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The 100 best paintings in New York: Whitney Museum of American Art

Discover which of the 100 best paintings in New York can be found at the Whitney Museum of American Art

By Time Out New York contributors
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RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the Whitney Museum in NYC

Children Meeting (1978), Elizabeth Murray
Children Meeting (1978), Elizabeth Murray
Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art; New York/The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York

Children Meeting (1978), Elizabeth Murray

Rank: 89

In her abstract works, Murray explored the evocative power of pure color and form unencumbered by concerns about representation. And in this piece, energetic shapes and hues straight out of the visual vocabulary of comic books suggest the playful exuberance of childhood.—Heather Corcoran 

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art; New York/The Murray-Holman Family Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS); New York

State Park (1946), Jared French
State Park (1946), Jared French
Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art; New York/Sheldan Collins

State Park (1946), Jared French

Rank: 88

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 mannequinlike figures frozen in profile on a seaside boardwalk. The overtanned 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 to the exuberant if jaded paintings of Paul Cadmus, a former lover and lifelong friend.)—Howard Halle 

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art; New York/Sheldan Collins

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The Artist and His Mother (1926–36), Arshile Gorky
The Artist and His Mother (1926–36), Arshile Gorky
Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art; New York/ARS

The Artist and His Mother (1926–36), Arshile Gorky

Rank: 85

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.—Howard Halle

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art; New York/ARS

The Subway (1950), George Tooker
The Subway (1950), George Tooker
Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award 50.23 © Estate of George Tooker, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

The Subway (1950), George Tooker

Rank: 78

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. A classic of its genre.—Howard Halle 

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award 50.23 © Estate of George Tooker, Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York

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’61 Pontiac (1968–69), Robert Bechtle
’61 Pontiac (1968–69), Robert Bechtle
Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Richard and Dorothy Rodgers Fund 70.16 © Robert Bechtle

’61 Pontiac (1968–69), Robert Bechtle

Rank: 77

Bay Area painter Robert Bechtle could 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 still-life tradition, ’61 Pontiac is a scene in which the matter-of-fact becomes transcendent.—Howard Halle

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Richard and Dorothy Rodgers Fund 70.16 © Robert Bechtle

Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918), Georgia O’Keeffe
Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918), Georgia O’Keeffe
Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Emily Fisher Landau in honor of Tom Armstrong 91.90 © 2015 O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.

Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918), Georgia O’Keeffe

Rank: 64

In her abstraction O’Keeffe sought to capture the intangible essence of music and nature, each with its ability to evoke emotion and sensation nonverbally. She was none too pleased, however, when critics focused on what they saw (understandably) as sexual connotations in this colorful work.—Heather Corcoran

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Emily Fisher Landau in honor of Tom Armstrong 91.90 © 2015 O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.

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Heater (1964), Vija Celmins
Heater (1964), Vija Celmins
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee 95.19 © Vija Celmins, Courtesy of McKee Gallery, N.Y.

Heater (1964), Vija Celmins

Rank: 62

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.—Howard Halle

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Committee 95.19 © Vija Celmins, Courtesy of McKee Gallery, N.Y.

Early Sunday Morning (1930), Edward Hopper
Early Sunday Morning (1930), Edward Hopper
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.426 © Whitney Museum, N.Y.

Early Sunday Morning (1930), Edward Hopper

Rank: 60

One of the most iconic works by one of New York’s most iconic artists, this piece was described by the man himself as “almost a literal translation of Seventh Avenue.” Though Hopper was a realist, he often pared down his subjects, simplifying them to their essential forms organized by strong geometry.—Heather Corcoran

Photograph: Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.426 © Whitney Museum, N.Y.

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