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August 30, 2015 Repository 180: The Whitney’s New Digs | A Jewel Box for American Modern Art Posted In: architecture, contemporary art, culture, exhibition of note, museum, social critique, travel

The new Whitney, photo courtesy of The Guardian

The new Whitney, photo courtesy of The Guardian

Last week I visited the brand new Whitney’s home in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, a stunning 8-floor building designed by Renzo Piano. While the new museum is much larger, and light filled, the layout of the old museum on Madison felt in tact: elevators centering the design, with galleries flanking either side of the elevator entrances. Standout design additions are the outdoor sculpture areas, large bar and restaurant, and peaceful seating areas on each floor to give your eyes a rest from the art by soaking in the views of the Hudson River. And the garbage truck terminal.

In the inaugural exhibition titled “America is Hard to See”, the entire museum showcases the collection chronologically: the top floor shows 1910-1940, all the way down to 1965-Present. There was a balanced representation of work, lots of work never seen in the galleries, and a strong representation of women. They must have learned from MOMA’s reopening several years ago where the number of women artists displayed was painfully low.

"9-11", 2007, Keith Mayerson. Image courtesy the artist.

“9-11”, 2007, Keith Mayerson. Image courtesy the artist.

The collection is the chocolate box of American “modern art” to be expected, though they did add some pieces that feel closer to the adolescent confusion, energy, naivety and constipation that is America by including work by Karen Kilimnick, and a Monet-inspired painting by Keith Mayerson of the 911 attacks. There was a small gallery dedicated to the origins of the museum, an important slice of information when it comes to understanding the evolution of art spaces in cities like New York. Socialite and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had a Studio Club that she founded in 1918 – almost 100 years ago. This club was meant to encourage artists who otherwise were not exhibiting to share their work. Early members included Edward Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and John Sloan. 

Karen Kilimnik installation at the Whitney. "The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers", 1989. Photograph by author.

Karen Kilimnik installation at the Whitney. “The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers”, 1989. Photograph by author.

The highlight for me was the installation of Bruce Nauman photographs series from 1970 titled “Eleven Color Photographs” tucked away in the education center. The series of photographs of ordinary things gives context to the very famous photograph of “Self Portrait as Fountain” showcased in hundreds of text books as an example of using the body as art etc. Putting the photo in context gave it a completely different meaning. It was less about body and more about the elevation of and reverence for the mundane – a strong thread in his work throughout his career.

Besides the Nauman work, I was left perplexed about how this collection is truly a reflection of America. I suppose that is why they titled it “America is Hard to See”. The MOMA has taken a tact to collect world art and not just American art. If the Whitney’s mission is to collect and preserve American art, should they look outside of New York? I would have preferred a geographic slice in the curation, versus a chronological slice. Or at least one gallery that was addressing artwork outside of the major cities. Let’s be honest, there is New York and there is America.

There is so much dangerous thinking throughout the country right now – something I didn’t see reflected in this collection. The number one spot on the New York Times best seller list this Sunday is  “Plunder & Deceit” – a hate mongering conservative book that just so happens to be extremely popular in middle America. This is terrifying. Can the Whitney put together an exhibit on the dangers of divisive thinking? On the mess of distrust and irrationality that is brewing throughout? In a super shiny Renzo Piano building, you have permission to make a true mess in at least one room. I hope the curators are given permission to explore this – it’s a very American problem that needs addressing, and a museum such as the Whitney is a great platform for this. Through art we can see more clearly what’s at stake. 

PS. Below is a photo of my new favorite museum I happened upon two weeks ago in Maine. I recommend the pilgrimage: contents include a 100-year old can of Russian bug spray, enormous dried lobster claws and the sordid history in pictures of the island.

Museum on Damariscove Island, Maine

Museum on Damariscove Island, Maine. Photo courtesy the author

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