It’s always good to hear about a woman making it in the art world. In 1931, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney — a sculptor of some fame and a serious collector of “avant-garde” American art — decided to gift her collection of 500 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By Margot Clark-Junkins
It’s always good to hear about a woman making it in the art world. In 1931, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney — a sculptor of some fame and a serious collector of “avant-garde” American art — decided to gift her collection of 500 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They declined, so she established a museum of her own on 8th Street in Greenwich Village. By 1954, the collection had outgrown this space and a larger building was found on West 54th Street. In 1966, Marcel Breuer was commissioned to design its permanent home on Madison Avenue at 75th Street.
Breuer’s modernist structure, with its smooth granite facade and cavernous galleries, became an icon in its own right, filled with works by America’s best and the brightest artists.
But the Whitney Museum eventually outgrew Breuer’s building, too. All 22,000 works have recently moved to cooler climes: Gansevoort Street in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. The new eight-story building is a spectacular assemblage of glass and steel designed by Renzo Piano and situated at the foot of the High Line, a destination in itself, a “park in the sky” that stretches along several miles of elevated train track northbound to 34th Street.
By all accounts, the new Whitney is bigger, better, and already an integral part of the cultural fabric of Manhattan. As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith recently wrote: “Now we know how it feels…when a museum emerges bigger but better from the excruciating process of building a new home. Now we know what can happen when an architect…and trustees, a director, and curators are on the same page and keeping their priority straight. Namely, to accommodate art and people with equal finesse.”
With over 600 works on display, more of the collection is on view at one time than ever before in the museum’s history. The multi-level exhibit, called “America Is Hard To See” (after a poem by Robert Frost), is divided into 23 “chapters.” As you wander along, you find that the groupings make sense, that one painting next to another serves to illuminate the subject matter, or the political climate, or the artistic trend of that period. Sprinkled liberally among the “classics” of American art, you will find works of equal caliber that you are unlikely to have seen before, Walking Man, by Bill Traylor, for one.
The art is in chronological order, starting at the top. After viewing the art works on the eighth floor, you can exit onto a broad terrace, take in the magnificent views of the City and the High Line, and then descend the outdoor staircase, which is pretty darn fun, going back inside on the seventh floor. There’s plenty of room to move around the galleries, and several end niches with long sofas where people plunk themselves down to gaze at the city through colossal picture windows.
Calder’s Circus is still on view, as is Jasper Johns’ beloved Three Flags in bold red, white, and blue encaustic wax. A stunning assortment of Edward Hopper paintings crop up here and there (don’t miss the ones hiding in a small room on the first floor). You will find something for everyone to love (and a few “installations” to hate), including photographs by Alfred Steiglitz and Man Ray, paintings by Basquiat and Lee Krasner, silhouettes by Kara Walker, collages by Raushenberg, and more. I was floored by two tiny works on paper by Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra in a section focusing on 9/11.
The eighth floor has a good-sized cafe, with clean and bright indoor and outdoor seating; the ten-minute wait was handled efficiently by the hostess, who texted us when our table was ready. In addition to arugula salad and meatloaf, our waiter brought us a delicious vegetarian “toast,” compliments of the chef. You can also dine on the first floor in Danny Meyer’s restaurant “Untitled” (executive chef Michael Anthony).
Just outside the museum awaits the 1.4-mile green space known as the High Line. Planted with trees, grasses, and flowers following a master plan designed by Dutch master Piet Oudolf, you will encounter thoughtfully placed seating areas, public art, live events, and spectacular views in every direction. It is the place to promenade, to see and be seen. The park’s evolution was detailed in the documentary “Elevated Thinking: The High Line” (narrated by Susan Sarandon), which should be required viewing for planners in cities large and small.