article

06.17.10

The Whitney's Trippy Outdoor Pop Art

Before vinyl, zebras and gigantic fruit became a part of the downtown view this spring, Whitney curator Scott Rothkopf had a few obstacles to overcome.

It didn’t seem an auspicious start that we had to meet outdoors on the High Line in the midst of a soggy mid-February blizzard, or that a felled tree blocked Fifth Avenue as I tried to make my way from the Whitney Museum toward downtown. I worried that the artists would use the storm as an excuse to cancel our meeting, and thereby dodge a daunting commission that had to be sealed in less than a day and completed in just about sixty. But somehow we all made it onto the old elevated railway to survey the paved and fenced lot where the Whitney will break ground on its new museum next year. The place looked pretty bleak in the pelting snow and final minutes of wintry gray light.

Click here to VIEW OUR GALLERY of the GUYTON\WALKER High Line exhibit

I had asked the young New York artists Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker to meet me there so that I could convince them to help the Whitney plant its flag in the Meatpacking Packing district with a trio of temporary installations on the site of its future home. The whole idea had arisen rather quickly during a few meetings with the museum’s director, Adam Weinberg, and its chief curator, Donna De Salvo. The city and our patrons were eager to see art on our site, even before the board of trustees had officially voted to break ground, and we were meant to host a gala dinner there in less than three months. To that end, Adam had raised money and laid the groundwork for a project, but we weren’t quite sure what that project would be. Given the tight schedule and the permitting obstacles, we decided that the easiest way to create the biggest impact would be to commission several artists to successively wrap the site in commercially printed vinyl that could be attached directly to the chain-link perimeter fence. I felt we needed to ask artists who had a connection to the Whitney, who spanned generations and coasts, and, most important, whose work had an integral relationship to the digital printing processes we might use. We settled on Guyton\Walker (Wade and Kelley’s collaborative project), Tauba Auerbach, and Barbara Kruger, and we decided to start with the local duo because I thought they’d make for a festive kickoff and, let’s be honest, because I thought I could get them to say yes.

“It won’t work,” Kelley said. “It will look too much like advertising,” complained Wade. They weren’t having it—the time frame, the chaotic site, the overly conventional brief. I decided to ply them with liquor. While we chatted further, I realized, just two months into my new job as a curator, that I had gone about it all wrong. Rather than telling the artists what we wanted them to do, I should have asked them what they wanted to do, and once I rephrased the proposal, the ideas started tumbling forth. Could they cover the trailers parked on the site and occupied by the High Line’s maintenance and operation team? And, while they were at it, could they cover the pavement too? And on the roof of that old meatpacking plant to the west, could they print a glistening orange some fifteen feet high? I excused myself to call Adam on his cell and told him they would agree to the project provided they could do a bunch of things for which we didn’t have the permits, the budget, or the technical savvy. A true personification of the Whitney’s artist-centric spirit, he said, “Just say yes and we’ll figure the rest out later.”

Computer renderings came next, and then cardboard models, but nothing could have prepared us for the witty, madcap, and eye-popping proposal that Wade and Kelley finally conceived. They envisioned the fence wrapped in some 450 feet of vinyl, printed on both sides with boldly colored citrus fruits, distorted paint-can hardware, and checkerboard designs. The wind slits required by city code became a torrent of punched out holes that would eventually offer passersby views into the site and cast gorgeous Swiss cheese–like shadows on the sidewalk as the sun set over the river. And these holes would be confused with fake ones printed with trompe l’oeil images of chain-link abutting the real thing. In a cheeky nod to the Whitney Museum of American art, red, white, and blue stripes would race across the site’s western edge, while jumbo-size graphics would cover the pavement, climb up the sides of the trailers, and culminate in zebra-skin decals covering the roofs. By marking every plane of the site they would visually activate an otherwise anonymous and invisible urban locale. The exotic imagery would play off the fashions and decor in the nearby boutiques and eateries, and signal the Whitney’s entry into the neighborhood like some alien burst of spring.

Imagine explaining all this to the community board. I was summoned to an elementary school in the Village, foam-core presentation boards in hand, where I was scheduled to follow a contentious discussion of NYU’s mammoth campus expansion. As angry residents railed against the university’s proposal and name-checked dear friends like Jane Jacobs, I worried over the mess I’d gotten myself and the museum into. But once I raced through my speech, the neighbors proved warm, if slightly bemused, and one went so far as to mention that she’d gladly lose her river view to a facility in which she could take her children to see world-class art (a rallying cry that will no doubt live on in real-estate infamy). That would be a few years away, but in just two weeks we found ourselves on-site with a crew of up to eight people struggling to adhere sticky decals to power-washed pavement as the winds came whipping off the Hudson.

Immediately the work began to attract crowds. A paper airplane with a phone number arrived from above, asking us to text what we were up to. Park goers gawked from the High Line as Wade and Kelley clambered up and down the stairs, yelling at each other or communicating via cell phones to direct the crew where to drag this or that giant piece of fruit. The artists had never worked in public before and their installation method was generally more improvisatory than an project of this scale and technical complexity could allow. Kelley had ordered a batch of extra vinyl sheets that I took to calling his security blankets, because positioning them pell-mell gave him a sense of both freedom and control in a necessarily premeditated design. The perplexed crew was used to commercial jobs, but within two days the masterful foreman got into the spirit, inventing novel solutions to unforeseen problems and plastering a checkered decal on his van, from which he blasted work songs by the Beatles.

It’s hard to know exactly what a curator’s role in all of this is. Generally trained in art history, we’re not so versed in wind shear and Parks Department regulations. Over two months of meetings with donors, fabricators, and representatives of city agencies and the Friends of the High Line (who graciously allowed us to transform their site), I came to see my job as the artists’ sounding board and, more crucially, their enabler, although “protector” might have a nicer ring. Working in tandem with our unflappable exhibition manager, Maura Heffner, I simply tried to create as much space and freedom as possible for Wade and Kelley to do whatever they might dream up—and then tried to sell this inchoate dream to the people who could fund, permit, and produce it. This is both an inspiring and humbling task. And that’s because the expertise you have isn’t all that germane to what you wind up doing, and you’re essentially trying to keep the balls in the air without really knowing their shape or number. There has been much talk in art circles over the past few years about the “artist as producer” but the chapter on the “curator as producer”—in the old-fashioned Broadway sense of the term—remains to be written.

Guyton\Walker would agree to the project provided they could do a bunch of things for which we didn’t have the permits, the budget, or the technical savvy.

Once complete, the installation had a nutty, all-encompassing intensity, like Carmen Miranda had taken up for the summer in Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau. The fence along Washington Street became an outdoor portrait studio, with countless visitors standing for pictures in front of a gaping cantaloupe or hypertrophied banana. Most of them had no idea what they were looking at, but then again, we didn’t either. I wondered at the cameraman filming an odd character in a tux doing elaborate card tricks and at the handsome young couple posed holding hands for two professional photographers. I asked them if they were shooting an ad, but it turned out to be an engagement photo; the bride-to-be emailed me a link to their wedding site the following week.

As spring rolled in, so did plants and trees and trucks and dumpsters. The installation looked better and weirder and livelier the more stuff wound up on top of it and the more the High Line team made it their own. The intrepid director of horticulture decorated her motorcycle with a Guyton\Walker decal and parks it daily on a skewed sheet of checks the artists positioned just for her. I think Wade and Kelley must have understood that they could never really control a site enclosing and abutting so many different structures with so many different uses and subject to so many different changing points of view. The installation’s jumble of graphics has become a perfect backdrop for and mirror of the neighborhood’s vibrant clash of architecture and visitors—from foreign tourists to busy locals, from the Standard Hotel to the meatpacking plant whose workers idle their trucks against our candy-colored fence. The project is at once boldly declarative and brilliantly porous to a place locked in flux. And, fittingly, by the end of next week it will be gone. Still, I imagine it living forever behind smiles on Facebook and Flickr pages, a charming distinctly downtown efflorescence and harbinger of the Whitney to come.

The Whitney’s Guyton\Walker project remains at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington Streets through June 23. Tauba Auerbach’s installation goes on view July 3.

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Scott Rothkopf is a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His retrospective of the work of Glenn Ligon will open next March.