OK, so I am obsessed with the Whitney. It seemed like everyone had taken their shot at outrage, pleasure, conspiracy theory regarding the museum’s move from their Marcel Breuer building on the Upper East Side to a (thankfully not neo-classical, or beloggia-ed) Renzo Piano building at the base of the High Line, and perhaps there was nothing more to say. I did some outraged Tweeting. But I keep thinking about the building, and in my head my voice is rather shrill, an indication that I should write a blog post and not bore people at a BBQ.
Why am I so emotional? The Whitney is my second-favorite building in New York, after Lever House. To me it personifies the quest for new forms, new uses for materials and new moods in modern architecture. It isn’t like anywhere else. It is beautiful. It has gravitas.
First, the idea that the Whitney is not a good place to show contemporary art is outrageous. There is no better place to see a Barnett Newman. And who knows where contemporary art will go? For Whitney director Adam Weinberg to tell the Times
the downtown site was necessary if the institution wanted to stay relevant. “It became apparent that to try to expand uptown meant building vertically or ruin the integrity of the Breuer building,” he said. “And vertical museums don’t work because in order to show the kind of art being made today, we need large open spaces.”
shows a short-sightedness that I couldn’t believe he wasn’t called on. Then Roberta Smith added insult to injury. If the Whitney is chasing the perfect architecture to show “the kind of art being made today,” their Piano building will be obsolete before it is finished. I was so happy when Chuck Close told the Observer: “I’ve shown in the Modern, the Met and the Whitney and I think the fourth floor of the Whitney is the best place I’ve ever shown,” he said.
Second, if the Whitney thinks a new building will help it compete with Met/MoMA/Guggenheim, they really are rolling the dice. They have an icon, one powerful enough that Pentagram’s Abbott Miller incorporated its gravity and awkwardness into their identity when he redesigned it in 2000. And they are throwing that identity away. They have picked an architect for the new building whose museum ubiquity is beginning to be comical, and told him who knows what. Yes, they will have big spaces, but so does the New Museum, which managed to build an icon (at least from the outside) but still doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with the contents.
It’s strange, but they seem to be kicking Breuer to the curb at precisely the moment that Brutalism comes back, much as MAD turned its back on Edward Durell Stone at the moment ornament was rehabilitated. The Whitney might become MAD: new building that doesn’t quite stick in the mind, a hip logo floating in the digital ether. It should come together, but it doesn’t.
At the end of Aaron Betsky’s rather flip summary of the situation (the Michael Graves addition proposals will always be a travesty) he mentions a possibility that made my blood run cold: retail. If the Met leases the Whitney, and installs their Newmans, Closes, and Pollocks, maybe we can all be happy. But I think the Whitney will repel retail. It was built to be a museum, it is a great museum, but without art, it might as well be dead.