The Whitney Museum of American Art has always been a peculiar institution.
By definition, museums look back. But the Whitney was founded just over a century ago by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney - an artist and descendent of robber barons - who believed America was all about the new and the next. It leaves Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, the colonial tall chests and the early silver, the Hudson River School and itinerant limners to others - and concentrates, instead, on the expressions of an emerging superpower.
Every two years, with its contentious biennials, the Whitney outrages and disgusts critics and commentators while providing, over time, an unrivaled account about what U.S. artists have been doing. Its building on Madison Avenue, designed by Marcel Breuer, provided a modernist architectural experience but could never accommodate the showing of more than a sliver of the collection. You went to the Whitney for shows that shone a spotlight on an artist, a movement, or a moment. It could never offer the big picture.
For decades, the Whitney explored ways to expand, and it came up with some absolutely horrible ideas. Now, after trying everything else, it seems to have done the right thing. It has moved to a new building - a very large, almost willfully unmemorable edifice designed by Renzo Piano - that makes art easy to show and to see, and is flexible enough for the next big thing, whatever that might be.
"America is Hard to See," the inaugural exhibition at the new building in what used to be Manhattan's meatpacking district, includes more than 600 works on five floors. All of the works are from the museum's permanent collection, and a fairly high percentage of them have been on display rarely, or never. The obvious message is that the Whitney really did need a big new building after all.
The exhibition's title, a quotation from Robert Frost, can be read in several ways. It highlights that America, at least as the Whitney sees it, has never been easier to see. But the exhibition is really too big to fully see in a single visit, so it shows us that a visit to the Whitney has become a feat of physical and mental endurance, perhaps not on a par with the Metropolitan, but in a league with the Museum of Modern Art.
The title also brings a bit of intellectual humility to this vast undertaking. The Whitney's defining characteristic is that it shows American art. What makes a work of art distinctively American has never been clear, and given the globalization of culture, it is becoming less so all the time. Those who make American art, like American business or American movies, have always come from other places, and, indeed, American culture seems particularly suited for export.
The Whitney does not even try to deal with the other conundrum posed by the way it uses the word American - the exclusion from consideration of all the other countries in the Western Hemisphere. All these places share a heritage of colonization, resource extraction, encounters with indigenous peoples, voluntary and involuntary immigration, and the adaptation and abstraction of European and other old-world visual culture. Brazilian art, for example, is American, at least in the way some of the artists in this show understand it.
Though the Museum of Modern Art has always striven to define what modern means, often in narrow and doctrinaire terms, the Whitney's take on what American means is loose, disparate, contradictory, cacophonous - and, well, American. Its curators have taken a great many things out of the closet, many of which we probably will be seeing more often now that the museum has a spacious new home. But there is little suggestion that these paintings, prints, and sculptures will constitute a new canon. Rather, the hope is that they will be stimulating things to see.
The show is divided into 23 sections, called "chapters," that, after a ground-floor preface about the museum's origins, proceed in rough and overlapping chronological order from the ninth-floor galleries down to the fifth. The chapters, each named for a work that is part of it, deal with formal issues, the use of materials, intellectual ideas, and social phenomena such as the Great Depression, World War II, and the AIDS crisis. Some topics are familiar, others less so, and they all offer surprises.
One of my favorites, "Music, Pink and Blue," takes its name from a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, and it deals with, as she said, "the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye."
Because music was an abstract art with which people were familiar, it was viewed as a way to help people understand the new visual art. The chapter includes some things you might expect, such as the O'Keeffe oil, three Charles Burchfield watercolors, and an Imogen Cunningham photograph of Martha Graham.
But like all the sections, it includes things you don't expect, such as an oil by the poet e.e. cummings. I'm inclined to think the title, Noise Number 13, is the best thing about it, but I'm delighted to have seen it.
The advantage of these "chapters," not rigorous or large enough to be shows in themselves, is that they make the history more than a parade of styles.
Pop is considered in the chapter "Large Trademark," but contemporaneous 1960s phenomena, such as salvage and the juxtaposition of materials, is dealt with in "Scotch Tape," which includes some of the show's most memorable works. Among these are a piece in which sculptor John Chamberlain uses cloth as he would later use wrecked automobiles, and Lee Bontecou's horrific robotic pig monster, made from old conveyor belts.
Starting in October, the museum will do more conventional shows on individual artists and movements, thus displacing some of these chapters. But they do provide a sort of prototype for the display of a collection that, though large, covers only a relatively small slice of history and geography. Right now, it is wonderful to see so much that was previously unavailable; only later will it be clear whether the collection is really rich enough to look at over and over again.
Art: ART SPACE ODYSSEY
The Whitney Museum
of American Art
99 Gansevoort St., New York.
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday; 10:30 a.m.
to 10 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday; closed Tuesday.
Admission: Adults, $22; seniors and students, $18; under 18, free.
Information: 212-570-3600 or www.whitney.org.