How to Survey American History Without Getting Sentimental: A Look at the New Whitney

How to Survey American History Without Getting Sentimental: A Look at the New Whitney By Rob Bryan

The new Whitney Museum is a massive structure – twice the size of the old Whitney – that seems to hover over the Meatpacking District like some kind of futuristic vessel out of a sci-fi blockbuster. The brutalist architecture of the old Madison Avenue building has been replaced with a sleek design that makes the building seem at home among the modern buildings of the neighborhood. Staring up at the eight floors of bluish-gray glass and steel, one could be forgiven for assuming it was a new luxury hotel along the lines of the nearby Standard. Renzo Piano, the building’s designer, has compared the structure to a ship, and this comparison is not without merit (though by all appearances it would be better suited to outer space than the sea).

The western facade of the building is tiered into a series of observation decks, offering an impressive view of Manhattan to the north and the Hudson to the west. The location affords an opportunity to make the surrounding area into its own sort of art exhibit: on one floor, patrons can sit on comfy leather couches and gaze through a wall-length glass window across the East River at the sun setting over Jersey City, while elsewhere a large balcony offers even more expansive views.

America is Hard to See, the museum’s opening exhibition, wrestles with the challenge of representing a century of American art in a way that is both inclusive and discerning. It aims to capture moments in American culture, not just in the art world but throughout society at large – from early-20th Century industrialization through Jim Crow, Vietnam, and the AIDS and crack epidemics of the 80s. Sprawling and manifold, the exhibit escapes easy definition.

The clientele is similarly hard to pin down. There are the usual suspects - art school kids with shaggy hair and dirty Chuck Taylors, groups of old women walking at a snail's pace, well-dressed couples speaking in hushed tones - but plenty of others as well. The museum’s patrons represent a cross-section of the city’s inhabitants, though skewed somewhat whiter and wealthier than average.

As a middle-aged man walked by the mangled metal wreck of John Chamberlain’s Velvet White, looking like he had come straight from a suburban barbecue, he muttered something disapproving to his wife. I couldn't make out the exact words, but by his tone I imagine it was some variation of the "my kid could do that" cliché. Is that, at the end of the day, what keeps the lights on in modern art museums? The admittance fees of the painfully normal, eager to turn their noses up at the absurdity of the abstract? Or do they feel like the artists are turning their noses up at them? It's hard to know, now that aesthetic beauty has ceased to be a reliable measure of an artwork's value, what exactly people are looking for when they visit a place like The Whitney.

In a rambling review for the New York Observer provocatively titled "Does the New Whitney Hate America?" the art critic Walter Robinson decries the "anti-utopian anxiety" of the exhibit: "I also wonder if we’ve given up on the romanticism that matches art with ideas of joy, peace and transcendence." Decrying the lack of “the utopian impulse we usually associate with modernist art,” Robinson detects a “subtle anxiety” that undercuts the sense of joy he expects from a museum. I detected none of this joylessness, but perhaps the note of anxiety is real. And why should there not be such a note present? After the century of madness depicted in these works, it would be naïve to assume the following century should be any more placid.

The museum’s greatest strength is its willingness to engage with history and to acknowledge art’s place within that history rather than as something floating above it. Though not every work is clearly a product of its time, they are all connected in some way to the larger context in which they were produced. This connection can be obvious, as is the case with A Mule and A Plow, Bernarda Bryson Shahn’s Depression-era poster for the New Deal’s Resettlement Administration. It can also be subtle, like the second-wave feminism informing Cindy Sherman’s cinematic self-portraits.

Absent a unifying theme, the new Whitney is able to serve as a big tent for the messy, varied history of American art (though the artists are not limited to Americans, allowing for an even more expansive reach). The interior itself is a testament to this malleability – with the feel of an immaculately clean warehouse, it is able to accommodate more traditional works alongside experimental pieces that make full use of the wide open spaces.

Among the more traditional work are staid paintings by Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Georgia O’Keefe, alongside the chaos of abstract impressionists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. The violent splatter of Pollock’s Number 27 is given ample space to assault the viewer while nearby Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning gives a main-street treatment to the Seventh Avenue of 1930. Brooklyn’s own George Tooker blends social realism and surrealism in The Subway, conveying the claustrophobic paranoia of the midcentury metropolis.

Some of the best moments at the Whitney come from anachronisms, when common threads seem to cross the space-time continuum. A perfect example is Hedda Sterne’s New York, N.Y. in which, according to the accompanying placard, the Hungarian-born artist draws inspiration from the “beams, girders, and trusses” of the city’s bridges. The airbrushed enamel, crisscrossing the canvas in overlapping lines of red, green, and black, unconsciously evokes the graffiti era that would not appear for at least another 20 years after the painting’s creation in 1955.

As Banksy’s work has demonstrated, socially conscious art can easily fall into the trap of heavy-handedness. Though political commentary is prominent in works like Peter Saul’s Saigon, which depicts Vietnam atrocities as a trippy day-glo hellscape, such works are refreshingly free of sanctimony. At times, the social commentary approaches journalism, such as in Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. The complex piece consists of detailed descriptions of real estate holdings owned by a New York City slumlord alongside black-and-white photos of the buildings’ facades. Together, the text and photography provide evidence of fraud. Nearby, Candy Jernigan’s Found Dope: Part II traces the residue of the 80s crack boom by collecting empty vials from pre-gentrified Greenwich Village and displaying them on top of a map of the neighborhood. There is something refreshing about this kind of sober, no-frills approach to political art – letting the evidence speak for itself rather than beating the viewer over the head. An equally profound piece of political art can be found in Decoy Gang War Victim, a photograph by the 70s East Los Angeles Collective called Asco. Purporting to show the “last gang member” lying dead in the street, the photograph (whose lurid nighttime neon colors recall the cinematography of Robby Muller) was passed off as genuine to news stations at the time.

With its $22 admission fee and swanky location, The Whitney was undoubtedly designed with an audience of elites in mind. But even though it suffers from some large gaps (notably a near-total absence of Native American art), the museum manages to capture an impressively wide range of styles that could conceivably be called “American.” From the sharp lines of Man Ray and Warhol to the fuzz of Rothko and the scrawl of de Kooning, from the stark neon of Glenn Ligon’s America to the punk politics of Donald Moffet’s Regan-bashing He Kills Me, “American is Hard to See” captures a country in constant flux, tumultuous and unpredictable. The schizophrenic nature of the exhibit is symptomatic of Marx’s diagnosis of “the bourgeois epoch,” in which new means of production lead to an “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation.” Though the works are drawn entirely from the Whitney’s extensive permanent collection (which began as the private collection of wealthy socialite Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney), there is no agenda, no larger message, or even common theme. There is only the kaleidoscopic range of expressions produced by the world’s most international nation. Like America, the exhibit opens its arms to the cultural influence of the world while remaining safely ensconced in glass and steel, sifting through a century of art to provide lucky visitors with a glimpse of what it meant to be American in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Scattered in the best sense of the word, the new Whitney’s kickoff exhibition tries and inevitably fails to cram 20th century America into one big shiny building. Nevertheless, it makes a noble and worthy effort.