On May 1, New York inaugurates the best new place to view art in the city, and it’s from inside an 85-year-old institution. Indeed, the Whitney Museum of American Art may be nothing novel, but their freshly-minted space and their stunning opening exhibition mark a striking and important new chapter in the museum’s history—and in the larger world of American art history, too.
For starters, the new building—designed by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Renzo Piano, situated on Gansevoort Street between the Hudson River and the High Line—is truly remarkable. Yes, certain Manhattan museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have created highly complex spaces for exhibiting specific historical objects, while others, like the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, offer sheer spectacle value (i.e. the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed site itself). But the size, quality, and flexibility of the Whitney’s new space, which has been in development for the last eleven years, make it an artist’s and curator’s dream. Effortlessly made enormous and filled with natural light, or turned dark and intimate, the galleries (the fifth floor boasts the largest column-free space in New York) can be converted into almost anything you could want.
For the visitor, these practical measures create an experience nothing short of paradisiacal. While the building’s exterior (recalling an asymmetrical hospital or factory in its sterility) is not particularly inviting, the galleries themselves make it feel as if you’re floating in the sky above the city, and with water views, no less—something no other major art museum in the city can boast.
Such vistas point to the museum’s careful attention to improving the art viewing experience, even if that means detracting, for just a moment, from the art. We’re all familiar with the exhausting experience of museum spectating: one unrelenting gallery after the next, filled with artworks that beg for our attention; it’s no wonder we long for the outside world. What if we were afforded some breaks?
The Whitney provides ample opportunities to have breathtaking experiences apart from the art, whether it’s sitting in one of the gray couches facing the Hudson on the fifth floor or exploring the plethora of terraces on nearly every level. These bright, beautiful, social opportunities offer some of the most amazing views that Manhattan can provide. Inside and out, the museum is a beautiful place to be. You won’t want to leave, but it’s the quality of what’s on view that’ll keep bringing you back.
The museum’s inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, is likely to shape American art in the years to come. Compiled entirely from the museum’s own collection, the show features over 600 works by 400 artists—a display never before seen in the Whitney’s previous space uptown, where a small portion of their collection was heavily condensed into the building’s awkward top floors. Over a quarter of the works currently on view haven’t been seen in decades. It’s incredibly exciting to think about how such exposure will affect future artists, curators, and other players in the years to come.
But perhaps the most exciting experience is seeing how these works come together, and it doesn’t take long to pick up on how the Whitney’s new narrative of American history subtly highlights minority viewpoints. It’s an incredibly significant move on such a national, if not international, stage—when the safer bet would have been to cling to the previous historical narratives that focus instead on form and style. Take, for example, a selection of prints by artists such as Paul Cadmus and José Clemente Orozco supporting an anti-lynching bill in Congress, as well as Jacob Lawrence’s War Series, which reflects on the suffering brought on by World War II, in a section devoted to the 1930s and 1940s; there’s also an area explicitly devoted to works exploring identity, race, sexuality, and gender during the early 1990s, which showcases pieces by Nan Goldin, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Peter Hujar, and others.
The most powerful example, however, is the number of works on display from the 1960s dedicated to the Vietnam War. (I’ll admit I’m biased; I wrote a book, Kill for Peace, on the subject.) While Peter Saul’s Saigon, a fluorescent, x-rated image portraying the raping and pillaging of the Vietnamese city in a cartoonish style, is arguably the centerpiece of the sixth floor, it's Howard Lester’s video work One Week in Vietnam that dominates the selection. Showcasing portraits of soldiers alongside an ever-increasing body count to the tune of The Everly Brothers’ Bye Bye Love, the music seeps into the floor’s other galleries, akin to the way the war penetrated all aspects of American life during the period. The power of the piece becomes inescapable, even as you move past it to explore the works of Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptual Art—the era’s most iconic movements. Frequently, these beloved styles have been allowed to silence the other, more difficult moments in American art history—a history the Whitney is responsible for reflecting.
It’s clear the revamped institution will change the landscape of New York, but it remains to be seen how much. Will it become the new first stop on a museum-goer's itinerary? Will it inspire a Museum Mile to sprout downtown? Will other modern and contemporary museums take the cue from the Whitney and seek to highlight their collections more innovatively? Will more American artists seek attention from the institution for their work in unprecedented volumes?
We won’t yet know the answers to these questions for some time, but it's clear the museum has already made history—at the very least in New York. Get there first, and prepare to wait in line; it’s well worth it. You’ll tell your kids about it someday.
The Whitney Museum of American Art opens on May 1 at their new location on 99 Gansevoort Street. Their inaugural exhibition America Is Hard to See, will remain on view through September 27, 2015.