I got turned around a few times once I alighted the subway at 14th St. to get to the Whitney Museum; it was too hot and muggy for a long walk, so I felt quite grumpy by the time I saw the industrial-designed hulk of a structure looming in the distance. At first I was confused by the many new slick gray buildings speckling the landscape with multiple balconies overlooking The High Line, along with a surfeit of elegant dress shops and expensive restaurants .... were we only 2 blocks away from the messy, sweaty circus that is Fourteenth Street? As I approached the "Castle on Gansevoort," the air became clearer and the price of admission reflected that rarified atmosphere.
I approached the Museum and walked past the outdoor dining tables of renowned chef, Danny Meyer’s newest franchise Untitled - the next generation of Gramercy Tavern - avoiding the beautiful servers snaking around the long lines with a grace befitting the chic atmosphere. I delighted in catching a glimpse through the windows of a Felix Gonzalez-Torres lightbulb sculpture ,“Untitled (America)” 1994-1995 shaped like an anthropomorphic tree, the bulbs fragile and glowing strung together with a tensile strength enticing us to come in - and I did - entering a fairly dark less inviting entrance, after a futile attempt to get my friend into the Museum on my membership card for a cheaper than $22 admission price. I always try! This being my first visit to the “new” Whitney I was sensitive to the logistics of the building and aware that my early impressions were fleeting, knowing that they would change with each visit.
Some quick notes on the bathrooms which are situated on almost every level - some having only 3 stalls others had more. Alas they are a tight fit so when I heard a plop, I realized that my iPhone had slid out of my back pocket into the toilet bowl - Letting out a loud shriek….I fished out my “connection to the world device” slightly wet but amazingly unscathed…lifting my mood and freeing me to heed and focus on the interconnected circuitry of my surroundings.
The four elevators contain commissioned murals by the late Richard Artschwager but I could not help comparing these “lifts” to the large, airy, beautifully proportioned elevator at the former Whitney on Madison Avenue with its magnificent roominess - giving breathing latitude to native New Yorkers who are afforded a reprieve from their cramped apartments as if a patch of nearby Central Park’s capaciousness entered the location.
The Renzo Piano designed museum takes this inside/outside idea and exquisitely transports it to the entire downtown Whitney by opening galleries to the outdoors with terraces on almost every floor, allowing for seating and breathtaking views of the city’s rooftops and the Hudson River. From aerie vantage points - ordinary existence becomes hallucinatory, and immaterial; I found myself being replenished - the intellectual and emotional exhaustion of exploring artworks collaborated with the breadth of the open environment; intimacy morphed into the vast vistas of fancy.
The inaugural exhibition is titled AMERICA IS HARD TO SEE and I quote excerpts from the brochure:
“Drawn entirely from the Whitney Museum of American Arts collection…as an opportunity to reexamine the history of art in the United States from the beginning of the 20th century to the present…Comprising more than 600 works…The title, America Is Hard To See, comes from a poem by Robert Frost, and a political documentary by Emile de Antonio. Metaphorically, the title seeks to celebrate the ever-changing perspectives of artists and their capacity to develop visual forms that respond to the culture of the United States. It also underscores the difficulty of neatly defining the country’s ethos and inhabitants, a challenge that lies at the heart of the Museum’s commitment to and continually evolving understanding of American art…Organized chronologically, the exhibition’s narrative is divided into twenty-three thematic “chapters” installed throughout the building…Works of art across all mediums are displayed together…By simultaneously mining and questioning our past, we do not arrive at a comprehensive survey or tidy summation, but rather at a critical new beginning; the first of many stories still to tell…”
This is an ambitious undertaking and the results are varied. Exhibition rooms differ in size - some works are hung too close together, some are too neatly color-coordinated, some are hidden, immersed in the darkness of the painted walls, and others expand like flowers in a light-filled garden. Occasionally I was unable to step back blocked by sculptures sited out of scale, creating barriers to the line of vision - thereby making it literally “hard to see” the work. But most importantly a large portion of the collection is now visible including wonderfully surprising encounters with unfamiliar artists, creating a magnetic presence that pulled me closer and closer to the source of my attraction.