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Review: The Whitney opens its new home with a survey of American Art

Written by
Howard Halle

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the Whitney Museum in NYC

Fresh starts are as American as apple pie, so it’s only fitting that the Whitney, dedicated to American art, would attempt to shrug off its status as the also-ran of New York museums with a new home purpose-built to kick major institutional ass. On first impression, it succeeds wildly.

Its latest incarnation, a silvery hulk designed by Renzo Piano, lords over a once-gritty Meatpacking District now crushed under the weight of high fashion and tourism, another thumb on the scale of transformation. It’s certainly a far cry from Marcel Breuer’s compact brutalist bunker, which opened on Madison Avenue in 1966 just as the city began its descent into crime and bankruptcy. Today, Gotham is the gleaming financial capital of a global imperium, and in that respect, Piano’s edifice totally fits in: It resembles nothing so much as a nuclear-powered guided-missile cruiser, moored at the foot of the High Line. Jutting toward the Hudson, it seems poised to shoot Tomahawks at New Jersey.

Inside, it’s a different matter. The lobby stretching along Gansevoort Street is all light, glass and steel—grand yet far more airy than, say, MoMA’s stockyard-chute entrance hall, which opens up only as it turns toward the sculpture garden. The Whitney’s ground floor contains the usual bits of business (ticketing and membership counters, a bookstore, a Danny Meyer–run restaurant) and some not-so-usual ones: a small gallery that will host free exhibitions, a bank of elevators that is also an artwork by Pop-Formica maestro Richard Artschwager. Both contribute to a populist tone that feels more genuine than manufactured.

Other amenities upstairs include theaters for performance and media art and another Danny Meyer eatery. Most important, the galleries are well proportioned, and four of the museum’s eight floors open onto outdoor sculpture terraces with views of the city in all directions. Is the building an overgrown machine for tourists? Absolutely, but that’s a condition of the cultural environment; the Whitney, out of sheer survival, has to play along.

With the inaugural show, “America Is Hard to See,” the curatorial team of Donna De Salvo, Carter E. Foster, Dana Miller and Scott Rothkopf employ a roughly chronological hanging divided into titled sections. They use the permanent collection to tell several stories at once: of the Whitney itself and modernism’s growth in America, and the less-happy tale of a country evolving from provincial backwater to overweening superpower.

It begins, as it should, with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the Gilded Age heiress who, in the first decades of the past century, began to devote herself to the then-quixotic mission of promoting American artists. The museum bearing her name grew out of those efforts, and she is seen posed odalisque-style in a languid portrait by Robert Henri. Her image presides over an intimate installation in the lobby space of the early works she collected.

Geographically, the action moves upstairs to the top floor and then works its way down as it moves chronologically from the onset of the Depression to the present day. Decades bleed one into the next, but the zeitgeists of specific periods come through. Indeed, the show lays them down like cards on a table: the optimism of the Roaring ’20s, the economic turmoil of the 1930s; the home front’s mix of isolation and patriotism during WWII; the Cold War’s push-pull of anticommunist paranoia and countercultural revolt, which birthed AbEx, Pop Art and Minimalism; and today’s postmodern relativism and false sense of exceptionalism.

Throughout, De Salvo & Co. surface little-known names and field a vigorous roster of women and artists of color. Of course, such an in-depth look at the collection reveals weaknesses as well as strengths. In retrospect, it’s evident that the Whitney invested much too heavily in the art of identity politics, which looks more and more reductive with each passing year. The museum’s desire to signal social change is better served by decisions like dominating a room devoted to Abstract Expressionism with a huge canvas by Lee Krasner. It’s a plain statement of fact—that art history isn’t permanently fixed—and works brilliantly.

It would be nice if the Whitney built on such bold choices by scrapping the Biennial. That will never happen because it’s more brand than show, something no amount of additional square footage will change. But it does get us to the present predicament of culture being an asset for the powerful instead of a gesture of noblesse oblige, as it was in Gertrude’s time. Granted, the lobby is a tremendous public amenity; unlike MoMA, the Whitney isn’t being completely obvious about feeding visitors into the maw of a money-grubbing mecca. But ultimately, for all its difference in tone and the sense that the museum had no other realistic option but to go big or go home, the new Whitney is just as much of an expression of our imperial moment as the Modern.

On the plus side, the people at the Whitney appear cognizant of this fact. The inaugural-show title, after all, evokes a critical view of an America impossible to pin down because it’s constantly changing—for the worse these days, but maybe for the better in years to come. Whether a bigger Whitney means a better one is difficult to say, because its future is as hard to see as that of the country it reflects.

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