Old Museum, New Building: A UFO Has Landed in New York

The new building of the Whitney Museum of American Art, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, immediately became one of the main attractions of New York City. Its objective is to attract 1 million visitors per year.

Welcome among the best! The congratulations that MoMA, the famous contemporary art museum, published (for a significant amount of money because it took up a quarter of a page) a month ago in The New York Times, had more or less this slightly snobbish and condescending implication. The “welcomed” one is the Whitney, the museum of American art that has existed in New York for 84 years and has always remained in the shadow of the “big three,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art, known as the Met, the Guggenheim Museum and the MoMA.

Even the beginnings of the Whitney were at the very least humiliating. In 1930, Gertrude Whitney, known in New York, millionaire and art patron, offered to hand over her collection of contemporary American art to the Metropolitan Museum. But the biggest museum in New York, which has in its collection the works of the most remarkable European masters, such as Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh and many others, was not interested.

What am I going to do with it? My basements are already full of native contemporary art, was supposedly the answer of Edward Robinson, then director of the Met. Offended, Ms. Whitney left the office and didn’t even tell Robinson that if he had not interrupted her so harshly, she would have offered him $5 million for expansion, so that her donation did not have to languish in the basement. Instead, she decided to use the money to open her own museum.

A Million Visitors Per Year

Recently, the Whitney lavishly celebrated the third relocation in its history. Since May 1, it is situated in a remarkable building designed by the famous Italian architect, 77-year-old Renzo Piano, and built at an astronomical cost of $422 million in the former district of butchers and meatpacking facilities, the so-called Meatpacking District. The name and history of the district is a typical New York misnomer – it is now one of the most appealing areas in Manhattan. It is situated along the Hudson River and borders Chelsea, a neighborhood of exclusive art galleries.

Equally important, the new Whitney Museum is only a few steps from the High Line, which is a viaduct of old railways, where trees and shrubs were planted, and which was transformed into a two-kilometer walkway and an open space for artists. The High Line has become a tourist sensation in New York – last year 6 million people strolled there, more than the number of visitors who took the elevator up to the observation deck of the famous Empire State Building.

No wonder that on Friday afternoon, when I arrived at the Whitney Museum, there was a several-hundred-meter line waiting outside the entrance. The average waiting time is one hour, and it has been so every day for four weeks, since the opening of the new building. The museum’s board of directors hopes for 1 million visitors per year – three times more than it had in the previous location in Upper Manhattan.

Art, or Maybe a Drink and Snack?

From the outside, especially when viewed from the river, the eight-story building is fairly clunky. It looks like the futuristic, gigantic irregular tower of an aircraft transferred into the urban landscape. Some of the local residents even think that the museum tarnishes their neighborhood. But even the biggest critics change their minds as soon as they are inside. Renzo Piano designed the museum not as an asylum where in silence and isolated from the city we familiarize ourselves with art, but as an open space, where art and city permeate each other, and a synergy effect occurs. The sum of art and city is bigger than what would result from ordinary arithmetic.

High ceilings and glass walls provide fantastic natural lighting and an impression of spaciousness; therefore, despite a large number of visitors, there is no feeling of being squished by the crowd. It is best to begin on the top floor. An exterior staircase and extensive terraces lead the way down to the lower levels. There, the feeling of an immersion into the city intensifies; visitors have a moment for a break, some conversation, to get some fresh air, and admire the austere beauty of New York, or for a drink or snack. On the top-floor terrace, there is a restaurant (a second one, much bigger, is located on the ground floor and is available to everyone, even to people from the street who didn’t pay $22 for the ticket).

‘America Is Hard to See’

For its debut at the new location, the museum presents an exhibition of artwork from its own collection under the title “America Is Hard To See.” It is a quote from Robert Frost’s poem about Christopher Columbus, who discovered America and didn’t see what it really was but what he wanted to see: a fabulously rich Far East to where he had hoped to sail. The average spectator doesn’t experience the thrill that accompanies the viewing of the most popular artworks that have pervaded into mass culture. Only a connoisseur of American art will find some familiar paintings here, like Warhol’s rows of Coca-Cola bottles, or Edward Hopper’s “Railroad Sunset.” But despite this, even for laymen, the exhibition should be interesting. Beside paintings and graphics, there are installations, videos and sculptures. There is a lot going on, and the main topic is the social and cultural changes in the U.S. over the last 100 years.

This America, which is hard to see; we can see it for example in the “Sailors and Floozies,” a painting from 1938 by Paul Cadmus. A few sailors on leave in New York (on the shores of the Hudson River, the same one where the museum is located) have fun with loose women. The sailor in the foreground, a beautiful young blond man, is completely drunk and lying on the ground but is still being molested by a quite hideous old woman. The painting was considered iconoclastic because the sailors are not “brave patriots” as they are usually represented in America, but drunkards and objects of animal – and in addition feminine! – desire. But the form is equally interesting because Cadmus employed a painting technique from the Italian Renaissance.

Almost as curious as the exhibit are the people who are visiting it, or at least they were last Friday. Although like everywhere else tourists with cellphones dominated the scene, quite a few New York natives were walking around the museum: for example, an extremely elegant man with a horizontally standing, off-rigid tie twisted into a spiral, or a young man disguised as Zorro. Some of them could successfully be part of the museum’s exhibits. There were also women as if teleported alive from some avant-garde fashion show. Many of them treated the visit to the museum as a promising start of the evening because it closes as late as 10 p.m. (from Thursday to Saturday). Such long hours are also in harmony with the architectural concept of “openness.”

Manhattan, and All the Rest

It is worth noting that geographically speaking, the museum “opens up” rather to the east, toward the city. All the terraces are pointed that way. From the west, meaning from the Hudson River, there is a wall. Although it’s made of glass and with comfortable couches nearby from where you can admire the view, it’s nevertheless a wall.

In an interview for The New Yorker, Renzo Piano explained that it was not a coincidence, and it evoked the famous Saul Steinberg drawing titled “View of the World from Ninth Avenue.” In the foreground, you can see Manhattan, very thoroughly outlined, with skyscrapers, cars and people on the streets. At the rear, there is the Hudson River, and behind, there is almost nothing, a practically blank map without any details and disproportionately small in comparison with the city in the foreground. Los Angeles and Chicago are barely marked, like the even more distant and indistinct Pacific, Japan, China and Russia

This is how New Yorkers see the world. Everything that is outside of Manhattan is irrelevant. And this is why the new Whitney Museum, which wants to become one of NYC’s icons, had to turn its back to the rest of the world.

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