By simultaneously mining and questioning our past, we do not arrive at a comprehensive survey or tidy summation, but rather at a critical new beginning…” Thus does the Whitney Museum of American Art introduce the institution’s inaugural outing at its $422 million, Renzo Piano–designed digs. In fingersnap-speak, it’s all that and a can of Pringles. Visiting the museum also entails, for giddy skeptics, a sense of crisis averted. The mind boggles when one considers what could have gone spectacularly wrong in our age of swollen museum budgets, expansion at any cost, and entertainment as art.
Newly relocated in what was once Manhattan’s Pigalle, now turned the island’s Kardashian District, the Whitney has achieved the nearly impossible: instant landmark status. Picture the Brooklyn Bridge materializing out of East River mist, and you’ll have a sense of the awe the edifice suddenly commands. Here’s the consensus among both institutional allies and critics: Not only did the Whitney pull off its move downtown, but it also engineered a building to showcase art (as opposed to simply pandering to tourists). Less than a week after the ribbon-cutting, it’s safe to say few art lovers will miss the old Marcel Breuer ziggurat on 75th and Madison, now ceded to the Met.
Even if one wholly distrusts the bigger-is-better logic of art institutions these days — the MoMA’s $858 million transformation in 2004 and the $1 billion estimated cost to enlarge the L.A. County Museum of Art dwarf the Whitney’s price tag — it’s impossible to argue with what is, to date, New York’s most impressive piece of museum architecture (apologies to the stately Met). Inside, the Whitney is all big windows and flexible, sun-filled galleries; on the outside, its shell captures an essential slice of New York chutzpah. In 28,000 tons of steel, glass, and concrete, the museum effortlessly manages to be at once cocky and accessible.
On its eastern flank, the Whitney stoops to conquer, mimicking the height of the neighborhood’s four- and five-story brick buildings. On the west, it rises like an imperious sea monster — think the QE2. Yet the structure’s cagey Janus-face also appropriately contains what has long been the museum’s artistic mission. Billed as the “museum of American art” since 1931, the Whitney has, in modern times, become the world’s most New York–centric. As witnessed by serial controversies (courtesy of several Whitney Biennials) and the institution’s current show, the museum has at regular intervals turned edifyingly cosmopolitan, at others boorishly parochial.
Fortunately, the most self-effacing version of the 84-year-old institution is currently on view in what amounts to a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. Titled “America Is Hard to See,” the show is made up of a judicious yet expansive selection of 650 artworks culled from some 22,000 objects in the permanent collection. A homespun blockbuster that doubles as a history of the Whitney, the display documents modern art’s shifting perspectives and highlights the museum’s capacity to understand, harbor, and foment some of the most unorthodox and compelling arguments made for American visual culture.
Taking its title from a Robert Frost poem that centers on Columbus’s disappointment on reaching America — and a radical 1968 documentary of the same name by filmmaker Emile de Antonio — “America Is Hard to See” is a symphonic effort put together by an ensemble of professionals spread out over 63,000 square feet on several of the museum’s eight floors. Led by chief curator Donna De Salvo and curators Scott Rothkopf, Dana Miller, Carter E.
Foster, Jane Panetta, Catherine Taft, and Mia Curran, the exhibition exposes the
collection’s triumphs and failures. In rejecting the easy popularity of thematic shows, the Whitney has channeled Donald Rumsfeld. If wars should be fought with the army you have, then museums should be launched with their own collections, not star-humping displays.
The show opens modestly in a gallery off the ground floor with Robert Henri’s famous Odalisque-inspired portrait of the museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Accompanying her is a tidy selection of works by artists who frequented the museum’s predecessor, the Whitney Studio Club — among them George Luks, Stuart Davis, John French Sloan, and Edward Steichen. Art history’s next chapter, housed on the eighth floor, is activated either by walking or a quick elevator ride. If reached via the stairs, one experiences a cascading Félix González-Torres light installation; if by lift, one takes in handsome paneling by the late Richard Artschwager. The building’s summit is where the exhibition kicks off in earnest.
It’s important to stress how much these and other galleries in the museum contribute to the Whitney’s accounting of early-twentieth-century American art. Despite the significant number of modest-size works on view, one has the sense that (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf) each object has been assigned a room of its own. On the eighth floor, this happy illusion is conveyed by careful lighting and relatively low ceilings. These features grant the curators flexibility. Works loosely organized into 23 separate “chapters” — with each section’s name answering to the title of a specific work — cohere where the organizational scaffolding goes wobbly.
Witness the sparks thrown off between the following painted gems: Joseph Stella’s iconic view of the Brooklyn Bridge (in the “Machine Ornament” section), Georgia O’Keeffe’s flickering Abstraction (in the “Forms Abstracted” section), and Florine Stettheimer’s rosy portrait of Lower Manhattan (in the “Music, Pink and Blue” section). Though found in separate rooms, their overarching synthesis is made possible, in part, because the works don’t resemble postage stamps slapped onto billboards.
Floor seven summons together art from 1926 to 1960. Photographs by Walker Evans, a legendary glass-domed circus by Alexander Calder, and paintings by Edward Hopper (which the Whitney has collected in depth) share space with work by mostly forgotten artists — Lamar Baker, Mabel Dwight, and Ruth Asawa, among others. Here and in other sections, the curators’ inclusiveness is mostly illuminating. After the conflicts of the 1930s and ’40s comes the Big Reveal: The triumph of abstract expressionism arrives in a large, bright room that convenes epic canvases by (among others) Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner (she upstages everyone). Let there be light.
The remaining floors of this exhibition do an excellent job of living up to this early climax with frequent fireworks. These include several galleries of Pop art that give pride of place to less heralded purveyors like Tom Wesselmann, Allan D’Arcangelo, and Marisol Escobar; a fittingly noisy introduction to the art of the 1980s courtesy of video artists like Nam June Paik, Suzanne Lacy, and Cory Arcangel; and a beautiful fifth-story terrace installation of gummy-colored chairs by painter Mary Heilmann. Throughout “America Is Hard to See,” one has the sense of a well-oiled institution seizing an opportunity with total gusto. The Whitney has redefined itself brilliantly. I can’t wait to see what happens next.