From a distance, it is difficult to know whether the new residence of the Whitney Museum of American Art is a ship, a factory or a hospital. Up close, the large windows that give the space a loft feel and open from east to west, offer a preview of what inhabits this interesting edification. The building created by Renzo Piano, one of the most celebrated architects of the moment, was received by differing opinions. Purist architectural critics with more negative views than others with a more open mind.
What everyone agrees, however, is that the new address of the celebrated museum follows the philosophy of its creation, of staying alive, interesting and involved with what is happening in the local culture. The arrival of the museum in the Meatpacking District helps to cement the idea that this region, next to Chelsea, is in fact the new mecca of art in New York.
In its fourth address since its creation in the 1930s, Whitney is used to controversy. In its conception, through the brilliant mind of the sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the organization faced difficulties. This artist, who found the need to create a fund dedicated exclusively to living American artists, saw her donation of more than 500 works rejected by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was then that this visionary opened the museum’s first headquarters in the Greenwich Village. In the 1960s, after filling his second headquarters on West 54th Street, Marcel Breuer revealed the museum’s third headquarters and his masterpiece of brutalist architecture. Residents of the Upper East Side, Manhattan’s traditional neighborhood known for its art galleries and museums, reacted in horror. The architecture was then considered offensive and exclusive. The headquarters created by Breuer, however, quickly received cult status and remains today as one of the most important works of world architecture.
In 1975 the entity’s collection had 2000 American works of art from all ages and its team employed around 100 employees. The museum’s total space was 3 thousand square meters, of which 715 were dedicated to its permanent collection. In 2014, Whitney needed to expand again. Today, this nationalist gem contains more than 21,000 works in its catalog and a team of more than 300 employees. The new space offers 2 thousand square meters for its permanent collection divided into two floors that are part of an impressive total of 6 thousand square meters of total space. Not to mention that the museum still intends to expand its domains to the quayside by the river, in front of its building and if necessary, it can still occupy its neighbor next door, a meat processing building built in the Shaker style, which in itself is an American icon.
This is not everything. What this museum created with a simple change of address was actually a revolution in the New York art scene. In the middle of a space crisis, the main museums of the city find themselves having to choose between historical and contemporary, new and old, dividing by categories and hiding from the public masterpieces that should be permanently accessible. The Metropolitan, historically more focused on classical art, has an impressive collection of contemporary art but does not have the space to display it. Moma, after two expansions, continues to face difficulties mainly due to the intense traffic of tourists in its tight corridors. What Whitney demonstrated with this change that cost 422 million dollars, and that art should not be exclusive. Its galleries offer American art, from all ages and artists alive and dead. If art is of quality, it has space in this museum without sacrifices in favor of space or obsolete theories.
With its vacant old building, Whitney made 3,000 square meters of space available for art in the city and the Metropolitan wasted no time and signed an eight-year contract with the organization. The Metropolitan’s contemporary art collection will now be transferred entirely to Whitney’s old address, keeping Breuer’s architectural work alive and inspiring new generations. Moma, on the other hand, took advantage of the unfortunate situation of its neighbor, the Folk Art Museum, inhabitant of another renowned building, and will expand. Moma will undergo a complicated expansion project that, when completed, will also house part of the collection of its neighbor that was less fortunate.
But back to Whitney, what happens at your new address? The museum now offers jaw-dropping views of the river and the entire city at its feet. The more airy environments also have an open air cafe, a restaurant, Untitled, by chef Michael Anthony (part of the group of renowned Danny Meyer) and all the works that inhabited dark deposits and can now see the light of day.
The museum’s collection features more internationally recognizable pieces from artists such as Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, Willem DeKooning, Georgia O’Keefe, Andrew Wyeth and Jasper Johns to celebrity venues like Jacob Lawrence. Lawrence’s social realism portrayed on the panels of “The Great Migration” the shift of the American black population from farms in the south to urban areas in the north. His work of “dynamic cubism” continued to follow the daily battles that marked history, such as the civil revolution of the 1960s. The pop art of Warhol and Lichtenstein is an obvious and obligatory presence in this collection, as well as their contemporaries Jean Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly and Donald Judd.
The photographers Peter Hujar, David Wojnarovicz, Nan Goldin and Robert Mapplethorpe are also worth mentioning, having enough space to recall a moment in the history of this city where a sexual revolution was taking place surrounded by the AIDS epidemic. The photographic collection also includes works by Man Ray, ranging from Diane Arbus to Cindy Sherman, in addition to legendary names in world fashion photography such as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton and the contemporary Bruce Weber. It is also worth mentioning the work of social photographer Walker Evans, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. Evans recorded the harsh reality of everyday life during the great depression and continued to ignore ideals of the “American Dream” and exposing life as it is until his death in 1975.
Contemporary art is present extensively. Paul McCarthy, Julian Schnabel, Chuck Close, Richard Serra and Francesco Clemente are some of the artists who deserve to be mentioned and continue to produce relevant works in the international arena. Another contemporary that stands out here is the renowned abstract Frank Stella who has his first complete retrospective on display at this museum.
The exterior of this building offers a visit to works by Alexander Calder and also the colorful and interactive art of Mary Heilmann, which invites the visitor to sit and relax in one of the several terraces. A stop for fresh air is more than necessary while visiting this extensive collection that is as creative and varied as the ethnic and geographical origin of its artists.
The cultural representation here presents the same diversity that this country has. Artists of English, Latin, Irish, Chinese, German or Italian origins, to name a few and from different religious backgrounds and practices, demonstrate exactly what makes up this country’s cultural strength. Even with all the difficulties presented by these differences, the museum remains neutral and inclusive, telling stories and reminding the visitor that the world is much more than a picture painted in oil but rather the sum of all the creative expressions that result from the daily human experience.