payne Whitney, refused to hang the painting in their Fifth Avenue house, saying that he didn’t want his guests to see his wife wearing pants! She’s an amazingly modern woman: the bustles of the belle époque and gowns from the house of Worth were still being worn the year of the painting.
In every respect, she was ahead of the curve. A talented artist herself (her Titanic Memorial, bronze female head is shown in the gallery) she made a name for herself, and lots of artist friends, by collecting over 500 works of American art, chiefly of the ashcan school and modernism in the spirit of folk art, the themes expressed in the selections on display. Among these is the classic ashcan painting by John Sloan (Henri’s student) of Greenwich Village Backyards. It’s a joy to behold the innocent faces of these youngsters as they delight in the brilliantly lit fresh snow that has magically transformed their otherwise gritty urban surroundings. Also nearby, you will see photos by the likes of Cecil Beaton and Steichen, and art that shows how the museum evolved out of an artists’ club where Mrs. Whitney entertained her colleagues with food and drink of their choice (during prohibition) and provided exhibitions and opportunities for sales. Turned down by the director of the Met when she tried to donate her collection, she and her curator, Juliana Force, decided to create their own museum. Their legacy is the Whitney’s continuing commitment to the vitality of work produced by living American artists.
Highlights of the new display, which reunites some classics from the Whitney’s ongoing collection with many previously unheralded works, especially by women, produce a unique re-telling of the story of American art. This view, embodied in the exhibition called America is Hard to See, affirms that point: you can’t draw a straight line portraying an orderly sequential progress. That being said, it progresses from early to late, with plenty of room for overlaps from the eighth floor to the fifth.
Starting from the top, you jump from the ashcan realists on the first floor to modernism. This makes sense since the Armory Show of 1913, which the ashcan artists promoted, introduced Matisse and Picasso suddenly made those realist American artists look old fashioned, and though modernism in its guises of cubism, futurism, fauvism, abstraction, and precisionism, didn’t gain widespread traction right away, it definitely became the dominant trend for a while. Historically, the biggest challenge came after the World War with thee rise of American isolation. That explains why they go back to realism in full force on the seventh floor.
American modernists start with Hartley’s 1914 abstractions, which look bold and almost Pop, though their German militarist imagery is disquieting today as it was then, on the eve of World War I.
Soon, you see how Georgia O’Keefe’s work can be positioned as cubist, abstract, or precisionist according to the context. In the first instance, her work is fitted between Feiniger’s cubist Gelmeroda Church and Max Weber’s futurist 1915 Dinner in Chinese Restaurant. The latter is fascinating as visitors try to analyze the multiple vantage points and guess how many people are actually eating. Stuart Davis, too, is shown in several ways: on the first floor almost as a folk artist, with the modernists as an offspring of Matisse and Picasso (Front Street) and as a Cubo-Futurist abstractionist (Eggbeater). The next room, with Demuth’s My Egypt, Sheeler’s River Rouge Plant and Else Driggs’ Pittsburgh Factory seems to be a return to a type of realism, but this precisionism is fueled by a modern reverence for factories, industries, streamlining and hard edges. The point is reinforced by a display of works nearby using metal for sculpture including pieces by Calder, out of sheet metal, and Man Ray, a vise clamping pieces of metal together. The factory was the cathedral to this generation of the 20s and 30s who produced works in the spirit of their nickname, the immaculates.
Not so immaculate are the works by Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge and Stettheimer’s Manhattan. Stella paints the Brooklyn bridge as if experienced from a car ride into Manhattan, with automobile headlights facing the viewer, and split action views of skyscrapers from a multiplicity of directions. Stettheimer’s Manhattan is like a Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover with its view of Columbus Circle, Grants Tomb, the Polo Grounds, the Singer Building, City Hall, Federal Hall, and the stock exchange compressed into immediate proximity. Flanking them is a sculpted relief in gold of the statue of liberty and a depiction of Woodrow Wilson commemorating the end of world war I from a battle ship.
The seventh floor is filled with crowd pleasers. Calder’s Circus, one of the Whitney’s true treasures, captivates as always, with figures made of wire, hair from house mops, heads made of bottle corks, and a scene of live action including lion tamer, performing seal, acrobats, trapeze artists, sword swallower, and juggler. Calder supported himself by performing with this during the twenties. You can read about him in Thomas Wolf’s You Can’t Go Home Again (Wolf wasn’t as impressed as we are). Calder brought the Circus to Paris where it made a hit with the like of Duchamp, Miro, and Mondrian.
Right behind it is the classic boxing painting, Bellows Dempsey Firpo fight where we see the ultimate world champion being thrust momentarily out of the ring to be pushed back into action by the crowd below (one of whom, most likely is the artist). Nearby is Cadmus’s Sailors and Floosies, as irreverent a comment on the foibles of humanity, complete with World War II graffiti, as could be made. Two paintings by Marsh are stand outs, his movie theatre of the depression era, its fantasies providing a momentary relief from tough times. Vibrant women, still proud and capable, contrast with sulky bored men, a constant theme in Marsh’s work.
The undisputed masterpiece here is Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning , in the gallery behind. Regionalism, with its benign view-point, contrasts with the social realism in the next room, where artist like Ben Shahn (Sacco & Vanzetti) believed in “art as a weapon” (David Shapiro’s excellent book on the topic) to effect needed social change.
On the same floor, you switch into Abstract Expressionism. Its no mystery that there was a link: Benton was Pollock’s teacher, and Guston is shown with social realist work, abstraction, and later as a neo-expressionist! Artists like Rothko, Pollock, and even De Kooning were involved with the WPA. It was the arrival of the exile’s, fleeing Hitler dominated Europe who energized the New York art scene with biomorphism and automatism (see Arshile Gorky’s Betrothed II and Pousette Dart’s surrealist inspired abstraction to make that point. This gallery has some surprises: Lee Krasner steals the show from Pollock and a wall of major scaled Abstract Expressionist paintings vie for prominence with a Mark Di Suvero sculpture whose forms echo Franz Kline’s forceful black brush strokes.
Fabulous further works await on the other floors and balconies as well. An installation of David Smith sculptures ranges from his Hudson River Landscape (welded tools and farm implements that recreate the vistas along the river with shoreline, mountains, and clouds) to his altogether abstract totem-like Cubi. This geometric theme is echoed on the seventh floor balcony, with works by Tony Smith and Scott Burton. The nearby gallery has a fascinating op art painting by Tom Downing along with such essential artists as Judd and Serra. The central gallery has Warhol’s Before and After, his Coke Bottles, Jasper John’s Three Flags, and Wayne Thiebaud’s food- scape of sliced lemon meringue pie. You can peer past these works into an adjoining gallery and see the same forms echoed in the wedge like shape of Jay de Fayo’s giant wall piece said to be fashioned out of over a thousand pounds of oil paint.
The fifth floor is predominantly dedicated to artists of our era, though its historic section features work by Basquiat, Haring, and Nam June Paik alongside Jasper Johns’ Racing Thoughts and nearby a pyramid of televisions by the master of video art, Nam June Paik. While the riches of this show are too numerous to mention, the overall experience is tantalizing and engaging. There are plenty of spots to rest, with spacious sofas, and outdoor spaces to gain a bit more of the energy you’ll need to fully enjoy this amazing experience.
Note that the collection/exhibition will only be up, in this form, through September 27 at which point the Whitney will take up a variety of exciting new endeavors including a much heralded exhibition of Frank Stella later in the autumn.
Photo Captions and Credits - Cover: View from the Hudson River. Photographed by Karin Jobst, 2014; 1. Renzo Piano, Photograph by Filip Wolak; 2. Image courtesy Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Cooper, Robertson & Partners; 3. Photograph © Nic Lehoux, 4. Photograph © Nic Lehoux; 5. Robert Henri, 1865‑1929, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, (1916), Oil on canvas, Overall: 49 15/16 x 72in. (126.8 x 182.9 cm), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Flora Whitney Miller 86.70.3; 6.Edward Steichen (1879‑1973). Portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1931. Gelatin silver print mounted on board, Sheet: 16 5/8 × 13 7/16in. (42.2 × 34.1 cm)Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the family of Edith and Lloyd Goodrich 89.7 © 2015 The Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York ; 7. Georgia O'Keeffe, 1887‑1986, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, 1918, Oil on canvas, 35 x 29 15/16in. (88.9 x 76 cm), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Emily Fisher Landau in honor of Tom Armstrong 91.90, ©2014 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society ( ARS), New York; 8. Edward Hopper, 1882‑1967, Early Sunday Morning, (1930), Oil on canvas, 35 3/16 x 60in. (89.4 x 152.4 cm), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.426 © Whitney Museum of American Art; 9. Photograph © Nic Lehoux; 10. Frank Stella, Gobba, zoppa e collotorto, 1985. Oil, urethane enamel, fluorescent alkyd, acrylic, and printing ink on etched magnesium and aluminum. 137 x 120 1/8 x 34 3/8 in. (348 x 305 x 87.5 cm). The Art Institute of Chicago; Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund; Ada Turnbull Hertle Endowment 1986.93. © 2015 Frank Stella/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. All photos courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art