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A New Home for American Art -- Whatever It May Be?

In 1908 Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney opened the Whitney Studio Gallery on West 8th Street, where she also had her own studio, to showcase the work of her artist friends and her steadily growing collection. By the 20s the Whitney Studio Club, a salon where artists such as John Sloan, William Glackens, and George Luks among others met to discuss, exhibit their work, and drink, was incorporated into the mix.

In 1931 Whitney approached the Metropolitan Museum of Art with an offer to donate her collection of some 700 pieces of modern artworks, and they declined her offer. She then decided to create her own museum, because she could. Needing more space, in 1954 the museum moved uptown to 54th Street and then moved once again in 1966 to a new Marcel Breuer-designed building on Madison Avenue.

On May 1st the Whitney Museum of American Art makes a triumphal return to its roots in the West Village. Unlike its brownstone beginnings, this time it will have 50,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space and 30,000 square feet of exterior space, with amazing views of the Hudson River and Manhattan skyline. Not only will the new Whitney have plenty of room to show off its collection, which now exceeds some 21,000 pieces, but this shiny new space could prompt a reconsideration of the matter of just what American art is. It's a wide-open question and there is a lot of competition from other museums attempting to take on what the Whitney started, by showing American artists, especially living, working artists. The Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, the Guggenheim, and the stately Met have made strong moves in collecting and exhibiting contemporary art, courting benefactors, and waging the all-important battle for the young audience, with their short attention spans and interactive brains. Even its new neighbors, the big-money Chelsea galleries, have been putting on some impressive museum-quality shows of late.

It's clear as the Whitney opens its new Renzo Piano-designed home in the Meatpacking District, the heart of blue-chip art land, that it's ready to take on the challenge. With its big industrial gallery spaces, soft wood flooring, and expansive exterior spaces, great things can happen here. But will it be fresh, or will it follow a depressing trend of museums showing the same artists who seem to pop up in every exhibit, art fair, and auction house?

The Whitney's inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, is a selection of over 600 works by some 400 artists, spanning the period from about 1900 to the present, all from the museum’s permanent collection, with some well-known works, but also many never shown and several newly acquired. Now for the first time curators will have plenty of room to experiment, juxtaposing the old with the new, an ongoing inter-generational discourse, that in this first exhibit shows just how relevant the old guard of the collection is.

Marsden Hartley looks as bold and beautiful as ever, and Edward Hopper has the room and light-filled space he thrives in. Jackson Pollock’s Number 27 is in the company of Willem de Kooning’s Woman and Bicycle, and across the way the irascible spray paint-wielding Hedda Sterne holds her own quite well and is looking very contemporary, thank you. It's clear as history unfolds floor by floor that the myths, versus the realities, of America are not easy stories. Lynchings, war, depression, strikes, protests, and social changes are on display in rawness and beauty.

Can the Whitney re-establish itself and keep the discussion going? I think yes. But it has to be about inclusion. Art is being made all over the country, by an incredibly diverse range of artists. Can we quibble about the building's exterior design? Sure. Although I like it, as a whole the industrial structure sits well in the district, a once gritty and rough neighborhood. The question I asked was will it survive the Hudson River, should it decide to spew forth into Chelsea again? And it will, and yes, they have thought about it.

So when you visit after the new Whitney opens on May 1st, take the elevator to the 8th floor, be swooned by the two Hartley paintings as the doors open, revel in a fabulous collection that now has room to show off. Be sure to take the exterior steps as you go floor to floor, contemplate the David Smith sculpture sitting proudly on the elevated steel and concrete runways, or take a seat in one of Mary Heilmann's colorful chairs. Look around: the mighty river, the city, it's an American story continuing to unfold, inside and out.

Other Articles:

Peter Schjeldahl, New York Odyssey (The New Yorker, April 27) // Don't Be Aloof (The Economist, April 25)

Holland Carter, New Whitney Museum’s First Show, ‘America Is Hard to See’ (New York Times, April 23)

Philip Kennicott, At the Whitney, a new structure forges a different relationship with the city (Washington Post, April 19)

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