The Whitney Museum
Copyright Vladimir Kagan, June 21, 2015
For the past 54 years, the Whitney Museum of American Art has been a shrill outsider in the hoi polio neighborhood of the Upper East Side; a location better suited for the Metropolitan Museum and The Frick Collection. Its only comparable neighbor had been Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum; a work of art in its own right.
The Whitney has finally returned to its roots. Not quite Greenwich Village, but to what was until recently considered an unsavory neighbor: the Meat Packing District.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptress in her own right and an avid advocate for living American artists, established the Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village in 1914 to exhibit artists works’ previously disregarded by the traditional academies. By 1929 she had assembled a collection of more than 500 works and generously offered them to The Metropolitan Museum of Art complete with an endowment. When the offer was refused, she set up her own museum with a radically different mandate, to focus exclusively on the art and artists of this country. The Whitney was founded in 1930, and opened in 1931 on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. In 1966 the museum moved into its Marcel Breuer designed building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street. It was a jolt to the neighborhood when it opened and a shock when it closed its doors after a massive retrospective for Jeff Koons. No one could quite believe its move to 99 Gansevoort Street and the Hudson River. Most “uptowners” hardly know where it is and how to get there. Even our taxi driver was confused until he consulted his GPS.
This was my usual Sunday excursion with my cultural Muse, Ellin Lake-Ewald, the doyen of modern art appraisers and a living encyclopedia for all that was on exhibit. We were delighted to find an unpretentious building by Renzo Piano, who is better known for his monumental buildings; the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, (in collaboration with Italian architect Gianfranco Franchini), The Shard in London, Europe’s tallest skyscraper, and in 1998, the recipient of the most coveted prize in architecture, the Pritzker.
Mr. Piano created this Museum to celebrate the Art! Not as a glorification of himself. The museum is a thinly disguised warehouse! It touts no pretentions, no ego. Frills are left to a minimum. The building is a monument to the arts!
We rode up in the freight elevator capable of carrying over thirty passengers; a cavernous box with minimal decoration to break the bleakness of its size. When not used as a people conveyor, it moves the museum’s supersized paintings and sculpture. The doors slid open on the eighth floor to reveal a high-ceilinged, well-lit room, hung with masters of the early modernist movement. There was ample daylight filtering through glass walls on either end of the building. Day light is a frequently recurring phenomenon on every floor, some with doors leading to open terraces, others just providing sitting space for viewers to enjoy the view and meditate on the art inside. The vistas open onto the elevated gardens of Highline, the piers on the Hudson, and dozens of new high-rise buildings that have blossomed in the neighborhood.
A panoramic view looking North from one of the many terraced roof-tops of the museum. On the right is the Highline Park that runs along an abandoned elevated railroad track and the building in front is the new Standard Hotel that straddles right over the park.
A view of the Hudson River showing some of the abandoned piers that now will be renovated to enhance this new destination neighborhood.
The new Whitney opened its doors at 99 Gansevoort Street on May 1, 2015 with an exhibit of it own collected works called
America Is Hard to See
A show culled from the Museum’s 22,000 works by some 3,000 artists. I will not give you a blow-by-blow description of the art; that would fill a book… and there are plenty of books. Here’s the floor-by-floor synopsis of the exhibit:
EIGHTH FLOOR 1910 – 1940 Obviously easy to digest and easy to look at art, even I recognized most of the “players”.
SEVENTH FLOOR 1925 – 1960 still recognizable and loveable art
SIXTH FLOOR 1950 – 1975 the powerhouses of the abstract movement – artists whose work fashioned my design philosophy
FIFTH FLOOR 1980ish into the 21st Century… Here’s where I start to get lost: Installation Art – Sexually explicit art – wacky films – 3D stuff – and all that is experimental and new – but not necessarily good.
FOURTH FLOOR offices
THIRD FLOOR Theater
GROUND FLOOR An expensive restaurant, a coffee house and the usual gift shop.
If you happen to be in New York, go see it. It’s worth the trip!