I stopped to check out the new Whitney during my New York residency. The museum’s architecture is stunning, designed to interact with the outside space in thoughtful and provacative ways. Walking from floor to floor through utilitarian stairways, one is confronted with panoramic, wall-sized glimpses of New York, windows that take you to disparate views of the Hudson River, the city skyline, and the Department of Sanitation. On the top several floors, doors lead off from the galleries to interconnected outdoor spaces that function as hybrid sculpture gardens and observation decks. There the full circumference of the Manhattan cityscape is on view right alongside thoughtful selections of contemporary art that range from your typical sculpture garden selections to video projections and Mary Heilmann’s brightly painted Sunset chairs that invite you to engage with both the art and the space around it.
And because that cityscape is being viewed from the Whitney’s new downtown location, it includes not just the iconic outlines of landmark skyscrapers (which it does, breathtakingly), but also the jumble of smaller buildings — row houses and factories and brick and concrete and glass-fronted apartment buildings that have accumulated their New York identity on top of each other over the course of these layered centuries. The engagement with outdoor space is not just a smart move for this ideally located new space, with its prime views and Highline connection. It’s also deeply connected to the museum’s work, so that the views don’t just feel fancy but resonant.
The Whitney’s identity is uniquely linked to its stumbling, hodgepodge collection of modern American art, which started with Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s acquisitions and grew into an examination of an American artistic identity that is as layered and disparate and cumulative as the New York skyline outside it.
And because this new location’s inaugural exhibit, America is Hard to See (which is as much a mission statement as showcase) reflects on themes of American landscape, these exterior views particularly resonate. Stepping from the eighth floor’s 1930s depictions of gritty and grand skylines, the views out the stairwell windows feel like an extension of the work itself, an echoing across time and space, a moving between representation and living reality, a reaching forward from the past and out into our own lives. Art won’t stay still in this new Whitney. It’s dynamic, weaving in and out of galleries and the day-to-day of the contemporary city. We cannot engage with it just in the circumscribed confine of the history of art; we take it with us, we carry it outside.
This fluidity is echoed in the exterior staircases which let you move from floor to floor, gallery to gallery, between movement and epoch, from the outside as well as through the interior elevators and staircase.
Architect Renzo Piano even created ways for light to infiltrate the space. The top floor is lit in part through a ceiling-wide slant of sunlight.
And on the fifth floor, at the end of the gallery, a long couch-lined galley faces a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. It is a peaceful spot, filled with people and soft murmurs. Beyond: the sweep of river, the silent progress of water taxis and ships, the distant uplift of the Statue of Liberty. This is a museum that asks us to take our impressions and reflections and look out.