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Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Whitney Museum, New York

The Whitney Museum of American Art open last year (2015) on
Manhattan's lower west side. Day or night, it's an impressive
piece of Postmodern museum architecture by the Italian
architect, Renzo Piano.
For more than a year I've been making plans to visit the art capital of the world, New York City. Besides the memorial at Ground Zero and maybe a Broadway play or two, I had on my "must-see" list three major museums, the Met (of course), the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and the Guggenheim. Then this morning, I got a set of photos from an e-mail friend of mine that he'd taken at a new museum which I'd all but forgotten--the Whitney Museum of American Art. When I say "new," actually only the building at 99 Gansevoort Street in Lower Manhattan (near the meatpacking district) is new. Since 1966 the museum had been ensconced at 945 Madison Avenue in a landmark architectural masterpiece designed by Marcel Breuer. Before that, it had been on 54th Street (though having originally opened its doors at 8-12 W. Eighth Street).

Breuer's Whitney Museum has been a New York landmark for more that fifty years. It has now been least to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The museum was founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (below). Her grandfather was Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt and her husband was the playboy-financier Harry Payne Whitney. Within a few years of her marriage in 1896 Gertrude Whitney discovered that her husband was unfaithful. Divorce was likely not an option for social, as well as financial reasons. In lieu of a happy marriage, Gertrude decided to become a sculptor. She took up with a group of artists who formed the Ashcan School--Robert Henri (who painted her portrait below), John Sloan, William Glackens and others. They were fighting to establish artistic realism in a conservative atmosphere of society portraits and soothing landscapes.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916, Robert Henri
In 1907 Gertrude Vanderbilt bought a studio on Macdougal Alley, a street of stables serving the flanking rows of houses on Washington Square. Truth be told, she proved to have only moderate talent as a sculptor. However, she excelled as an organizer. In 1914 she took over the adjacent row house at West Eighth Street as a meeting place and gallery for other artists on the outs with the establishment. Gradually, she added the townhouses at 10, 12 and 14 West Eighth Street--as well as their corresponding stables on Macdougal Alley. This became the Whitney Studio Club, a center of advanced thinking in American art. John Sloan and Reginald Marsh both had their first one-man shows there and in 1924 the club mounted the first exhibit of American folk art. It marked a complete reversal of the old-master theory of collecting which had dominated the 19th-century. Mrs. Whitney also directly supported artists with gifts, loans and purchases. By the late 1920's she had amassed a collection of about 500 works by Hopper, Bellows, Prendergast, Sloan and others.

Gertrude's first museum, circa 1931,
My Egypt, 1927, Charles Demuth
Gertrude offered her collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929 along with $5-million for a new wing. She found she couldn't even give them away. The Met rejected the offer, under-scoring its longstanding, much-criticized reputation for collecting only dead artists while ignoring the living. Works such as Charles Demuth's My Egypt (left) de-fined Gertrude Whitney's taste in living American artists. In the face of what was, in essence, a slap in the face, Ger-trude Whitney and her friends decided to start their own museum specifically to serve American artists while they were still alive. Mrs. Whitney retained the architects Noel & Miller, who in 1931 rebuilt 8, 10 and 12 West Eighth with a coating of salmon-colored stucco and a modernistic entrance (above). The stuc-co veneer was a standard solution for redoing old houses, but the doorway shouted out the novelty of a brave new Depression era architecture.

Art you will only see at the Whitney Museum...wherever it's located.
The Whitney Museum opened in 1931 with George Bellows' Dempsey and Firpo (above, near the top), a painting of a boxing match as a centerpiece symbolizing its challenging stance. "There may be pictures here that you do not like, but they are here to stay, so you may as well get used to them," the museum's director, Juliana Force, declared at the opening. The following year marked the first of the Whitney's Biennial exhibitions, which was instantly blasted by the press. The museum, largely reflecting the personalities of Gertrude Whitney and Juliana Force, continued to join in controversy without reservation for the next decade.

The new Whitney Museum as it was still on the drawing board.
The new Whitney is far removed
from New York's"arty" precincts.
Construction on the new Whitney Museum began in 2010 and was completed in 2015 for a whopping $422-million. The new structure spans 200,000 square feet rising to nine stories including the city's largest column-free art gallery. There's also an education center, theater, a conservation lab, and a library with reading rooms. Two of the floors are fully devoted to the museum's permanent collection. The only permanent artwork commissioned for the site was in the form of its four main elevators as conceived by Richard Artschwager. The new building's collection comprises over 600 works by over 400 artists.

Solid white walls, vast hardwood floors, lofty ceilings, and acres of glass--
the interior spaces of the new Whitney Museum differ little from

similar museums around the world.
In the Air, T. J. Wilcox, (temporary exhibit)

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