Walking into the recently constructed Whitney Museum in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, there’s an immediate sensation of déjà vu.
It’s an eerie familiarity that you can’t quite place, especially since the freshly constructed building doesn’t open to the public until May 1.
Immediately there’s a slight heaviness that resembles the institution’s former building, an iconic Marcel Breuer-designed structure on the Upper East Side. They both share an abundance of concrete, exposed lighting and a massive set of elevators that wait to ascend visitors to a collection of American art that can hardly be rivaled.
But the resemblance is fleeting: The new lobby is much more open and bright, offering a far more friendly welcoming than the closed off and boxy exterior of the Breuer building, which has since been sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The entryway’s all-glass exterior floods the lobby and adjoining café with natural light, much like the New York Times Building further uptown. The two share the same architect, Renzo Piano, who also designed the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago, which share similar characteristics.
“When building for beauty, it should be open, accessible, unintimidating, and unpretentious,” Piano, who drew inspiration from Italian piazza, or community space, said Thursday. “This is the most important thing, to come and to feel welcomed.”
The recent move has been years in the making.
The 84-year-old institution was rapidly outgrowing its former home on Madison Avenue, and so has swooped on a prime spot between the base of the High Line park and the Hudson River, where a massive $130 million park and event space will soon be floating just steps away. (Full disclosure: IAC owner Barry Diller and wife Diane von Furstenberg are funding the park’s construction.)
“The Whitney’s decision to move downtown was a bold one,” Robert J. Hurst, co-chairman of the Board of Trustees, said.
“In moving to the Meatpacking District, the museum is returning to its roots only a few blocks from where Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney first founded the museum,” President of the Board Neil Bloom added.
Founded as the Whitney Studio in 1914, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney began presenting works by living American artists who had been rejected from the traditional academies.
Over a 15-year period, she amassed a collection of over 500 works, which she offered to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. When they refused, she established the very first Whitney Museum of American Art, which opened on West Eighth Street in 1931 and solely focused on art and artists of this country.
By 1954, the museum had expanded uptown to 54th Street. Then, in 1966 they settled into an even larger Breuer building at 75th Street, where it remained until late last year.
“The [new] building offers us opportunities that we have never had before,” Adam Weinberg, the museum’s director, said. “We set out to design additional spaces for our collection as well as spaces for artists with the flexibility to match their boundless imagination. The building is not only a magnificent site to view art, it’s also the material for artists to work on, in, and above.”
The new facility has larger and more flexible galleries; a tremendous amount of outdoor space for sculptures and performances; a theater for lectures, performances, and panels; a study center and expanded conservation program, as well as the museum’s first education center, which allows visitors to engage with the artists.
The museum’s restaurant on the ground floor and café on the top level are curated by Chef Michael Anthony, who is leaving his post as executive chef at famed New York City restaurant Gramercy Tavern.
The Whitney’s inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, reflects on the history of art in the United States for over 115 years exclusively through the lens of the museum’s permanent collection, which consists of more than 22,000 objects, and fills the entire building with over 600 works of art by 400 artists. A handbook of the Whitney’s entire collection will be released next month.
“It’s not a comprehensive survey, rather it takes a thematic approach, offering 23 chapters that reflect on some of the beliefs, ideas, and preoccupations that artists have grappled with over the past 115 years,” Donna De Salvo, head curator, said.
Every curator at the museum played a helping hand, offering expertise and debate while “challenging established notions of artistry,” De Salvo added.
The full effect of the staggering number of works on display is immediately felt when entering the fifth-floor exhibition space. While it’s the largest of the four gallery floors (the building has nine levels, including the basement), the high ceilings, bright lights, and pale wooden floors still seems too small for the exhibition.
Massive, seemingly temporary, walls hold work on top of work—literally. Donald Moffett’s “He Kills Me,” a two-piece image of a black-and-orange bull’s-eye juxtaposed next to a portrait of Ronald Reagan, is plastered from floor to ceiling. Barbara Kruger’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” a black-and-white image of a young girl touching the muscle of a small boy, hangs on top of it.
In other rooms throughout the floor, neon signs by Glenn Ligon reflect off portraits of Osama bin Laden by Aleksandra Mir, while the equipment to Cory Arcangel’s “Mario Clouds” projection is strewn about across the floor near a sculpture that looks like a cleaning cart.
This is definitely one of those instances where anything someone leaves behind is immediately mistaken as a work of art.
The floor is filled with more contemporary works—focused on our digital, over-consuming age--by artists including Ed Ruscha, Mike Kelley, Christopher Wool, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Chuck Close.
There’s one small oasis that’s guaranteed to offer the mind a bit of relaxation. On both sides of the floor there are rows of couches with views extending as far as the eye can see—east into the city skyline and west over the Hudson River.
Tucked away even further from the gallery is a massive terrace with ample seating, which overlooks the High Line. Multiple other outdoor spaces flank the top three floors.
The further up you move within the building, the more manageable each floor is to navigate. They shrink in size and begin to house a more concrete and succinct collection of works.
The sixth floor, with art from 1950 to 1975, covers an era of art developing from the aftermath of World War II and the dawning of the Vietnam War. It ranges from the calm and minimalist works of Frank Stella, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, and Ellsworth Kelly to the dynamism of Pop Art with Andy Warhol, Alex Katz, Roy Lichtenstein, and Yayoi Kusama.
Continuing upward through the seventh and eighth floors, visitors are transported to even more intimate galleries for an up-close look at some of the museum’s oldest works and earliest acquisitions—artists who have become icons for the impact of American Art on the international community at the turn of the 20th century.
Edward Hopper’s silent but intimate portraits of everyday buildings have a major presence, as does a collection of early photographs by Edward Steichen and Man Ray.
Most intriguing of all the works, however, are a collection of prints that dominates a small gallery on the seventh floor. Each of the two dozen or so renderings were created by various artists in protest to lynching throughout the 1930s.
There are horrifying sketches of black figures being hanged and burned, left in ditches to die, hooded figures in traditional white Klu Klux Klan dress, and white police figures beating black men.
“While these prints are varied in their stylistic approaches,” the wall text reads, “they are unified in their insistence that—to use the language of our moment rather than theirs—black lives matter.”
The display is a moving, and profound, example of the past colliding with the present. “The idea of the Whitney to champion the art of our time and give artists the opportunity to create is what guided every decision for the design of this building and our programs,” Weinberg said. “We cannot wait to see what [future] artists will do in the galleries indoor and out, on the façade, in our staircases, and places we haven’t even imagined.