So much has been said already about the new Whitney Museum of American Art, most of it in praise of Renzo Piano’s architectural design, gloriously refreshing and Instagrammable with its massive white walls and illuminating natural light. And time and time again people remark on the seamless gestalt of the works, conceived or created, presumably, by Donna De Salvo and Adam Weinberg, chief curator and director, respectively, as they designed the building’s inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See (by the way, with regards to the show’s name, am I the only one who thinks they’re stating the obvious? Is it supposed to be ironic or satirical?). What all this really tells us is that, as you move from floor to floor, the show doesn’t flow as awkwardly as it could given the disparity of the works. They did okay– perhaps even well, some would add– for a very ambitious chronological presentation of the evolution of 20th and 21st century American art.The 23-chapter structure of the show invites viewers to begin on the eighth floor of the museum and make their way down to the lobby as they explore different thematic and historical understandings of American art. The displayed works, numbering above 600 and taken from the Whitney’s own collection, include iconic and captivating pieces such as Calder’s Circus, and surprisingly, are not terribly bogged down by De Salvo and Weinberg’s lapses in curatorial vision (one of the chapters, “Music, Pink and Blue,” suggests synesthesia as a unifying trademark for a certain number of paintings, none of whose painters actually had the condition). In her WSJ review of this exhibition, critic Lee Rosenbaum complains about the absence of exhibition space to appropriately showcase all of the amazing prints the Whitney has in its collection.
While I agree with Rosenbaum on this count and several others (read up here), there are two compliments I’m obliged to pay to the Whitney: firstly, having visited the building some time ago, I fell in love with the outdoor spaces overlooking the Hudson river and the High-line, given the simple way in which they are adorned with minimalist sculptures. While the beauty of minimalism was heavily demonstrated in ‘Rational Irrationalism’ (chapter 15), I appreciated the Whitney’s further homage to the movement, considering it makes up much of their collection; nonetheless, Mary Heilmann‘s neon Sunset chairs which occupy a large sculpture deck that might otherwise host, say, far more serious Brancusi pieces, serve as a cutesy setting for a social-media snap, and little else. There is something ever-alluring about objects on the skittles spectrum. Secondly, I’d like to acknowledge and congratulate the Whitney on its ability to create, on quite a large scale, an exhibition that successfully blends art of the old and the new, the latter, of course, being digital works that read as both relevant and as ephemeral, but in a good way.
The Whitney Museum has become and will continue to be a critical fixture of the downtown New York art scene. A great portion of today’s contemporary art is transient, but with America is Hard to See, the institution has demonstrated that it is here for the long stretch, continuing on the legacy of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who operated the original Whitney building, now the New York Studio School, as both a place for artists to work and for her private collection. The museum acknowledges the vision of its unique namesake in the exhibition on the ground floor about Gertrude and the Studio School building that is free and open to the public, and even in the rush to catch the main event (closing September 27th), don’t miss it. After all, there would be no Whitney and certainly no America is Hard to See without her.