The New Whitney
On a crisp but sunny afternoon, in the shadow of the Standard Hotel, I feel at peace looking out across the Hudson River. Climbing up and down the steel scaffolding staircases of the new Whitney Museum located in the meatpacking district, I examine yet another corner of the Manhattan skyline I’ve never seen before. From this vantage point, secret rooftop gardens and architectural gems that define the city’s character, are just as much on display as the prolific sculptures scattered throughout the museum’s 13,000 square feet of outdoor art space. Dwarfing glass windows and doors separate the inside from the out, allowing copious amounts of light to pour into the 50,000 square feet of indoor gallery space. I’m surrounded by large open white walls covered with the works of contemporary art giants like Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Pollock. As I make my way through the museum, wandering from room to room, level to level, my boots make a satisfying sound as they hit the light-wood floors and I begin to contemplate the wonders of the Whitney and why so many people worldwide are drawn to the art found here.
Along with Vanderbilt Gate in Central Park, we can thank the family for giving NYC the Whitney Museum. While watching CBS Sunday Morning I learned in 1914 Gertrude Vanderbilt opened the Whitney Studio in Greenwich Village after the MET rejected her collection of American art. Being a sculptor herself, Vanderbilt never intended to create a museum. Her expressed goal was to create a place for American artists like Edward Hopper, George Bellows and Georgia O’Keeffe to be able to showcase their work, which at the time no one was really interested in. Over the years, the significant prestige and popularity of the museum grew with help of notable endorsements from public figures like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. When the museum broke ground 49 years ago on the upper east side, they had 2000 original works. Today they have 10 times that amount, which necessitated the expansive $422 million dollar building and downtown location . When discussing the multi-functional design features of the building, the Italian architect Renzo Piano who is responsible for the creation said, “This is [a] very old dream of architects. The idea that you make a place for art that is flexible, where the artist comes and he can actually use [it] like a factory. So you create a shelter where the artist and the art may actually tell their story.”
Museum director Adam Weinberg told CBS Sunday Morning, “Our greatest speciality is that we focus on art of the United States. That could be art made by an artist from abroad working in the US. It could be made by an artist from the United States working abroad. So it’s America in its broadest sense, but it is art that somehow has a connection to this country.” Perhaps that’s exactly what captivates us about American contemporary art. Whether the artist is foreign or native, they are taking an object,subject, or idea that is referentially American and reinterpreting it—challenging the viewer to think of the familiar in a completely different way. A cigarette butt, a Coke bottle or Campbell’s soup can provides an accessible context for the art. But what we know and appreciate about those objects, subjects and ideas—our individual experience of what those things represent for us, is called into question or commented on. The impact of that reinterpretation and how it resonates with each viewer is based on their personal connection to that iconic object. How else does a color, sound or image become so controversial or polarizing? I suppose the same could be said for all art, but there is something special—almost patriotic even, when the expressed focus of a museum is to contextualize a national identity.
Still after all these years the Whitney is a “must-see” for anyone visiting New York City. With so much more to experience, go and let the intrinsically American art challenge your interpretations of the everyday objects you find there and the inspiring conversations they provoke.