Monday, August 9, 2010

Whtney Museum of American Art

5/21/2010, Friday (continued)
TIME: 2.5 hrs
COST: Normally $18, but we went Friday after 6 for "pay what you wish" admission.

The Whitney Museum of American Art (a.k.a. the Whitney) is the “other” modern art museum in New York.  Mind you, there are a number of modern art museums in this city, but the Whitney is the only one that even tries to compete with the big guns, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art (a.k.a the MOMA).

It doesn’t succeed, mind you.  How can you compete with a 150,000 work collection from the likes of van Gogh, Picasso and Salvador Dali?  Instead, the Whitney seems like a plucky younger sister museum: younger and smaller, but bolder and more brazen.  It doesn’t have the classics like van Gogh’s “Starry Night”, but instead manages to carve out a niche for itself in the newest art movements and most current artists.  100 years from now, the people exhibited in the Whitney might be the Picasso’s of their age, or forgotten has-beens.  The greatness of any given work is still to be decided and that makes the Whitney’s collection excitingly edgy, perhaps the one area where it trumps MOMA, just a little. 

The Whitney was founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (see painting at right by Robert Henri), heiress of both the great Vanderbilt and Whitney (Standard Oil) fortunes. But even with so great a patroness, the Whitney has struggled for respect throughout its history.  In Gertrude’s time, the focus of the art world was on Europe, yet she valued art from her own country and collected only under recognized modern American artists.  When her 700 work collection outgrew her Greenwich Village house, Gertrude tried to donate it to first the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then MOMA, but neither museum wanted the collection.  Consequently, in 1931, she founded her own museum, and the Whitney has celebrated the American avant garde ever since, persevering through thousands of controversial reviews and attempting to win over a very skeptical public. 

We were lucky to visit during the Whitney Biennial, a prominent and much-debated event in the art world that takes over the museum every two years and attracts long lines of visitors.  The Biennial exhibits current works from living, generally young American artists.  All works are sold to collectors after the show, with the Whitney selecting favorites to enter its collection.  It’s considered very prestigious for an artist to get a work into the show and it’s a great launcher of careers.  However, the biennial is probably better known for the smackdown it takes from critics, artists and the public alike.

This year, in an attempt to respond to that criticism, the Whitney devoted an entire floor to a special exhibit called “Collecting Biennials,” consisting of works the Whitney kept from past biennials.  This turned out to be our favorite part of the museum, as it featured a great range of art, from dated one-hit wonders to familiar modern classics.  There were many artists that Paul and I recognized, even with our limited knowledge, such as Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Georgia O'Keeffe, clearly making the point that the Whitney exhibited these great American artists when they were still young and struggling for acceptance.  Attached to the exhibit, there was a room of newspapers and magazines collecting every review of the 75 Whitney Biennials, so you could look back and see who really turned out to be right: the Whitney or the critics.

My favorite part of the museum was the section spotlighting Edward Hooper (see picture above), an artist in the 30’s and 40’s who participated in the first-ever Whitney annual (later to become the biennial) in 1932 as an unknown.  Soon after, his career began a meteoric rise that has continued after his death, with the Whitney holding the largest collection of his works in the world.  I enjoyed his quiet but tense paintings of the streets of New York and Brooklyn, somehow capturing the loneliness of modern city life in streetscapes and faceless figures.  Other works that caught my eye (and made me laugh) were the life-sized squishy toilet  (“Soft Toilet” by Claes Oldenburg) and the huge sculpture made of hair that looked like a cross between dreadlocks and an exploding spider (“Untitled” by David Hammons).

The rest of the biennial was a dizzying mix of sculpture, photography, painting, mixed media, and a large amount of filmed performance art.  The latter made for a lot of movie watching.  We went during a pay-what-you-wish time (Friday evening), so the museum was full, but unlike MOMA’s free night, many Whitney visitors at this time seemed to be students, with tightly held clipboards, busy pencils and very serious expressions.  We guessed that it must be part of an end-of-term project at some of NYC’s many art schools.  The students were much more uptight and pushier than your average museum patron, giving us hard looks and impatient gestures if we did anything that could be interpreted as disruptive, like standing in front of a sign (me) or whispering during a movie (Paul).  It felt like the place was full of very young, very pretentious, very bossy librarians. 

The meaning of some of the art was clear, like the series of photographs depicting the wedding of a young Marine who lost an arm, his face, and much of his skull in a suicide bombing (“Marine Wedding” by Nina Berman).  Yet most of the Whitney’s collection was much more puzzling, like the 50 foot picture of smoke ("Smoke Knows" by Pae White), the gigantic macramé wallhanging ("Untitled; The Year We Make Contact" by Piotr Uklanski), or the ceramic couch covered in newspaper clippings (“Couch For a Long Time” by Jessica Jackson Hutchins).

Paul particularly liked the performance pieces with a psychological bent, such as the movie of men performing bizarrely rigid calisthenics, reenactments of a set of gymnastic exercises prescribed by German physician Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber in the 1850’s (“Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik”, by Jesse Aron Green).  One of Schreber’s sons committed suicide, and another had several infamous bouts with mental illness, giving the performance a decidedly sinister air.  Another of Paul’s favorites was the documentary-style movie of H. M., a man who, after experimental surgery to cure epilepsy in the 1950s, lost the ability to remember any new information beyond a 20-second span (“H. M.” by Kerry Tribe).  Psychology plays a big part in Paul's life, and after years of hearing about H. M.'s condition, Paul found it awe inspiring to actually see it portrayed. The same film was shown on two screens, with one being 20 seconds behind the other to highlight that interval, and the fragile nature of human perception.  Paul also thought the tiny gnome village in the Whitney stairwell was a nice touch.  It made him smile after a long day of museum hopping.

In conclusion, Paul and I where somewhat overwhelmed by the Whitney’s collection.  It felt disjointed and, as is common with modern art, we often felt like we missed the point, or that the point needed far too much explanation.  However, we found many pieces that we liked, that made us think, or squirm, or even smile, and we loved the Whitney’s devotion to the young artists of this country (it felt very patriotic), and its fierce independent spirit.  Thus we would recommend this museum to the open minded museum goer.  We promise that you’ll at least be entertained, even if you hate everything.

Images in this post: Vertical Red White Light, by Josh Brand, 2009; exterior of the Whitney Museum of American Art; Gertrude Vanderbuilt Whitney, by Robert Henri, 1916; Summer Days, by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1936; Early Sunday Morning, by Edward Hopper, 1930; Soft Toilet, by Claes Oldenburg, 1966; Untitled by David Hammons, 1992; Smoke Knows, by Pae White, 2009; Untitled (The Year We Make Contact), by Piotr Uklanski, 2010; Ärztliche Zimmergymnastik, by Jesse Aron Green, 2008; Baby, by Thomas Houseago, 2010.


  1. Perhaps it is impossible to like a work of art for the wrong reasons, so here goes. I liked "Smoke Knows" because it reminded me of one of the reasons I found it hard to give up cigarettes: I was enchanted by the curling smoke. "Baby" recalls those lines of Yeats,"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" - Mike

  2. I'm not a fan of "modern" art, but that is not to say that I don't like the work of 20th century artists. I just don't seem to get the more abstract pieces, but it's good to know that the current artists have a place to display their work. I agree with you! Lynn

  3. Heh. I hope the Whitney staff put on the "Collecting Biennials" exhibit with that cheeky attitude you ascribe to them; it would be sad if the attitude were not cheeky, but plaintive.

  4. It was great meeting both of you during your August 15th stay. I am very impressed at your narrative and you should consider publishing it. I have serious guilt when comparing our trips. While you were off in search of culture I was off in search of the next good deal on a purse While you were wandering down hallways gazing at Picasso I was wandering down the streets of Chinatown gazing at scarves. We never made it to the museum that day other than the gift shop. Do I see a pattern of shopping here? We spent so much time on the street looking at the starving artist's work and before we knew it, it was almost closing time. I did purchase a beautiful oil painting from one of those artists though. It fit ever so nicely in one of the purses I bought. I did buy a ring based on some type of Egyptian art so some culture was thrown in there. We got our art that weekend from the people on the streets. And I guess you could say we sort of did a "park-a-thon" of our own visiting every park we found along the way, many miles of walking that my blisters are still reminding me of. We do plan on becoming museum members. The 20% shopping discount is a nice perk
    We're going back next weekend with our sons. Our plan was to take them to the Museum of Natural History. They asked to go to the Billabong Store on Times Square. Their only interest in art is to see how many colors are displayed in the M&M store. Maybe I should set a better example for my son. Then again, I could start my own Vendor-a-thon blog. To my credit, I did take some great photographs that would rival those sold on the streets. I can become a vendor! What an awe inspiring goal! It was really a pleasure meeting both of you and I look forward to following your journey here. Maybe we can get together in NYC some weekend and we can combine the best of both our interests. Need a good purse at a bargain?

  5. Hey DeboraD!

    Don't see yourself short!. Shopping in NYC is a cultural experience in its own right!!! We must admit it's fun to shop at the various places in NYC, more fun than museums sometimes. We love to shop for scotch at Park Avenue Liquors, coffee at Zabars, Bagels at HnH, alternative clothing in the East village, Gin in Brooklyn, etc.

    I hope you two come back to NYC soon and your trip with your sons went well. It was a lot of fun chatting with you and we can definitely meet up in next time you are in town.


  6. Thanks for this really interesting blog! I'll be a regular reader, I'm sure. I'm going to eagerly read up on your other posts, and look forward to new ones!