The New Whitney Will Make You Smile

By Linda Arntzenius

Photography by Nic Lehoux

The Whitney Museum of American Art’s move from the Upper East Side to the once gritty meatpacking district constitutes a seismic shift in Manhattan’s cultural scene and further confirms the city as a safe, family- and tourist-friendly place to visit. The first large-scale museum to take up residence downtown, the Whitney’s new $422 million nine-story building by architect Renzo Piano opened May 1. What the Upper East Side was in the mid-sixties, when the Whitney opened its Marcel Breuer-designed building on 75th Street and Madison Avenue, is now to be found south and west of Chelsea and the West Village.

This is the Whitney's fourth home and it’s bound to be a popular destination for New Yorkers and visitors alike. When reviewing the old Breuer building at the time of its opening, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable said that good architecture is about an “elusive synthesis that is a near-contradiction in terms: efficiency and beauty.” Although she praised Breuer’s 1966 modernist upside down ziggurat for achieving both efficiency and beauty, most visitors found it unappealing at the time. Huxtable called it the “most disliked building in New York.” Popular opinion was similarly negative for the Pompidou Center in Paris, which Piano designed with Richard Rogers some four decades ago. The new Whitney has elements of Breuer’s Bauhaus masterpiece and Piano’s most famous structure. While it boasts large-scale galleries, it also retains some of Breuer’s intimacy of space as well as qualities that have made the Pompidou a popular meeting place as opposed to an imposing repository for Art, with a capital letter.

Piano conceived of the entrance to the new Whitney as an extension of the streetscape rather than a monumental entryway to an august institution. People are drawn to outdoor café tables and lime-green chairs scattered in a forecourt on Washington Street; they sit casually on the low museum steps while street vendors hawk their wares along the edge of the sidewalk nearby.

Brauer’s building married form and function. Artists loved it. A “workable museum raised to the level of architectural art,” said Huxtable.

The new museum has been described as “a mish mash,” but on the whole, reviews have been enthusiastic. “Historic art was seen to better advantage in architect Marcel Breuer’s more structured confines,” commented art critic Lee Rosenbaum in the Wall Street Journal. “This building also has somehow to stand up to Breuer’s design, which could hardly be improved upon. The old galleries are perfectly scaled, circumscribed but fluid, serious and endearing. Even the staircase on Madison Avenue is a masterpiece of architectural craft and character, an attraction all by itself.”

In contrast, said Rosenbaum, “The new museum isn’t a masterpiece. But it is a deft, serious achievement, a signal contribution to downtown and the city’s changing cultural landscape. Unlike so much big-name architecture, it’s not some weirdly shaped trophy building into which all the practical stuff of a working museum must be fitted.”

At 220,000 square feet, the new building is nearly three times the size of the 85-year-old museum’s last home. But where Breuer’s building was compact and monolithic, a fortress disconnected from the outside world, the new Whitney is multifaceted, with tons of windows and outdoor terraces.

Visitors will readily appreciate why the move is the talk of the town. While the art on the walls is not to be missed, it’s the building that is currently the real draw. It’s easy to see why.

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Bordered on the west by the Hudson River and on the east by the High Line, the 1.5-mile park 30 feet above street level atop a former elevated railway, the new building is filled with light. The glass-enclosed ground floor gives views straight through the building to the water.

From the Hudson side it looks vaguely ship-like. From the north it appears a little ungainly, reminiscent of the industrial-looking Pompidou Center with a pale-bluish steel façade and pipe work that climbs toward undisguised mechanical structures on the roof. A huge floor-to-ceiling window on the east end of the fifth floor provides an elevation over the High Line.

The building’s exterior northern wall serves as a canvas for work by the New York artist Mary Heilmann. Known for colorful, geometric paintings, Heilmann has hung a 30-foot-tall bubble-gum-pink vinyl panel there; she has also installed several dozen brightly painted plywood chairs as public seating on one of the museum’s four terraces. These terraces offer grand views of the city that take in the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and beyond.

Currently, the sightline to the river at street level is obstructed by Sanitation Department buildings but there are plans to remove these and to create a new park that will open up the area around the museum and connect its busy lobby to a sequence of public spaces.


The lobby is a vast, bright space of glass walls, concrete floors and enormous columns with a gift shop in one open corner and a restaurant in the other. There is also a book store and a free-admission gallery at the rear of the lobby, housing an exhibition devoted to the tastes of the museum’s founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and its first director, Juliana Force.

An extra-long ticket counter has 10 registers and large crowds can move with ease. Light fixtures of gray metal suspended in rows from taut cables strike an elegant note. The huge open staircase features hanging strings of bare light bulbs by the Cuban-born artist Félix González-Torres that have a carnival effect.

The Whitney has always been known for maintaining an intimacy between viewer and art and that continues in this new building, as is immediately apparent in the four huge elevators (one is 15 feet wide) that feature panels by the late sculptor and conceptual Pop artist Richard Artschwager (1923-2013). The elevators move along a central, structural spine; the galleries are cantilevered and south facing with administrative offices and classrooms facing north.

Transparency is the word to associate with Piano’s design: on the top floors transparency extends the views from the galleries into offices and storage rooms and then outward to sky and city. A theater/performance space on the third floor, has a huge picture window jutting out toward the Hudson River.


The Whitney’s mission is not just to display collected works but to foster living artists and Piano has used durable materials that allow for changing installations. This is an artist-friendly space offering creative free rein with 50,000 square feet of gallery floors made of reclaimed pine from former area factories, exposed mechanical systems and walls that hang from a lattice-like grid on the ceiling and can be reconfigured in multiple ways. The idea is that artists should feel free to hammer nails into the floor or even tear up small sections if needed, to make the space their own.

The biggest gallery has 18,200-square-foot of floor space and has no columns and therefore no interrupted views. It is the largest column-free museum gallery in New York City.

Museum Director Adam Weinberg describes it as “an aspirational space” that will “inspire and challenge contemporary artists.”

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America Is Hard to See examines the history of art in the United States from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present and elaborates the themes, ideas, beliefs, and passions that have galvanized American artists in their struggle to work within and against established conventions, often directly engaging their political and social contexts.

Numerous pieces that have rarely, if ever, been shown appear alongside beloved icons. Old favorites are juxtaposed in thought-provoking ways with contrasting images. Clearly, the intent is to question assumptions about the American art canon and to demonstrate that American art is continually evolving. One deeply disturbing wall presents images of the lynching and torture of African-Americans, including Harry Sternberg’s agonizing lithograph, Southern Holiday.

Visitors will find favorite pieces such as Edward Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning, Jasper Johns’s Three Flags, and Andy Warhol’s Green Coca-Cola Bottles and new discoveries, such as the swirling abstract, Noise Number 13, by poet E.E. Cummings.

Several men appear to be sprinting across an expanse on the fifth floor courtesy of artist Jonathan Borofsky, known for his series of Hammering Man sculptures and paintings.

The exhibition title comes from a poem by Robert Frost; it suggests ever-changing artistic perspectives. Some 650 pieces by 400 artists whose work is in the museum’s 22,000-item permanent collection are organized chronologically in twenty-three thematic “chapters,” named after an individual piece of artwork rather than artistic movement or genre. The chapter, “Music, Pink and Blue,” is named for an abstract by Georgia O’Keeffe and showcases works that marry sound and color. Works in different mediums are displayed together so as to show the ways in which artists have broken the boundaries between various modes of production.

The curatorial staff, led by the museum’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs Donna De Salvo, who came to the Whitney over a decade ago from the London’s Tate galleries, seems intent on championing artistic freedom in keeping with the tradition of the longstanding Whitney Biennial exhibition. The Biennial became the museum’s signature show shortly after the New York heiress and collector Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney founded the museum in 1930. Whitney was not only a pioneer of modern art institutions in New York City, she was an artist in her own right, a sculptor.

America Is Hard to See will continue in its present form through September 27 and in a reduced form thereafter. A Frank Stella retrospective is scheduled to open at the end of October.

And if you are wondering what will happen to the old landmark Bauhaus-inspired Whitney building, it still belongs to the Museum, and has been leased to The Metropolitan Museum of Art for eight-years.

The main entrance to the Whitney Museum of American Art is at 99 Gansevoort Street, New York, NY 10014, near the intersection of Gansevoort and Washington streets. For more information, call 212.570.3600, or visit: