The guards are back! Oh, yes, the living breathing ones, sure, but also Fred Wilson’s “Guarded View,” four headless mannequins made of wood, paint, steel, and fabric, dressed as museum security guards, reflecting on the nameless identifies of those empowered to protect our cultural assets. On the day of the press preview for the new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York’s Meatpacking District, a security guard leaning near the label for this work moved quietly out of the way when she saw, from my squinting eyes, that I was trying to read it.
Conspicuously absent from the new space was the little village nestled off the stairway in the former building. “Dwellings,” clay mountains with miniature buildings and ritual spaces for fictional nomads by Charles Simonds, is a site-specific work and stayed behind in the Marcel Breuer building.
The new Whitney, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano as a laboratory for artists, doubles the exhibition space the Whitney had in its Madison Avenue home. As I walk around I understand the need for the larger space. Art is so much bigger now than the comparatively diminutive canvases of Edward Hopper and Arthur Dove that filled the 1966 building, with its iconic reverse-stepped facade. Today we have gallery-sized installations such as Karen Kilimnik’s “The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers,” 1989, that includes speakers blasting music from the 1980s. Draped black velvet, mirrors and frames, broken-glass, posters of John Steed and Emma Peel, silver tea pots and candelabra — scatter art like this takes up a lot of space. Built with 4,000 tons of steel to support the structure, the new Whitney boasts column-free viewing.
All eight floors of the new building are consumed by the inaugural exhibit, “America is Hard to See,” a re-examination of the history of American art from 1900 to today. With more than 600 works by 400 artists, it offers new perspectives on the Whitney’s collection of American art and is the most extensive display of the collection ever. America IS hard to see — here in this new cultural district, we see only the stratosphere, the upper crust.
Yet through the lens of artists we are transported. Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange show us a side of depression-era America; through the eyes of Alice Neel we see a Communist activist and union organizer and a bandaged Andy Warhol; John Steuart Curry shows us a “Baptism in Kansas”; and Carroll Dunham (father of “Girls” creator Lena Dunham) flashes us with the genitalia of a bather.
Even the elevators have been turned into art installations. “Six in Four” was the last major work created by Richard Artschwager (1923-2013). Each is an immersive installation, so that visitors experience standing under a table; being on a rug in front of a mirror; find themselves opposite an unexpected door and next to a window; or contained in a giant floating woven basket. At night, all four are lit and visible from the outside — which may be the best way to see them, because on the day of my visit we were squeezed in like sardines.
For those who suffer claustrophobia, or elevator-phobia, or sardine-ophobia, there is a cement staircase from which hangs a light installation by Felix Gonsalez-Torres. It’s especially exciting to view it from the top, looking down, or from the bottom, looking up.
With installations in functional spaces, I found myself having a deja vu to the 2008 Whitney Biennial, when Mungo Thomson’s installation in the coat check area created clanging chimes from the hangers.
I came of age at the Whitney. As soon as I was old enough to take the subway from Brooklyn, I began making sojourns to see Hopper and Dove, who were the gods of my religion, as well as Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Scheeler, Charles Demuth, and Oscar Bluemner. Calder’s Circus was my temple (and which happily made the move and is on view). One of my more recent ecstatic experiences at the Whitney was the Yayoi Kusama retrospective, with her dot paintings that extended to various off-site locations, including stores on Madison Avenue. After visits to the Whitney I’d buy chestnuts from the street vendors to eat on my walk back to the subway.
From New Jersey, it was always an ordeal getting to the Madison Avenue location, either taking a bus uptown from Penn Station or, on a nice day, walking through Central Park — which robbed time spent at the museum itself. Now, one need only walk a few blocks from Penn Station to the High Line and then enjoy a walk along one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, with views of the Hudson River framed by Piet Oudolf’s landscaping in homage to the plant life that once grew along the rail bed. There’s even art to enjoy along the High Line, including a mural by Ed Ruscha.
At the Whitney, I remember when David Hammons’ 1992 giant spiky thing made from African American hair harvested from the floors of Harlem barbershops and threaded onto bendable wires anchored in rock was first exhibited — it’s nice to see it again in its new home.
And Mike Kelley — I recently saw an exhibition of his work at the Pompidou Center in Paris (also designed by Piano), and now here is his assemblage of stuffed toys and hand crocheted blankies on home turf. “More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid,” drawn from his teen years in 1960s Detroit, the politics of hippies, rock ‘n’ roll, underground comics, the poetry of Jon Sinclair and Iggy Pop, is a poignant commentary on the children who once cuddled these garish objects, presented in a Pollock-like composition.
I found myself thinking about when my children were small and science museums underwent a revolution from the stuffed animal-diorama type to the please-touch variety, and everything was suddenly interactive, like a big toy. Now kids were playing with these toys, but did they get the science? Art tourists are flocking to fancy new museums designed by starchitects all over the globe — but are they here for the art, or for the building with its breathtaking views of lower Manhattan and its amenities, not least of which are dining facilities operated by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group.
A museum marries art and architecture, but on a first visit, there’s no denying it’s all about the building and its views.
“I’m like a singer who doesn’t explain the song,” architect Renzo Piano said in his thick Italian accent — and then proceeded to explain the song. “It wasn’t easy — I loved the Breuer building and think of it as the Whitney.”
He said he wanted his design to be an open, accessible space for artists to imagine what they can do. “I call this space a piazza — in Italian there are 10 different ways to call a piazza. It connects to the outside — the building talks to the city and to the rest of the world.”
The Whitney had been seeking to expand since the 1980s; Michael Graves was among those to design expansion plans. The Breuer building was vacated in October, 2014, with the closing of the Jeff Koons retrospective, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has an agreement to use it as exhibition space through 2023 — visitors will once again have a chance to view Simonds’ little people in the stairwell.
“Some day we may take the building back,” said director Adam D. Weinberg. “We may become a two site museum.” In the meantime, the new space is a home for risk and innovation, for creativity today and into the future, he added, with places for hands-on learning.
From the fifth floor, there is a large atrium with views eastward and gray leather sofas from which to enjoy the view. The multiple outdoor terraces serve as outdoor galleries with state-of-the-art facilities for performance, film and video.
On subsequent visits, once the building’s impact has been absorbed, one can embark on a treasure hunt for old friends, such as Bill Traylor, Horace Pippin, Joseph Cornell, Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn, Louise Bourgeoise, David Smith, Lee Bontecou, Louise Nevelson, Alex Katz, and Robert Rauschenberg, and a chance to marvel at the new, such as Carol Bove’s “Adventures in Poetry” (2002), a series of wood shelves mounted on the wall with metal brackets containing well-worn paperbacks by Ralph Ellison, Henry Miller, Jean Genet and others; some titled “The New Avant-Garde,” “The Radical Therapist,” “LSD,” and Psychedelic Review. It seems like the home of someone familiar.
Speaking of returning home, the new building is a sort of homecoming to the neighborhood where artist and philanthropist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942) founded the museum in 1930. She was an early and ardent supporter of modern American art, nurturing groundbreaking artists at a time when audiences were preoccupied with Old Masters. There is a portrait of Gertrude on a divan, looking elegant in a blue and yellow chemise and green silk lounge pajamas, and a small exhibit of the early Whitney artists — William Glackens, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, Charles Sheeler, Guy Pene Du Bois and Berenice Abbott, among them — on the ground floor.
In the Meatpacking District, with its luxury hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs and boutiques, frequented by the finely dressed, they still pack meat. Looking down from one of the terraces I saw the bright red products being loaded into carts at Weichsel Beef. Or was that another installation?
Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, New York. Mondays, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesdays, closed; Wednesdays, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursdays, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays, 10:30 to 10 p.m.; Saturdays, 10:30 p.m.; Sundays, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Adults, $22, seniors/students $18, under 18 free; pay-what-you-wish tickets are available at the admissions desk on Fridays, 7 to 9:30 p.m. 212-570-3600 or whitney.org.