For those of you who haven’t yet been to the brand new Whitney – and maybe even if you have – this post is about a visit to the Museum and a tour by a Whitney teaching fellow on Monday, September 14th of the Museum’s opening exhibit: AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE.
It’s not every year – or every ten or twenty – that a major new museum is built. Especially in a city as logistically night-marish, real estate-driven and kooky-crazy expensive as New York. But, in keeping with their history and ethos, that is exactly what the visionaries at the WHITNEY MUSEUM of AMERICAN ART did. The history of contemporary American art IS the history of the Whitney. Founded in 1930 by that fascinating, independent, enigmatic woman of great means, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was both an artist and collector herself, the Whitney (then called the Studio Club) was housed in several townhouses on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village. In the late 1920’s, Whitney tried to donate her personal collection of American Contemporary Art to the Metropolitan Museum – but at that point the Met was almost exclusively focused on classic, European art and they were not interested. Although the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) had opened recently, in 1929, with a focus on modern art – it, too, was looking to Europe. So, the Whitney stayed on 8th Street, hosted exhibitions in other locations and in the mid-1950’s moved midtown to slightly larger quarters on West 54th Street. But, no surprise, they were soon looking again for a location where they could have more exhibition space.
That led to the construction, by Marcel Breuer, in 1966 of the famous building at 75th and Madison (the “Breuer Box”) – which was also deemed too small within a decade of its opening. In the ensuing years the Whitney commissioned a who’s-who of world-famous architects – Norman Foster, Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas – to figure out ways to expand the “new” space. All of these plans, in turn, faced substantial opposition from the local community in the very fancy, historic landmarked location and each attempt was abandoned. During this time the Whitney created satellite locations in Wall St., in Stamford, CT and in office building lobbies. And then, voila, in 2010 construction commenced – after years of negotiations- on a new building on a city-owned site at the foot of the newly opened and wildly popular High Line park and designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning, Italian architect Renzo Piano. And, in the sort of turnabout which can only be appreciated with a long view of history – the Metropolitan Museum of Art has leased the Whitney’s Breuer Box to house their collection of contemporary art. The other turnabout is that the Whitney has returned downtown – not too far from its original location on 8th Street. During the many years of all of this locating and re-locating the parallel story, of course, is what was happening to American Contemporary Art during this time – and how the Whitney stayed its course as both a champion, collector (and some say, creator) of this relatively new category.
And, THAT’S WHY, it’s opening exhibition – AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE – in this brand new location is important to get to. Because, after September 27th, when it is packed away, it will be a long, long, long time (uh, maybe never) before the Whitney is likely to put such a huge chunk of its permanent collection and its important narrative on display again. The opening exhibition is a rare, very special opportunity to experience the progression and development of American contemporary art through the work of more than 600 artists – as only the Whitney can show it. After this exhibition closes, the Whitney will continue to do what it has always done, which is to focus on the new. AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE is the Whitney’s starting gate for a new era.
AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE is organized chronologically with the oldest works on the top floor. The title of the show comes from a 1951 Robert Frost poem of the same name which refers to the challenge of artists to develop works which respond to the unique culture and mores of the United States. The exhibition includes numerous works which refer to political and social contexts and, since they are shown chronologically, are shown adjacent to works in other media from the same period. The exhibit is organized into 23 “chapters” – to provide a light, thematic structure for the vast amount of work on display.
Details: MWC Members, pls. sign up for this event on the Reservations/ Payment page on the Members website. Everyone who signs up will be asked about their interest in having lunch at the Museum at either UNTITLED on the first floor (which takes reservations) or upstairs at the SALON (which does not take reservations). Tickets, including admission and the tour, will be $55.