Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art is part of the New York quartet of titan museums which house the best and brightest of the 21st century art scene, from ancient to modern, historic to illusory. With its sister ships, the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim Collection,the Whitney is now in the forefront of the media with its new building designed by the Italian “starchitect”, Renzo Piano. Located at 99 Gansevoort Street near the High Line walkway, which was originally a freight railway passage in the 1930’s, the street recalls the best of the Dutch patricians of the Hudson Valley.  Peter Gansevoort was a colonel under George Washington and the victor at the siege of Fort Stanwix in 1777.  The Hudson River, named for a Dutchman as well, runs right by the west façade of the building, allowing visitors to relax and bask in the slow moving beauty of the water and the ships rolling past.

99 Gansevoort Street, The Whitney Museum

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875 -1942) was the daughter and wife of American industrialists who were ambitious and successful entrepreneurs. Longing to be recognized in her own right, she opened a studio salon in Greenwich Village in 1914 where she showed her own artwork and that of other living artists of her time.  Much to the chagrin of her husband Harry Payne Whitney, she had her portrait painted in pants, and he refused to let her hang it in their Fifth Avenue apartment.  She continued to buy art, and by 1930 she offered her collection of 500 works to the then director of the Metropolitan Museum, Edward Robinson with a $5 million dollar endowment for a new wing to house them. She was turned down flat and promptly began her own museum effort on West 8th Street. The collection after her death had another home on West 54thst and then moved to the Breuer building on Madison Avenue and 74th Street in 1966. Frustrated by numerous overtures to the local landmark commission to expand this space that were repeatedly rejected, the current director, Adam Weinberg led the charge and has been successful in raising  $752 million dollars to complete the building in  lower Manhattan.  His directorship was endowed by another independent woman of means, Alice Pratt Brown from Houston, Texas, a firm believer along with Adam that the Whitney will always be a museum for American artists. Fiona Donovan, the granddaughter of Gertrude, provides guidance on the current board of directors which was proud to share the opening ceremonies with Michelle Obama and the Mayor of New York Bill De Blasio.

Michelle Obama at the Whitney Museum May 2015
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, portrait in oil by Robert Henri, 1916.

The mandate for the building was delivered to the architect of choice, Renzo Piano, who had performed  well in prior museum commissions for the Menil and Kimbell Museums in Texas and the Harvard and Gardner Museums in Boston.  His idea was to accommodate all the needs expressed by the board and the staff for space to show the permanent collection, conduct student workshops, display rotating exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennale held every two years, and provide dining spaces for visitors as well.  He produced a drawing of what he called a bouillabaisse of urbanity: new construction, invention, technology, poetry and light.  Using a central core as a load-bearing spine, the 200,000 square feet rise on 8 floors with exterior stairs to provide engaging views of the neighborhoods below.   The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl calls it a “lurching aggregate of shapes in striated steel and glass.”[1]  As an apprentice to architect Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania, Piano’s work is a kind of visual poetry which has free form yet good bones, something he learned from his father who was a builder in Genoa.    Many visitors prefer to ascend in the large elevators and descend on the external staircases, to see the current installation of 650 works from the permanent collection.

Renzo Piano, preparatory drawing
View from the High Line Walkway

The current show was organized by Donna de Salvo, former curator at the DIA Foundation and  the Tate Modern Museum in London.  She joined the Whitney in 2006 and was a driving force with Adam to complete the new project.  Her show is a series of 23 chapters, organized with edgy titles under the quotation: America is Hard to See.   This is her adaptation of a poem by Robert Frost written in 1951, a stanza of which reads:

Columbus may have worked the wind

A new and better way to Ind.

And also proved the world a ball.

But how about the wherewithal?

Not just for scientific news

Had the Queen backed him for a cruise. [2]

De Salvo’s mission was to present the works of the collection in a loosely organized historic chronology that allows the visitor to see art from the same time periods: 1910 to the present.  One example is the grouping “Fighting with all of our Might”, showing artists who struggled to succeed during the Great Depression by engaging with the WPA programs under President Roosevelt.

Mabel Dwight 1935, Merchants of Death, lithograph

Some of the most famous works in the collection may appear as old favorites to the enduring fans of American art such as the oil by Georgia O’Keeffe which evoked her acknowledgment of music in the fluidity of her painting:

Georgia O’Keeffe – Music, Pink and Blue Number 2, 1918

Adam Weinberg said that the best way to approach the new museum is with the artichoke theory- it is like peeling away layer after layer of meaning and tradition.  In this new space filled with joyful light, the new Whitney feels limber on its feet, ready for the next generation to experience the intense emotions of these wonderful American masterpieces.  Each visitor should plan plenty of time for the indoor and outdoor exposures.  Lunch and dinner are available, and members have a faster line of entry. Admission is free for all under 18 and on Friday nights from 7-10pm.

The legacy and vision of Gertrude Whitney has indeed made an indelible mark on New York and the new building adds a new dimension to its wonder as one of the artistic capitals of the world. Contrary to Frost’s hypothesis, America is not hard to see in this historic arrangement of American art of the modern age so graciously displayed in this new setting on the historic shores of the Hudson River.

Whitney Museum of American Art

Sharon Lorenzo      June 2015



[1] New York Odyssey, The New Yorker, April 27, 2015, p. 72.

[2] Frost, Robert. America is Hard to See, The Atlantic Monthly, 1951.