I’d previously visited the Whitney at its former location but it was finally time to visit its latest one.
As the pre-eminent institution devoted to art of the United States, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents the full range of 20th century and contemporary American art, with a special focus on works by living artists. The Whitney is dedicated to collecting, preserving, interpreting, and exhibiting American art and its collection is arguably the finest 20th century American art in the world. The Museum’s flagship exhibition, the Biennial, is the country’s leading survey of the most recent developments in American art.
The building was designed by architect Renzo Piano and is situated between the High Line and the Hudson River. This building vastly increases the Museum’s exhibition and programming space, providing the most expansive view ever of its collection of modern and contemporary American art. It also has a rather nice bar and restaurant with excellent views of its neighbourhood.
How it all began
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the museum’s namesake and founder, was a well-regarded sculptor and serious art collector. As a patron of the arts, she began acquiring art in 1905, and had already achieved some success with the Whitney Studio and Whitney Studio Club, New York–based exhibition spaces she operated from 1914 to 1928 to promote the works of avant garde and unrecognized American artists. Whitney favoured the radical art of the American artists of the Ashcan School such as John French Sloan, George Luks, and Everett Shinn, as well as others such as Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Charles Sheeler, and Max Weber.
Whitney collected nearly 700 works of American art. In 1929, she offered to donate over 500 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the museum declined the gift. This, along with the apparent preference for European modernism at the recently opened Museum of Modern Art, led Whitney to start her own museum – as you would! – exclusively for American art, in 1929.
Whitney Library archives from 1928 reveal that during this time, the Studio Club used the gallery space of Wilhelmina Weber Furlong of the Art Students League to exhibit traveling shows featuring modernist work. The Whitney was founded in 1930 at 8 West 8th Street which had been the location of the Studio Club. The new museum opened in 1931. Whitney’s assistant Force became the museum’s first director, and under her guidance, it concentrated on displaying the works of new and contemporary American artists.
In 1954, the museum left its original location and moved to a small structure on 54th Street connected to and behind the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street. In 1958, a fire on MOMA’s second floor forced the evacuation of paintings and staff on MOMA’s upper floors to the Whitney. <
Subsequently, the Whitney began seeking a site for a larger building. In 1966, it settled at the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 75th Street on the Upper East Side. The building, planned and built 1963–1966 by Marcel Breuer and Hamilton P. Smith in a distinctively modern style, is easily distinguished from the neighbouring townhouses by its staircase façade made of granite stones and its trapezoidal windows.
The institution grappled with space problems for decades and resorted to opening satellite spaces around New York and in the lobbies of major US corporates. Meanwhile, the institution attempted to expand its landmark building in 1978, commissioning UK architects Derek Walker and Norman Foster to design a tall tower alongside it, the first of several proposals from leading architects, but each time, the effort was abandoned, because of the cost, the design, or both.
The Whitney finally developed a new main building, designed by Renzo Piano, in the West Village and Meatpacking District in lower Manhattan. The new museum, which opened in 2015, at the intersection of Gansevoort and Washington Street, was built on a previously city-owned site and marks the southern entrance to the High Line park.
The new open and expansive structure spans 19,000 sq m (190,000 sq ft) and eight stories that include the city’s largest column-free art gallery spaces. Two of the floors are fully devoted to the museum’s permanent collection.
The original 600 works in the permanent collection grew to about 1,300 with the opening of the second building in 1954. This number grew to around 2,000 following its move to the Breuer building on Madison Avenue in 1966. It began collecting photography in 1991. Today, spanning the late 19th century to the present, the collection contains more than 25,000 artworks by upwards of 3,500 artists.
Every two years, the museum hosts the Whitney Biennial, which we were fortunate to view. It’s an international art show which displays many lesser-known artists new to the American art scene.
In the past, it has displayed works by many notable artists including some unconventional works. Unfortunately, due to the nature of these works, many are difficult to photograph.