We were in New York City recently for a very extended weekend. One of the major highlights we were looking forward to was a visit to the new Whitney Museum of American Art, relocated to Chelsea at the very foot of the High Line. I was excited to see the museum itself: after all museums are one of the prime sites of daring experiments in architecture ever since Frank Gehry built a Guggenheim in Bilbao. There was also a major retrospective of one of my favorite American artists, Frank Stella. And expanded space for the permanent collections, I’d heard, and visiting the third floor of the old Breuer building uptown had been a perennial activity back in the day when I traveled to New York more frequently.
Sadly, the museum building itself turned out to be rather a disappointment architecturally. The view from the street was promising, if not actually inviting. But once inside a miserable sense of generic white boxes stacked atop and beside one another proved to be the most enduring impression of the space. Beyond that, it is another pyramidal structure, which I’ve come to believe is a poor choice for a museum, for as you ascend ever higher, there’s less square footage per floor, and therefore less to see. It breeds a sense of accumulative disappointment.
When the museum opened, much was made of the first exhibition, which devoted all of the galleries to the permanent collection and allowed for the bringing forth of works that hadn’t been displayed in a long time. Many unfamiliar paintings and sculptures remained on view in the 7th floor galleries, all that remain devoted to the permanent collection now. But by and large, the works themselves were inferior to those by the same artists that had graced the permanent galleries on 5th Avenue years ago. The Morris Louis and John Chamberlain pieces were especially disappointing; the Pollocks seemed lifeless, and only the DeKooning and Guston paintings were a pleasure to behold.
One floor below, Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner offered a broad perspective on art of the past forty years or so, all of it destined as a gift to either the Whitney or the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Much of the work could be described as post-Conceptual, set exemplified, perhaps by numerous works in multiple media (as opposed to multimedia works) by American Christopher Wool (one example at right). Hito Steyerl’s installation of three large Macintosh video displays (“Red Alert”) looked at first to be a triptych of pure red canvas, a kind of überminimalist Ellsworth Kelly spectrum. But it turns out that the screen are projecting an unending loop of frames of identical red rectangles: it’s a movie that doesn’t move. Also in evidence were a couple of Richard Prince’s “Monochromatic Jokes” (bad one-liners stenciled onto large canvases: “I went to see a psychiatrist. He said, ‘Tell me everything.’ I did and now he’s doing my act.”)
My favorites in this exhibition though we are pair of Robert Gober’s industrial/medical sinks. When I first saw these at another Whitney exhibition in the mid-80s, the context of the emerging AIDS crisis made them seem horrific and grim, sterile and heartless totems, creepy and depressing. Today though, while they retain the traces of all those feelings, I can’t help but find the humor in them, especially given the title of the work (“The Ascending Sink”) and because, somehow, my eye wants to see a pair of cartoon pelicans in them, an effect I’m quite sure the artist never intended, but which still makes me smile. There was also a lovely 1980 work by Gibert and George, called “Up,” that brought back the days before cartoon color and composition leached much of the subtlety from their photographs.
Given the wealth of what was to be seen inside the museum (and I’ll have more to say about the Stella exhibition another time), I felt almost guilty in the amount of pleasure I derived from looking outside, away from the museum. For if nothing else, the Whitney’s position on the lower East Side offers some stunning panoramas of New York (and occasionally New Jersey across the Hudson River). It certainly helped that the day of our second visit was brilliant and clear, a gibbous moon perched high in the sky to the west, the sky a blue that comes all too rarely into view in New York.
Luckily, some of those views include sculpture on the terraces, so I can offer some art in my photographs.
But who’s to say that New York’s architecture isn’t a work of art in its own right?