Whitney Museum Gets Relevant

by David Hershkovits
Image courtesy of Renzo Piano Building Workshop in collaboration with Cooper, Robertson & Partners

Tucked away on the Upper East Side in Marcel Breuer's bunker-like building built in 1966, the Whitney Museum of American Art has drifted into irrelevance. Sure it has a Biennial every two years that gets the art world talking for a few days, but it has lost its feel for the zeitgeist, lost perhaps to the trade shows -- a.k.a. art fairs -- proliferating faster than mushrooms after a rain storm. It's location off Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile, nowhere near Midtown á la MoMa or downtown where the New Museum has planted its expansionist flag, has something to do with the sense that it has lost its pulse and is in need of resuscitation.

On a hard hat tour of the new building, it becomes clear that all this and more is about to change with the opening next year of Renzo Piano's anti-Breuer structure in the Meatpacking District abutting the High Line. A vastly bigger edifice with roughly three times the space, it will for the first time be able to showcase the Whitney's massive permanent collection of 20th-21st Century art.

With every detail considered and incorporated into the design of the building, the Whitney curators are anxious to get started, lovingly describing the wooden spring floor, the pillar-free galleries and the only artwork commissioned for the new building, four elevator interiors by Richard Artschwagger, completed before he died earlier this year.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 2008. Chromogenic print.

Built in 1966, Breuer's Whitney is an upside-down ziggurat, growing in dimension with each additional floor, removed from the street, and lacking windows. While it is a brilliant adaptation to a small footprint and hailed in its day by architecture critic Joseph Giovannini as "perhaps the most obvious piece in the Whitney's collection of 20th century art," it is too small for a world where bigger is better. Designed in the '60s -- perhaps as a haven from the turmoil found in the demonstrations and riots on the streets -- it's time, nearly fifty years later, for the Whitney to grow. A Michael Graves addition was proposed in 1985 but was defeated as an affront to the Breuer.

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009. Neon.

Piano's Whitney takes a counter approach. As he did with the Centre Pompidou in Paris, Piano's wants to engage with the city. Piano's Whitney faces south toward the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, east into the city, and west across the Hudson. Though the Hudson's magnificence lures us west, Piano wants to nudge us Eastward to the unobstructed, protected views with terraces and staircases outside the building facing the concrete jungle sprawling before us. Piano's Whitney is smaller on top and gets bigger at its base. Breuer's Whitney was closed in, Piano's is expansive and includes an outdoor plaza, restaurants by Danny Meyer, a café, curatorial offices, a theater and extensive flood mitigation plans.

For now the walls and fixtures are in place with lots of finishing up to do before it opens with the largest and most comprehensive display to date of the Whitney's unparalleled permanent collection of 20th and 21st century American art. This ambitious display will offer new perspectives on art in the United States since 1900. The opening presentation will fill over 60,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibition space, utilizing all galleries in the building.

Before long people will be queueing up for culture on the Hudson (whatever Piano tries to do) and Breuer's underutilized masterpiece will be home of the Metropolitan Museum's contemporary art collection. More art for the masses. More parties for the people. Can't wait.

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