In the New Whitney

America Is Hard to See

an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City, May 1–September 27, 2015
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Nic Lehoux
The terrace extending from the seventh floor of the new Whitney Museum building, designed by Renzo Piano, which opened in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District this spring

If Renzo Piano seems to be putting up museums everywhere on our planet, the reasons for that success involve more than what emerges from his drawing board. He is, by all accounts, extremely pleasant company. And because he comes from a family of contractors, he has absorbed their discipline. He finishes on schedule. He finishes within budget. He draws from what has worked in earlier projects and discards what has not.

However remote these considerations may seem from skillful design, they are fundamental to the practice of architecture, an art form that often involves inordinately large amounts of other people’s enthusiasm, time, and money. If any one of these resources begins to run out, they all do; the creation of architecture is a balancing act that contends not only with physical forces like stress, resilience, and gravity, but also with psychic forces like confidence, inspiration, and, often enough, sheer persistence. Ultimately, in order to work at all, an architectural design must come to terms with the world around it, and the usual agent for this coming to terms is the contractor who carries out the real labor.

Thus an architect’s art is almost by definition an art of compromise, in which good-enough buildings may create a more effective balance among a riot of contending demands than flights of genius. Francesco Borromini, that indisputable genius of the seventeenth century, made his workmen redo the wrought-iron finial at the pinnacle of the church of Sant’Ivo eight times before they captured the complex curves he had in mind, but most of the people who sponsor construction projects lack that kind of patience, that kind of leisure, or that kind of funding.

Piano’s new home for the Whitney Museum of American Art is a colossal achievement many times the size of Sant’Ivo: four thousand tons of steel anchoring 28,000 tons of building, layered into eight floors of galleries and offices over a basement full of machines and crowned by an array of cooling towers. Bringing this Herculean project to completion on schedule and on budget required the collaboration, by his own admission, of a thousand people. The design’s guiding principle was flexibility, in two important senses: the galleries are configured to adapt to works of art that are executed, these days, in a slippery variety of mediums, and the building’s latticework of steel is meant to allow it to bend, rather than snap or crumble, should another hurricane ever bear down on the southern tip of Manhattan. (Sandy struck when construction had already begun, prompting a series of changes to the design of the building’s lower levels.)

Piano himself has repeatedly described the Whitney project as a ship. A native of Genoa, the hometown of Christopher Columbus, he knows a thing or two about navigation; thus his latest structure’s similarities to a seagoing vessel are neither casual nor superficial. The area where the museum rises is called the Meatpacking District, but the lot itself faces onto the Hudson River and the remnants of New York Harbor’s once-magnificent piers; the Titanic was to have moored just a few blocks to the north (and along this same stretch of much-altered riverside my family and I boarded an ocean liner bound for Naples in 1962).

The building itself, like a ship, is made of a steel frame sheathed in steel panels. Approaching from its east side, the side most visitors will see first, it looks like a cruise ship, with an impressively inviting stack of observation decks promising spectacular views over Lower Manhattan. From the harbor side, on the other hand, the museum reads as a container ship piled high with the portable freight units, dazzling in their simplicity, that have transformed international shipping since the 1950s. Taking an idea he had already tried, with imperfect success, at the Broad Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Piano has spun the shape of his new ship around a stack of containers for art, vast steel-framed galleries that cover breathtaking expanses of space without any visible means of support.

Like his Parco della Musica Auditorium in Rome, the Whitney has been designed from the inside out, and like the auditorium, although for different reasons (that is, the production of visual rather than musical experiences), the interiors make more sense as isolated individual units than as an exterior shell that sometimes looks as stern and irregular as the upper parts of a battleship—for the Whitney Museum is a bit of a seagoing destroyer as well.

Ships must be sleekly streamlined to slip through water, but the water also buoys them up, cushioning them from the pressures of gravity. In its landlocked position, therefore, the Whitney is another kind of vessel, forced to sustain its stack of containers between land and air; if this terrestrial ship is going to sail at all, it must anchor its airy steel-frame galleries to something substantial. The building rises on an array of steel columns, some hollow, some solid. The vertical supports, in turn, are knit together by horizontal I-beams and secured by diagonal, tubular steel ties, creating a comparatively light, open frame sheathed in specially designed steel plates.

But removing any kind of internal support from the galleries posed a challenge to the structure’s overall stability: they run from one end of the building to the other, leaving a substantial hollow space in the center of the building’s framework. Furthermore, their shared exterior (south) wall inclines inward rather than standing perpendicular to the ground, which means that the exterior framing of the top three galleries rests on free space rather than a vertical support. To secure the vast exhibition spaces of the top three galleries, the real heart and soul of the museum project, Piano has fixed them to a concrete colossus, the massive core containing elevators, bathrooms, laboratories, stairs, and offices that rises visibly like a bunker on the building’s north side.

Packing the museum’s interiors into a more compact, shipshape arrangement might have made for a more coherent profile on the New York skyline, but the variegated pile of separate pieces is a good-enough solution to the basic problem of showing a great profusion of artworks, especially in the midst of a neighborhood where structures of every variety, purpose, and epoch poke their heads above the low-pitched roofline of downtown Manhattan. Without the company of the ocean liners that once docked along the Hudson, slotted into their massive steel piers, the Whitney makes for a more striking object in the cityscape, but it is, despite its bulk, a relatively quiet presence.

The steel frame of the museum has been painted a pale shade of robin’s egg blue, to harmonize with the sky across its entire daytime range from azure to gray. Its steel skin responds in kind to the modest industrial structures around it, like the corrugated iron of a rather gracefully sloping city-run salt storage facility that stands along the Hudson across from the building’s western, most shiplike façade, facing onto the concrete river of the West Side Highway (slated for removal, like the Department of Sanitation building next to it).

The Whitney’s west façade, with its stack of observation decks extending from each floor and connected by outdoor stairs, deliberately evokes the fire escapes that zigzag across the red brick faces of onetime meatpacking facilities (in fact, one of these buildings figures in an Edward Hopper painting on display within the galleries). The concrete tower looks north to Todd Schliemann’s curiously retro behemoth just up the road on the High Line, the Standard Hotel (2009 looking like 1964). Cityscapes have a tendency toward inconsistency, changing and developing by fits and starts, and with all the fervid real estate transactions underway in the formerly lowly, smelly Meatpacking District, one wonders what the Whitney’s neighbors will look like in the future.

Piano has sometimes paid close attention to exteriors, as he has with the new Parliament building in Valletta, Malta, but the success of an art museum really depends on what happens inside, on how or whether the structure enhances its contents. In the case of the new Whitney, the results are inconsistent: on any ship, some decks are more glamorous than others. There is a definite vertical hierarchy on display: the museum, both building and collection, reaches its sublime pinnacle on the uppermost eighth floor; thence it descends, level by level, into the earthbound realm of office cubicles swathed in sheet rock, before plunging at last into the building’s concrete heart, where the thrum of the engine room keeps this whole gigantic vessel on course. The uppermost floors provide a glorious feast for mind and senses; the second- and third-floor office cubicles already give off that special stale, sweaty office cubicle smell under the clinical blare of LED lights.

This is our world, the high and low of it. In this building, however, to the architect’s undying credit, the most glorious spaces are accessible to one and all. The trustees’ dining room has a sublime view northward, but there are better views to be had from the public café on the eighth floor, especially from its balcony, where you can stand, if you like, in a tiny crow’s nest and pretend that you are Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet breasting the North Atlantic from the deck of the Titanic, or simply be yourself, on the balcony of the Whitney Museum, surveying the oceanic expanse of New York.

For the museum’s inauguration, its contents have been arranged as an exhibition, called “America Is Hard to See,” that presents a cross-section of the Whitney collection from its beginnings in the Teens of the twentieth century right up to the present; the interiors of the elevators, decorated by Richard Artschwager (who died in 2013), rank among the museum’s most recent acquisitions, staving off claustrophobia by providing a fictive door and window, a hall of mirrors, and the interior of a basket (this last for the freight elevator). The effect is fun rather than the touch of genius.

Piano has declared that the glassed-in lobby on Gansevoort Street, with its see-through gift shop and restaurant, should convey the idea of an Italian piazza, an inviting open space for people to gather, and the ground floor will be open to the public free of charge. At the same time, however, thick double-glazed windows act to weatherproof this piazza in order to keep out the extremes of New York’s climate: the transparent glass walls are anchored in place by nautical cable that weaves in and out among the steel tubes of the building’s structural framework.

The sun was shining on April 30, the day of the museum’s inauguration, but at the same time a blustery wind whipped down from the north. Under such conditions, the glass-walled piazza of the museum’s ground floor is more inviting than standing out in the open air; but during the summer months an easy transition between inside and outside will make Piano’s idea of a truly public space work still more effectively—as long as the sun shining through double-glazed industrial-strength windows on a southern exposure doesn’t make for a steam bath inside.

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Nic Lehoux
Sculptures by David Hammons, Mike Kelley, Fred Wilson, and others on the fifth floor of the Whitney, with Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero) and Donald Moffett’s He Kills Me displayed together at right

A small ground-floor gallery to the right of the elevator bank will also remain open to the public free of charge. Here we meet the founder of the Whitney collection, the doe-eyed sculptress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, stretched out languorously like a pajama-clad odalisque in Robert Henri’s 1916 portrait. Whitney’s husband was apparently shocked by this painted spectacle of his wife lounging in turquoise trousers when most of her peers were trussed up in corsets and bustles, and he refused to display it, just as the Metropolitan Museum refused to accept the gift of her art collection when she offered it to the museum’s trustees.

Her solution to both of these problems was to create a room of her own, the Whitney Studio, which eventually became the Whitney Museum. The Studio itself was in Lower Manhattan, commemorated here in photographs and in a scattering of works produced in that venue, but the show-stealer in this little gallery is a display of sculpted animals by various artists in stone, wood, and terra-cotta, most of them from the 1930s, most of them shown before in isolation. They gain immeasurably from one another’s company; from the curled-up elephant carved out of a sandstone boulder with a minimum of strokes to the chorus line of boxwood goslings and a fancifully spotted terra-cotta ox, they are altogether captivating, and they make a nice pair with the black-and-white spotted cats of John Sloan’s Backyards, Greenwich Village, a winter idyll by an exponent of the Ashcan School.

Enclosed as it is within the building’s massive core, the gallery space itself is nondescript, neither here nor there, painted a saturated blue-green that must have been all the rage in the early twentieth century; it appears among the hues of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s silk pajamas and provides a backdrop for the points of brilliant light that spangle the New York skyline in George Luks’s Armistice Night. The angular blankness of the setting makes one long for the curve of an Art Deco staircase or the refinement of an intarsia floor, like the ones we see in the photographs on the wall of the old, elegant Whitney Studio; rich color is not quite enough on its own to conjure up the sheer style of an era.

From the glass-bound piazza of the ground level, the bank of artfully customized elevators lofts visitors up to the eighth floor of the museum, where the inaugural exhibition proceeds in chronological order, with the oldest works on the uppermost level. Its title comes from a wry poem in which Robert Frost considers Columbus and his failure to discover the continental New World:

America is hard to see.
Less partial witnesses than he
In book on book have testified
They could not see it from outside—
Or inside either for that matter.
We know the literary chatter.

Here the combination of art, gallery, and setting creates pure magic. Natural light enters gently from a sawtooth roof with vertical skylights that spans the entire floor, using an old industrial lighting system from the days before electricity that Piano first tried to brilliant effect in Houston’s Menil Collection (and again in the Broad Museum). The container-gallery is not entirely oblong; the solid part of the western wall is set at an oblique angle, slanting off from a vestibule with a picture window set on the perpendicular to the elevator bank.

The works on the eighth floor include paintings and photographs, most of them small, hung on a series of eighteen-inch-thick partition walls, beautifully spaced to create open rooms of exquisite proportions. The floor is blond wood parquet, apparently reclaimed from industrial flooring. A lone picture window faces west onto the Hudson; from its vantage, the West Side Highway has disappeared and the river’s waters seem to be lapping the building itself. On the window ledge, a sculpted skyscraper of sand-colored, polished stone echoes the built towers of brick and concrete on the opposite bank of the river; on the adjacent partition wall, a canvas by George Bellows shows the Palisades under snow; the work was painted decades ago, but the scenery has barely changed, least of all the glacier-shaped geology that underpins the city.

For the present exhibition, much of the gallery space is devoted to the theme of machines, with the real industrial landscape of New Jersey visible through the window to act as a constant counterpoint, challenging, illuminating, informative, to the artwork on the walls. The ceiling, in the meantime, stands perpetually open to New York’s incomparable golden light, evoked in so many of the paintings and photographs that bask here in its glow.

They are organized in what the curators call “Chapters” of American art, thematic units that here include “Forms Abstracted,” “Music, Pink and Blue,” and “Machine Ornament.” If one picture had to stand for them all, it would be Florine Stettheimer’s 1918 New York/Liberty, a vision of Lower Manhattan, its frame topped by a miniature sculpted Statue of Liberty, the predecessor in form, color, and whimsy of Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover. (This is the one object on loan to the show, which is otherwise drawn from the Whitney’s permanent collection.)

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Karin Jobst
The east and south sides of the new building, viewed from Gansevoort Street

The eastern end of the gallery opens onto a coffee shop, whose outer wall is all transparent glass, with doors that open in turn onto a steel platform: the upper deck of Piano’s figurative ship, scudding over a sea of houses, as well as an evocation of the ubiquitous New York fire escape on a monumental scale. The views from this eagle’s nest are panoramic, with odd little places to stand apart from everyone else, looking down onto the High Line and its blooming trees, or gazing off into the distance in every direction from north to west to south. A surprising number of the works on display in this upper gallery are new acquisitions, many as recent as 2013–2014, tailored perfectly to their physical setting amid the relics of industrial New York, and to the guiding principles of the exhibition.

This floor of the museum is a joy to behold in every detail, at every scale. It cannot get better than this, and in fact it doesn’t. The sawtooth ceiling, with its serried ranks of north-facing vertical windows, brings in a light of incomparable quality. The works in the collection, from the first decades of the twentieth century, have been chosen with close attention to historical perspective, but also to form and color (hence “Music, Pink and Blue”), medium and composition.

The mood of the seventh-floor gallery is set by Arshile Gorky’s Old World self-portrait with his mother, displayed next to the western picture window with its view toward Ellis Island, reminding us how much of American art has been made by people who were born somewhere else. From here we pass into a dark-walled space dominated by Alexander Calder’s Circus under glass, slightly sinister in its bell jar. The oblique western wall, this time painted deep gray, presents a series of tiny, gorgeous Ukiyo-e prints (1930) by the Japanese-American artist Chiura Obata with scenes of natural glories like Yosemite and Mono Lake, evocatively displayed next to a print of Ansel Adams’s luminous photograph Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Obata’s woodblock prints, running to a hundred successive layers of pigment and two years of labor, leave traces as delicate as strokes of watercolor; so, somehow, do the tracks of Adams’s silver nitrate.

The neighboring space has been turned into a projection room for a motley series of mid-twentieth-century short films. These two upper floors, with their small-scale works, reflect a time when American art was still contending with the dominance of Europe and European traditions; there is a great sense among these works of experimentation, of social and political conviction (a tragic series of lithographs that lay bare the gruesome realities of lynching hangs next to Ben Shahn’s Passion of Sacco and Vanzetii), and sometimes an inspired juxtaposition can spark whole worlds of thought: an Andrew Wyeth painting, for example, paired with a photograph by Man Ray.

At the glassed-in eastern, or Manhattan, end of the seventh floor, the dark-painted walls, hung with smallish works, suddenly part to reveal the big, splashy canvases of Abstract Expressionism, showing the adaptability of Piano’s open gallery to maximum advantage. Here light, color, and space combine with theatrical verve to declaim the tale of how American art became swaggeringly self-sufficient and remains so to this day (although the curators speak of a rather different inspiration: a drive to change art after the devastation of World War II). On the back wall of this sunlit space, Lee Krasner’s The Seasons (1957) dwarfs and upstages a drip painting by her husband, Jackson Pollock, on the opposite wall: a cathartic act of curatorial comeuppance. The United States’ arrival as a superpower after World War II is thus presented in the bright glow of white, white gallery walls, supersized works of art by the new Masters of the Universe, and the New York art market’s increasing power to define insider and outsider, artist and amateur. In the evening, this triumphal, triumphalist space will also, ironically, receive the light of the setting sun.

The lower galleries of the exhibition, containing material from the 1960s to the present, include a wider range of media, displayed, perhaps necessarily, with less concentrated focus than the upper two floors. The works are arranged thematically, but with a less acute critical eye than the exquisite sensibility that has gone into arranging the work of earlier decades. The fact that an artist may be confronting solemn themes like war, injustice, or epidemic disease does not automatically elevate the art itself to greatness, but this fact may be easier to see, or at least to admit, in a painting from the seventeenth century rather than an image that strikes our own memories more directly (and is still, in all likelihood, a moving commodity in the marketplace).

The most striking absence, perhaps, is that of any kind of American folk art, especially given the presence in the ground-floor gallery of a 1923 painting by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Child, directly inspired by early American primitives. And if Andrew Wyeth can be lined up with Man Ray, why not put John Steuart Curry’s Baptism in Kansas next to an apocalyptic vision by crazy man Howard Finster? Because a collection that began as the whim of a wealthy amateur sculptor will not easily lose its connection with her world, in all its various aspects, hidebound and libertine. The Whitney collection retains, inevitably, its connections with money and the makers of money; even the new setting for the building is a shrewd move on the part of a group of real estate developers who will be amply rewarded in the business world for this investment in culture.

Eventually, the relative quality of the Whitney’s more recent holdings will sort itself out, and Richard Tuttle’s L-shaped piece of cloth nailed to the wall will look like what it is: an affront to all women needleworkers, or just a piece of fluff, or a muslin kite flying an endless tail of rhetoric. But through all the growing pains, Sturm und Drang und real estate speculation in the neighborhood, Renzo Piano’s building will adapt to the changes, sailing its steady, low-key course, inviting High Liners to climb to still-loftier heights, and challenging curators, trustees, and visitors from every part of the world to ponder, and to challenge, the mysteries of what makes American art.