Issue #17, Summer 2011
The Whitney Museum.
With Warhols fetching princely – if not sheikhly – sums at recent auctions, it’s difficult to remember a time when American artists didn’t even have a home. But such a time did exist, and not so long ago. At the turn of the last century, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a young heiress by both birth and marriage, visited Europe, where she soon discovered the difference between New World and Old World artistic sensibilities: Europeans encouraged their young artists. Americans did not. As a budding sculptor in her own right, Whitney decamped to Paris, set up shop in XVI arrondissement, studied under August Rodin and became a sculptor in her own right. Upon her return to the States, she sought to emulate this European sensibility, and began her great patronage of the American arts with the Whitney Studio Club, an exhibition space for young painters and sculptors, built in the artists’ den that was Greenwich Village. As the years passed and her personal collection grew, Whitney tried to donate these works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They declined.
By adjoining two row houses to the Whitney Studio Club’s existing space, Whitney overcame this obstacle, and the inchoate Whitney Museum was born. Contemporary American art slowly started to creep from the avant-garde into the accepted, an advancement seemingly mimicked by the Whitney’s physical movement uptown – from its original home in the Greenwich Village, up to 54th Street in the 1950s.
In 1966, there was the move up to 75th and Madison. The museum’s new Upper East Side home was the work of Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer. Considered a masterpiece, the Breur building, as it came to be called, never sat easy with the neighbours – its vast granite façade cut with asymmetrical windows, a very literal and monolithic dividing wall separating the colossus of a museum from the gentrified brownstones next door.
Since that time, the Whitney’s collection has grown nine times in size, outstripping the wall space at a rate as geometric as a Calder. Expansion plans came and went, while the Breuer building’s dividing wall seemed to be a talisman for the relationship that the museum enjoyed – or endured – with the community board. As thoughts of a new home started taking shape, the museum began to look The Whitney Museum southward, to the place where Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney first set up.
Initially tasked with expanding the uptown Whitney site, Pritzker Prize-winning Italian architect Renzo Piano was given a large palette, a tract of land between the Hudson and the High Line, and has subsequently designed a space that fits the surroundings while redefining our understanding of it. At the intersection of Greenwich Village, the Meatpacking District and Chelsea – and steps away from SHNY – the new Whitney seeks to be more than just a museum. It will be a collaborative meeting space of the arts, with theaters, classrooms, bookstores, and cafés.
In the architecture, there are nods to the neighbourhood, its past, and its continued transformation – an industrial/level-luffing crane that will be used to lift sculpture rather than freight, platforms that mimic the horizontal thrust of the High Line park – and there are nods to Breuer’s uptown colossus. And though the new Whitney will also be colossal, with six times the square footage of the uptown site, Piano’s design transcends more than just homage to its monumental Breuer predecessor. It’s set to be a gleaming white ziggurat that hovers above a glass platform and that takes into account the path of the sunlight. In a way, it almost seems to correct the perceived heaviness of Breuer’s creation with a vision of lightness and proportion, with a space that seeks to integrate rather than separate.
Source: HOUSE Magazine.