The Whitney Museum of American Art designed by the architect Renzo Piano, New York
The Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street is home to the leading collection of contemporary and twentieth century art in the United States. Designed by the contemporary architect Renzo Piano, its new building has been the talk of the town in New York. It was first opened in Greenwich Village by the sculptor and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, before moving up to Museum Mile alongside the Metropolitan, Guggenheim and Frick. Their move back downtown to Chelsea signifies their revitalised approach to modern art as its angular architectural design juxtaposes the leafy Highline below. Reflecting their sense of innovation, it's positioned amidst an eclectic series of galleries like Gagosian and Pace, which punctuate Chelsea’s neighbouring streets.
The tickets are a little pricey, but rightly so. With the outdoor spaces, beautiful cafes presented like Skandi design stores - and of course the art to consider – the Whitney’s so much more than an art museum, it’s an immersive experience. Even the four elevators are installations, capturing the contortions of Richard Artschwager’s imagination. It feels somewhat celestial to be a passenger headed for the clouds. Unusual for New York, the galleries are incredibly spacious. Each floor presents a diverse array of mediums with film, sculpture and photographs like Ansel Adams’ evocative Moonrise, 1941. In a cosy screening room we also paused to watch the film Free Radicals, which illustrated how cinema had become a medium for psychological and philosophical experiment in twentieth century America.
When visiting, I caught their inaugural exhibition America is Hard to See, which shows off the best of their collection of 22,000 works. The title was plucked from Robert Frost’s poem and plays on the selected artists’ attempts to respond to the diversified culture of the United States. Across the works on display, the curators sought to re-examine American art, whilst pushing boundaries and challenging our beliefs. This is demonstrated by the unique confluence they’ve created between the indoor and outdoor spaces.
The galleries are designed so that you can transition between the floors using the exterior staircases, which allow you to experience the urban landscape that inspired so much of what lies within. Unlike most galleries, there was a pleasant sense of having the freedom to roam, to be drawn to whatever you happened to find particularly evocative or aesthetically pleasing. In our case, my companion was forever drawn to the repressed grisaille palettes, whilst I strolled off in search of William de Kooning's Door to the River, 1960.
On the eighth floor, the comparison between figuration and abstraction is explored in the works of artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and her work Music, Pink and Blue, 1918. She was one of the many artists developing an affinity with music at the time. The neurological syndrome synaesthesia was visually explored in these studies of colours and sounds as physical feelings. Deeper in, there was a focus on Frank Stella whose work illustrates his admiration for the hyperbolic, chromatic wealth of European modernism, which was soon liberated by his Coney Island contortions like Luna Park, 1913. It’s interesting to observe the natural progression towards post-war industry and mechanisation as embodied by Charles Sheeler’s River Rouge Plant 1932. These works illustrate how the modern American artists of the twentieth century were responding to the changing urban landscape. Although I didn’t find them beautiful, my companion was rather intrigued by the symbolism throughout the exhibition, like the silos, smokestacks and skyscraper.
In the early twentieth century, many American artists bent European modernism to suit their stylistic needs as illustrated by George Bellows’ Floating Ice, 1910. It takes an almost Impressionist stance, with dabbed cerulean and cobalt brushstrokes. This was juxtaposed by Edward Hopper’s manipulations of everyday subjects into something psychologically charged and sinister. Speaking of sinister, I was also rather taken with the violent brushstrokes and lashings of scarlet in Marsden Hartley’s Madawaska 1940. Though, I do have to fault the Whitney on their choice of the garish blue wallpaper behind it – reminiscent of Copenhagen’s national art museum - which nearly drowned the painting’s colour palette. Having recently read the suburban tragedy Revolutionary Road, I was later infatuated by Robert Bechtle’s 61 Pontiac, 1968, which demonstrated his unique ability to transform ubiquitous workday subjects into art. Though Glenn Ligon’s neon statement Ruckenfigur, 2009 seemed to provoke greater interest when it came to the Instagrammers. Well, at least the dreaded selfie sticks are banned.
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Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com