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Whitney Museum: Top 25 works of art at America's art museum (SLIDE SHOW)

From Edward Hopper to the biggest names in today's art, TONY picks the top works of art in the essential museum of American art: The Whitney.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Edward Hopper, A Woman in the Sun, 1961
50th-anniversary gift of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Hackett in honor of Edith and Lloyd Goodrich
The thing that distinguishes the Whitney from MoMA, the Guggenheim and even the Met is that it doesn’t own any Picassos, Matisses, Kandinskys and the like. But then, it is a museum of American art, as its name says. Still, the Whitney more than makes up for this by what it does have: For instance, it’s pretty much Edward Hopper central, with a dozen or so of his works in its holdings. This painting, created late in the artist’s career, is one of his most iconic. The stark nakedness of the figure, plus the louche details—the cigarette in the subject’s hands, the kicked-off high heels under the bed—provide vague hints of a walk-of-shame backstory, while the fall of bright light in which the model stands seems to deliver redemption and harsh judgment at the same time. The alienation and resignation pervading this scene—the sense that in America, you are nakedly on your own—is Hopper at his masterful best.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Marsden Hartley, Painting, Number 5, 1914–15
Hartley was a key figure in early American modernism, his work arguably an expression of something like queer aesthetics avant la lettre. This painting is one of several inspired by Hartley’s infatuation with a young German army officer he met while living in Berlin during the lead-up to World War I. It’s also a document of the artist being swept up in the pomp and spectacle of Prussian militarism as Germany girded itself for war. Hartley translates all of these feelings into an abstracted language that balances Eros and poetry, transforming ribbons, medals and insignia into a controlled riot of bold, boisterous color.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

George Bellows, Dempsey and Firpo, 1924
Purchased with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
This canvas recounts the bout between American champion Jack Dempsey and Argentine challenger Luis Ángel Firpo on September 14, 1923, at New York City’s Polo Grounds. Bellows, one of the great painters of the Ashcan School, had been assigned by the New York Evening Journal to sketch the fight. Firpo wasn’t given much of a chance against Dempsey, and was knocked down seven times in the first round. But then, suddenly, Firpo landed a roundhouse right on Dempsey, sending him sailing through the ropes and onto the sportswriters’ ringside table. That’s the moment captured here, made all the more epic by the painting’s friezelike scheme. Bellows conflates an instance frozen in time with timelessness, as the two pugilists are locked together in a dynamic symmetry of muscle and limb. For the record, Dempsey rebounded in the second round, finishing off Firpo to retain his crown.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Alexander Calder, Calder’s Circus, 1926–31
The Whitney considers this Calder work its signature possession, and no wonder: Each element—some 70 figures of performers and animals, as well as 100 additional pieces making up the flags, carpets and nets—was fashioned by hand to create a miniature big top. The work was originally made in Paris, where Calder would use it to put on performances—first for an audience made up exclusively of the Parisian avant-garde; later for friends and family—moving the figures around and supplying the voice of the ringmaster, while also using records of circus music to create the proper ambience. It’s a marvelous mix of childlike innocence and modernist sophistication.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Alexander Calder, Fanni, the Belly Dancer, from Calder’s Circus, 1926–31
This detail shows one of the performers, and also some of the ingenious engineering Calder devised to animate his performers—in this case a wire running to a tiny crank that makes the figure undulate.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Georgia O’Keeffe, Summer Days, 1936
Gift of Calvin Klein
Georgia O’Keeffe’s art became indelibly linked to the American Southwest almost from the moment she first visited Taos, NM, in 1929. The experience changed her work. But more than that, the desert offered her a sense of independence and escape from the male-dominated artistic circle surrounding her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, especially after she learned of his affair with another woman. Following Stieglitz’s death in 1946, she permanently settled in New Mexico. But even before that, she’d begun painting ethereal combinations of still life and landscape like this one, in which a spray of freshly picked flowers and a bleached antelope skull emerge dreamlike out of clouded sky over a range of red volcanic mountains. Summer Days reads like a Symbolist meditation on manifest destiny—at least as it applied to one woman looking to create a space for herself in a world where that was still rare.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Arshile Gorky, The Artist and His Mother, c. 1926–36
Gift of Julien Levy for Maro and Natasha Gorky in memory of their father
Gorky is a foundational figure of Abstract Expressionism—the link between European Surrealism and the rambunctious group of Americans who seized the reins of modern art and never looked back. But at its heart, his work is an art of memory, conditioned by his experience as a teenager who came to the United States in 1920 to escape the genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turks in his native Armenia. Although his father made it to this country a dozen years earlier, he left behind a son and a wife; the latter died of starvation. The trauma clung to Gorky for the rest of his life (which ended in suicide), and this painting, based on a family photo, is redolent of the past and the impossibility of escaping it. The tilt of Gorky’s head toward his cowled mother is meant to evoke traditional Byzantine icons of the Madonna and child, while her blazing black stare seems to demand justice for historical wrongs. Her spectral presence haunts the viewer, much as it did Gorky himself.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Charles Burchfield, Noontide in Late May, 1917
Charles Burchfield was an Ohio-born painter who was equal parts mystic, romantic and neurotic. His landscapes virtually quiver with an overabundance of feeling for the natural world, as if trees and the like could be channeled on the quantum level. Noontide in Late May is one of several Burchfields in the Whitney, but it’s the one painted in 1917—the artist’s self-described “golden year,” when he returned to Ohio after a brief sojourn in New York. He began using watercolor as his primary medium, and here, dashed-off washes and undulating lines capture spring as something febrile and alive: touched by the divine, but also by a hint of madness.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Charles Burchfield, Noontide in Late May, 1917
Charles Burchfield was an Ohio-born painter who was equal parts mystic, romantic and neurotic. His landscapes virtually quiver with an overabundance of feeling for the natural world, as if trees and the like could be channeled on the quantum level. Noontide in Late May is one of several Burchfields in the Whitney, but it’s the one painted in 1917—the artist’s self-described “golden year,” when he returned to Ohio after a brief sojourn in New York. He began using watercolor as his primary medium, and here, dashed-off washes and undulating lines capture spring as something febrile and alive: touched by the divine, but also by a hint of madness.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Federico Castellón, The Dark Figure, 1938
Like Arshille Gorky, Castellón came to the United States from his native Spain at a young age: He was seven when his family settled in Brooklyn. A graphic artist and children’s-book illustrator as well as a painter, Castellón practiced a brand of Surrealism that was obviously indebted to countryman Salvador Dalí. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as a mere imitator: There is something uniquely riveting about his works, especially this nightmarish gem dominated by the hooded female on the right. One can speculate about what she represents, or what her relationship is to the artist, whose self-portrait is seen on the left. One could wonder as well about the series of rings that seem to emanate from the artist’s head like cartoon thought bubbles. But what distinguished American Surrealists like Castellón from their European counterparts was the sense of personal displacement evident in this piece.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Jared French, State Park, 1946
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. R.H. Donnelley Erdman
French was a practitioner of Magical Realism, a midcentury offshoot of Surrealism that eschewed discordant motifs for plausible depictions of reality that were nonetheless pervaded by a sense of the uncanny or of something not quite right. Rendered in egg tempera, State Park is exemplary in this regard, with its mannequin-like figures frozen in profile on a seaside boardwalk. The übertanned lifeguard on the far right—with his upraised phallic baton—and the paler older gent on his left—who, depicted at a much smaller scale, seems to be boxing the former’s genitals—are particularly noteworthy for their throbbing if conflicted homoeroticism. (French, an upstate native, was gay, and his work stands in sharp contrast with the exuberant if jaded paintings of Paul Cadmus, a former lover and lifelong friend.) For sheer weirdness, it’s hard to top State Park.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Man Ray, La Fortune, 1938
Ray was the great Philadelphia-born pioneer of Dada, Surrealism, and such photographic techniques as solarization and the photogram (which he immodestly dubbed “the Rayogram”). He was an intimate of Marcel Duchamp, and his coconspirator in a number of projects, most notably Duchamp’s transformation into female alter ego Rrose Sélavy. Ray was known more for his photos and surrealist objets than for his canvases, but he always considered himself a painter first, and in that respect, this work is arguably a masterpiece. Ray had lived and worked in Paris for more than 20 years before undertaking La Fortune as conflict began to loom over Europe. It’s a meditation on how the exigencies of life or fate impinge upon artistic creativity, and how outside events can alter careers. Ray lays his theme out in the form of a billiard table thrusting in sharply angled perspective toward a distant horizon, over which storms clouds colored like an artist’s palette gather menacingly. Ray was right about how the war would change his life; he left Paris for America within a couple of years of finishing La Fortune—a painting that has become the punctuation on his most fertile period.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Joseph Stella, The Brooklyn Bridge: Variation on an Old Theme, 1939
Yet another immigrant to the United States (in this case from a small village in Italy), Stella is sometimes associated with the Precisionist School, though his work was far more fantastical. He painted six views of the Brooklyn Bridge; this one, perhaps the best known, shows the view toward Manhattan through the bridge’s Gothic arches and suspension cables. It’s a religious icon, a stained-glass window on canvas for some imagined church of New York and its indomitable energy.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

William H. Johnson, Jitterbugs VI, 1941–42
Born in Florence, SC, this African-American artist had a varied output that ranged from Van Gogh–like Expressionism to folk art. His peripatetic style might reflect his own peregrinations, from the South to Harlem to Paris and back again to New York City, where in 1938 he started working for the WPA. But there’s no denying the sheer ebullience of his work, especially this silk-screen print of a couple in a club, engaging in the latest dance craze. More than a feast for the eyes, it’s an image that practically makes you move your feet.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

George Tooker, The Subway, 1950
Purchased with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award
An intimate of Paul Cadmus and Jared French, George Tooker was, like French, a Magical Realist who employed the technically demanding medium of egg tempera. He was also gay, though his work, in capturing a postwar sense of alienation and unease, veered more toward Thanatos than Eros. This painting is Tooker’s best-known, and its depiction of straphangers moving somnambulantly through a carceral realm of tiled hallways and staircases suggests an odd cocktail of Piero della Francesca and M.C. Escher. It’s a classic of its genre.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Jay DeFeo, The Rose, 1958–66
Gift of the estate of Jay DeFeo and purchased with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and the Judith Rothschild Foundation
So many legends have accreted around The Rose that its backstory is nearly as packed as its densely layered, abstract surface. DeFeo, a Bay Area, Beat-era figure, labored on The Rose for eight years, and would have kept working on it, too, adding more and more oil paint mixed with mica, if not for the fact that artist and artwork were evicted from the San Francisco apartment where it was made. The piece had to be forklifted out of DeFeo’s studio: Measuring some 11 by 8 feet, and nearly 11 inches thick in some places, The Rose weighs 3,000 pounds. After it was shown for the first time in 1969, it languished sight unseen for more than two decades, buried in a wall at the San Francisco Art Institute, where DeFeo occasionally taught. The Rose was finally exhumed and restored in the mid-1990s at a cost of $250,000. DeFeo never made anything quite like it again, but does the work live up to the legend? Absolutely: It’s a masterpiece of artistic obsession, a monument to perseverance and to the pursuit of artistic truth, however one defines it.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Vija Celmins, Heater, 1964
Like Gerhard Richter, Vija Celmins developed a deadpan style of Photorealist painting that goes beyond photography and even realism. Her subjects may ostensibly be seascapes, spiderwebs and star-filled skies, but what her work really seems to capture is the act of perception itself, that instant when mind and eye combine to make sense of the world. Heater comes from Celmins’s earliest series of paintings, which featured objects lying around her studio. Its most evident characteristic is the stark contrast between the mesmerizing orange glow of electric coils and the grayish tone of the rest of the painting. It’s almost as if the whole point of the exercise is to note, obviously, that this is what a heater does—it heats. Yet somehow, the treatment of the object allows the viewer to wander beyond this mundane observation and to consider the elastic nature of reality.

Whitney Museum of American Art

Nancy Grossman, Head 1968, 1968
Purchased with funds from the Howard and Jean Lipman Foundation

Part of a series of stark, leather-covered busts created between the late 1960s and the ’80s, Head generated quite a fuss when it debuted, thanks to its obvious allusions to S&M fetishism. But while all kinds of meanings have been ascribed to it (that it was a comment on the Vietnam War or a feminist statement on the shifting power between men and women), the artist herself describes the work as a self-portrait.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Paul Thek, Untitled, 1966
Untitled is part of Paul Thek’s “Technological Reliquaries” series, which won him acclaim in the mid-’60s with its send-up of Minimalism. In these pieces, Thek undermined the hard-edged, antiseptic presence of Plexiglas vitrines by filling them with hyperrealistically rendered body parts that were torn, fragmented and oozing the effluvia of decomposition. Contrasting figuration—presented in extremis—with abstraction, they resemble the remnants of a suicide bombing preserved for posterity. They speak to our current anxieties about terrorism, but Thek’s point was more likely a broader one, steeped in his Catholic upbringing: that space-age know-how cannot stave off the inevitable destructions of the flesh.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Alice Neel, Andy Warhol, 1970
Gift of Timothy Collins
On June 3, 1968, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol in his studio, firing a .32 caliber automatic at him three times. Two bullets missed their mark, but the third tore into Warhol’s left side, passing through one lung and exiting the other. In between, the bullet ripped through his spleen, stomach, liver and esophagus. He was rushed to Columbus Hospital, where doctors gave him a 50-50 chance to live. Warhol survived to sit for this astonishing portrait by Neel. It’s one of several, actually, chronicling his trauma, if you include photographs taken by Richard Avedon, in which the artist bares his wounded torso. But while there’s something almost brazenly sexual about Warhol’s poses for Avedon’s camera—Andy can be seen coyly pulling up a leather jacket and black turtleneck to reveal stitches worthy of Frankenstein—Neel uses her inimitable style to capture the shirtless Pope of Pop as a vulnerable wraith. His shoulders and chest sag, his arms are alarmingly thin, and an elastic orthopedic brace pops out of his trousers just under the scars crisscrossing his body. These stark reminders of mortality are juxtaposed with Warhol’s expression: eyes and mouth closed, face lifted as if he were awaiting benediction or the carrying out of a final sentence. His body forms a cross with the schematically rendered couch that serves as the portrait’s setting. It’s a kind of crucifixion scene, in which one genius of American art plays out his passion for another.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Charles Simonds, Dwellings, 1981
Purchased with funds from the Louis and Bessie Adler Foundation Inc.
Simonds’s tiny pueblo has occupied a corner of the Whitney’s staircase for decades, serving almost as the museum’s mascot. Working in the radical ferment of late-’60s, early–’70s New York, Simonds was a miniaturist of such forms as earthworks and site-specific installation, adding his brick dwellings—meant to house a mythical race of little people—to crumbling, abandoned buildings and tenements in lower Manhattan. Like Gordon Matta-Clark, he was imagining ways in which art could fill the urban void left behind by fiscal insolvency, deindustrialization and the postwar suburban flight. But his approach was more surreal, cinematic and dreamlike—qualities especially apparent at the Whitney, where a trek down the stairs brings you closer and closer to Dwellings like a descending helicopter.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Yayoi Kusama, Fireflies on the Water, 2002
Kusama first staked her claim on the New York art world in the 1960s, with her dot paintings; nude outdoor happenings; suggestive, tendril-like “Accumulation” sculptures—and mirrored environments like Fireflies on the Water. All these works were compelled, in part, by hallucinations Kusama suffered since childhood, and it is this awareness of one reality intruding upon another that Kusama has aimed to translate into physical, optical terms. Fireflies certainly accomplishes that, creating a space that’s at once wondrous and destabilizing, and also representative of Kusama’s larger achievements in breaking down the boundaries between outside and inside, West and East, male and female.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Charles Ray, Puzzle Bottle, 1995
Purchased with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee and Barbara and Eugene Schwartz
Ray’s works have always been distinguished by perceptual sleights of hand, whether the piece in question was, say, a large solid cube in black which turned out to be a tank perfectly filled with india ink, or a toy fire truck the size of the real thing. This ship-in-a-bottle self-portrait of the artist with a slightly worried expression likewise plays with the viewer’s experience, posing the titular conundrum: How did the figure get in there? The work also draws a parallel between the artist and the work of art as a container of ideas.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Robert Bechtle, ’61 Pontiac, 1968–69
Purchased with funds from the Richard and Dorothy Rodgers Fund
Bay Area painter Robert Bechtle might be described as the great luminist of midcentury suburban America; his work revels in the light bouncing off that most conspicuous symbol of the era’s prosperity—the family car. However, his paintings have never been characterized by the sharply delineated, dazzling reflections that are such a feature of ’70s Photorealism, a genre he has been often—and wrongly—associated with. Rather color, as in this self-portrait of the artist with his family, seems to emanate from the surface of the canvas—most notably in the creamy tones of the station wagon that stands just behind the young couple and their small children, unifying them with the composition. As in the best of the Dutch sill-life tradition, ’61 Pontiac is a scene in which the matter-of-fact becomes transcendent.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Charles LeDray, Milk and Honey, 1994–96
A tour de force, LeDray’s Wunderkammer holds 2,000 tiny porcelain objects, each apparently thrown on a Lilliputian wheel. There are teapots, jugs and vases in an astonishing variety of shapes and styles, and it works on the mind in almost the same way as China’s famed terra-cotta warriors, only with the scale reversed. But beyond the issue of craft, the piece serves as an example of a singular work emerging from a multiplicity of forms.

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Charles LeDray, Milk and Honey, 1994–96

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

R.H. Quaytman, Distracting Distance, Chapter 16, 2010
Quaytman’s deeply cerebral practice unites painting, site-specificity and contextual, if not always institutional, critique. She organizes her work as a series of self-reflexive “chapters,” building one upon the other to create a sort of formal metanarrative that involves the repetition of highly coded motifs. There is, for example, her use of half-tone silk-screen printing and hand-painted strips that turn out to be trompe l’oeil renderings of pieces of plywood seen edge on—a reference to the painting’s own plywood support. Here, Quaytman depicts the very gallery in which the piece was hung during the 2010 Whitney Biennial. The right sight side is dominated by one of the museum’s notable “eyebrow” windows—a feature of Marcel Breuer’s design for the Whitney building. To the left, meanwhile, Quaytman has called upon the services of performance artist K8 Hardy to reenact Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun—complete with kicked-off shoes and cigarette in hand—only in mirror reverse. It’s a wry homage to the Whitney, and to its role as the essential repository of American art.



The painting of a building in between Noontide in Late May and The Dark Figure is missing copy. Please update. Thanks

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