American Art New York City (Frames)


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I never liked the old Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Actually, I hated going into it the old Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue. After crossing the moat, the feel inside was concrete and closed in. The staircase was particularly low and claustrophobic. In contrast, the new museum and museum-site downtown right on and over the Highline is spectacular. Prominent component parts are [1] big light filled galleries, [2] external balconies, [3] and a connecting external staircase that takes you from floor to floor. Everything looks and feels open

Designed by Renzo Piano, what building does neatly is to create a dynamic rhythm between (the art) inside and (the city) outside. The design takes you into the gallery floor and then sets you outside onto the balconies and staircase. Inside the art, now outside, you are opened out onto the city before returning inside to more art on the next gallery floor. You enter and exit the internal museum space as you exit and re-enter the city-space, at multiple levels. The art stretches out.

A survey of the museum collection, the inaugural exhibition America is Hard to See sets the history of modern American art on a new and expansive footing. By design, you can finish a historical slice represented on one floor of the museum, and then step out onto the balconies and staircases with quintessential New York City views, and then enter the next historical slice one the floor below. The right hand touching the left as the left touches the right. The city frames the art. The art frames the city. Each becomes an embedded part of the other.

The direct and practically constant visual exposure of the museum inside to the city outside locates the art in very particular sense of time and place. Steeped as a form of Americana, there is something parochial in the cosmopolitanism represented at the Whitney.

My first visit was on a bright summer day. One can imagine different effects on rainy days and in winter to wonder about the cast of the weather on the art, and the cast of the art on the weather. At the new Whitney, which is open until 10:00 PM on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, you can try out this visual experiment also at night. I don’t think American art has ever looked this good. I’m not even sure I ever noticed it, long overshadowed in relation to the MOMA and the Eurocentrism there. As if by design fiat, American art has been made to look just as good.

Holland Cotter describes the museum and the exhibition this way here. “The galleries, with high ceilings, tall windows and soft pine-plank floors, are as airy and light-flooded as the 19th-century sailmaker’s lofts known to Herman Melville, who worked as a shipboard customs inspector where the Whitney now stands. Art feels at home in them, and the work in the museum’s top-to-bottom inaugural show is homegrown. Culled from the permanent collection, it imaginatively mixes favorites by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jasper Johns with objects and artists that the Whitney had all but forgotten.

Comparing the Whitney to the Met, MOMA, and the Guggenheim, Peter Schjeldahl writes here in the New Yorker about parochialism and American art. “The timing couldn’t be better for a detailed and vividly embodied engagement with the question of what has been meant by “American” modern art. The Whitney’s parochial mandate seemed a handicap during the past century of marching cosmopolitan styles, from Post-Impressionism and Cubism to minimalism and the myriad variants of conceptual art. Nationalism was then a bugaboo. But the restriction becomes a strength as, day after day in the headlines, one dream after another of a borderless world flames out. A national perspective offers a sturdy point of reference amid the redundancies of the nowhere-in-particular globalized culture.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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