Since I am all about NY nativism, I should react (here) to the Whitney Museum’s new Rienzo Piano building and inaugural show downtown. (Needless to say, all the detailed cognoscenti blog posts are long out. Like the overall consensus:) Well, it’s all . . . fine, suitable, functional (seemingly); in that sense, as well as the tier-conceived exterior, there is a strong connection to the neutralism of Marcel Breuer’s mildly Brutalist, inverted ziggurat uptown. No question, it was right to grab a spot in the nabe–a prime one, right in front of the southern entrance/exit to the Highline. The Mepa district is not turning back in my lifetime, and has possibly outpaced the Upper East Side already as the international upscale epicenter of NYC, soon (it seems) to meld into the high-end gallery universe in Chelsea a few blocks north. Without knowledge of the duration of the planning/design/construction process and interior details still underway, it appears to have been an efficiently-paced, organized project, with the opening six months after the close of the Breuer with the Jeff Koons shebang.
Outdoor steel decks off several floors are (again) fine. (As someone with latent vertigo, I found two of them a wee bit narrow.) Some of the scattered sculpture out there didn’t look great, in terms of weight and scale (David Smith; Joel Shapiro, Tony Smith), especially where there had to be “primitive” signs about not sitting or touching, such as that “guarding” Robert Morris’s famous three part “L-beams” (Unititled, 1965/70). For me, human-scale Minimalist work is usually more powerful in a closed space where viewers’ bodies are more fully involved (and you don’t need distracting signs). On the other hand, Scott Burton’s furniture-marbles that visitors can use, are naturals for this sort of thing. And the site-specific installation, Sunset, by Mary Heilmann on a the largest terrace, which included rainbow-colored block chairs scattered about (for use) and monochrome pink geometric “clouds” panels hovering above on the building facade worked well in more ways than one. From here, the refreshing far vistas on three sides interestingly contrast with the gritty near views of sanitation and meat processing plants remaining nearby below (probably not for much longer).
Given the impossible task of an inaugural re-invention of such a famous collection, I’m not surprised that it all seemed very careful; fine; even “good,” but I’m not left with one installation decision that really wowed. Okay, maybe the giant Felix Gonzalez-Torres hanging light-bulb sculpture cascading through a central open stairwell from top to bottom of the building. There was noticeably more diversity of artist gender, ethnicity, and race, and (related) subject matter among the sections from the first half of the century, then picked up again after the 1970s. (On that note, can’t wait for the Chicago painter Archibald Motley show, coming in October.) Yet, Fred Wilson’s brilliant piece, Guarded View (1991; four headless mannequins “of color” suited up in NYC museum guard uniforms) was striking more than two decades after its debut in the midst of the white-bread crowd. (There’s still a host of issues on this topic; ’nuff said in the immediate context.)
What else did I notice? The great graffiti man, Keith Haring, known for the brightest of colors and intertwined, glyphic-cartoon babies, tv sets, hearts, wings, and out-there penises, was not well-represented here in a dark-on-dark near-abstraction (one of only two Haring paintings in the collection; one overtly topical AIDS-related work on paper was including in a politically-themed installation area). Chuck Close’s early monumental airbrush self-portrait seemed out of place in a gallery that featured post-painterly abstraction (okay again – perhaps simultaneous directions, but visually; for example, elsewhere there was the juxtaposition of large portraits by Katz and Warhol; maybe Close’s mug there). Discoveries: a Vlaminck-like, putty-painted, foam-green-dominated landscape by George Bellows; an early Veja Cemins oil painting of a burning electric space heater in a burnt umber void–some convoluted root of the charcoal-toned, star-studded galaxies and flickering oceans that later brought her art renown.
P.S.: Other museum news: See NYT, June 3, “Frick Abandons Contested Renovation Plan,” Robin Pogrebin); yeah! (See previous post.)