If You Build It, They Will Come: The Inauguration of a New Era at the Whitney

originally published on ArtSlant on April 24, 2015

Picture this: on a sunny day, you are walking through the meatpacking district in Downtown Manhattan. You walk down the cobblestone streets, passing the high-end clothing stores; you pass the Standard Hotel and stumble upon the foot of the High Line. 

As you approach Gansevoort Street, you notice a new building that doesn’t look like the others: bordering the West Side Highway, you walk towards this large, strikingly asymmetrical building and are dumbfounded by the pure magnitude of its structure. This building is the all new Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Designed by Renzo Piano, the new building’s mission is to “create an environment in which visitors will be encouraged to connect deeply with art through an irreplaceable first-hand experience,” according to Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director. Almost twice the size of its former home, the Whitney’s gallery spaces have benefitted immensely from their new spatial arrangements. Piano’s design was conceived as a “laboratory for artists” and aims to provide an engaging environment not only for artists, but for critics, scholars, curators, and creatives alike.

Attending the press day with several ArtSlant staff last week, our morning began with addresses by Adam D. Weinberg, Donna de Salvo (Chief Curator and Deputy Director of Programs) and the building’s designer Renzo Piano (who referred to the building’s lobby as a piazza larga during his speech, causing ripples of laughter throughout the room). During 40 minutes of speeches, the audience saw the dramatic entrance of the fire department and medics who came to attend to woman who collapsed (we hope she is ok); Lightening the afternoon, New York Magazine’s Senior Art Critic and ham Jerry Saltz did his social waltz around the museum and was sure to converse with everyone in sight; my personal favorite activity was observing every attendee’s perfectly structured outfit, as the corridors turned into a temporary runway.

On Friday, May 1, the new Whitney Museum opens to the public with America Is Hard to See, which examines art in America ranging from 1900 to today. Pulling works from the Whitney’s permanent collection, the enormous building's galleries illuminate the collection's gems, some of which have never been presented before. We were blown away by the architecture of the new premises: this is truly how art should be seen. The galleries are flooded with natural light, and none of the internal walls of the exhibition spaces are permanent meaning that each exhibition can take on the space freely and in new ways. 

Amidst the grand entrance to the museum, the four elevators that take you to the galleries are themselves an art work. Entitled Six in Four, the elevators are tangible imaginative installations by Richard Artschwager, each one different. “Employing materials such as plastic laminate, glass, and etched stainless steel, the four elevators are the culmination of a body of work based on six themes that occupied Artschwager’s imagination since the mid-1970s: door, window, table, basket, mirror, and rug.”

The new building features interactive terraces for each floor, allowing for traditional interior art space, while affording movement outside. The terraces and immense windows incorporate a vast amount of natural light within the galleries and grant a mimetic relationship to the outside world. Hosting some exceptional sculptures and communal sanctuary, the Whitney’s new terraces interweave the building’s incredible geometries. They also provide some of the most breathtaking views of Manhattan’s skyline—a proper scene to remind visitors of the museum's roots.

Organized chronologically, the current exhibition presents works such as Georgia O’Keeffe’s soft colors, Max Weber’s abstract compositions and John Covert’s lightly collaged paintings, on the top floor, the smallest floor of galleries, focused on works created between 1910 and 1940. As the exhibition continues, viewers encounter works from 1925-1960 and 1950–1975, where the exhibition advances into the present with the emergence of new technologies and the expanded use of a wider range of materials. (While the dating arrangement does not flow consecutively, the movements these works chart allow for the intricate map of American art to speak exuberantly and passionately). Between Robert Rauschenberg’s Satellite and Thomas Downing’s illusionistic painting Five, the mid-century artworks encourage viewers to question what they see. The entire floor flows with the energy of chaos, compulsion and madness. It’s brilliant.  

The climax of the exhibition comes on the 5th floor (our advice, start from the top and work your way down) hosting works from 1965 to today. Here Jean-Michel Basquiat, Nam June Paik, and Mike Kelley are among the blockbusters. Each floor is a self-contained era in American Art, the marks of the dawn of new artistic expression, a visual representation of contemporary culture, social history, and politics. Weaving through the galleries with an in-depth historical lens, America Is Hard to Seeillustrates the formative years of American art’s evolution and development. 

A new building is a perfect opportunity to address the blurred lines of American identity and what it means for "American Art" and for a Museum of American Art. Who is represented here? Artists born in the Americas, those who have adopted this as their home, or is this definition unnecessary—as diverse as America itself?

The Whitney has created a space to embody community. Natives and tourists alike are sure to be in awe of this new home for a fundamental collection of American art, one that scintillates with the cultural production of decades in the beating heart of New York City.

Using Format