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At the Whitney, a new structure forges a different relationship with the city

View from West side of the Whitney Museum. (Timothy Schenck)

The new home of the Whitney Museum of American Art begins where the High Line ends. The wildly popular linear park, built on an unused elevated train line on the west side of Manhattan, stops abruptly at Gansevoort Street, in the formerly gritty meatpacking district, now home to the usual suspects in the luxury retail business. Tourists and flâneurs who reach the park's terminus descend a gentle staircase to ground level, where they can turn left for shopping, eating and drinking, or right toward the Hudson River and into the glassy embrace of the Whitney's enticing lobby.

It reminds one of a fishing weir: The flow of humanity off the High Line is neatly sucked into the cultural orbit of the Whitney. Other museums must cast a rod and hope to reel in visitors; the Whitney is now well situated to open its gates and let the currents of the city flush them through its doors. It is a ridiculously good place for a museum.

But the decision, in 2007, to move the Whitney out of its longtime home on the Upper East Side, where it was one among several of the city’s elite museums, has been controversial. Since 1966, it had been located in a powerfully austere brutalist building designed by Marcel Breuer. For all its oddities and inconveniences — art had to be moved in and out through the museum’s front door — it was greatly beloved. The boxy, ziggurat structure, which one entered by crossing a small moat, was one of Breuer’s best, and art lovers seeking respite from the weightiness of the Metropolitan Museum and the orthodox snobbery of the Museum of Modern Art found there a quiet, intimate, dignified refuge from both the city and the ossified rhetoric of art that governed other institutions.

It was, however, a relatively small space, and the Whitney had tried for decades to expand, always meeting resistance from neighbors, or people with taste, who found proposed designs by Michael Graves and Rem Koolhaas banal or irrational. The architect of the new building, Renzo Piano, also proposed an expansion to the Breuer building, but in the end, the museum felt an entirely new structure would better serve its needs. It is unlikely that Piano was disappointed by this turn of events.

The move south to the reinvented riverfront district was about more than just square footage and museum amenities — it was about a fundamentally different relationship to the city itself, which is seen everywhere throughout the museum, including in its inaugural exhibition, "America Is Hard to See," a massive display of more than
600 works from the Whitney's permanent collection, filling every exhibition space inside and out of its new home. Entering the Breuer building meant leaving the city behind, focusing the attention inward and encountering art free of distractions. There was no disrespect to the city in this: One reemerged energized, newly alert to the urban environment, more susceptible to its geometry and discord, promise and trauma.

This is not a fashionable way to see art anymore. Diviners of the popular temperament claim no one wants to leave the city behind when looking at art. Rather, new audiences want the city ever present. So contemporary museums, including Piano’s Whitney, erase the monastery walls of concrete and granite and replace them with gaping portals of glass. Axial lines connect glimpses of light, sometimes mediated by temporary walls or panels that shield sensitive art from the glare of the outside, or leading to sun-drenched galleries for sculpture and other durable goods. Even in the long, rectangular galleries of the Whitney, a centrifugal force prevails, drawing visitors to the edges, to the windows, to the light.

No one wants to be in a building anymore, but rather on the peripheries, and the new Whitney indulges the aesthetic by complementing its agreeable and ample indoor spaces with vast new outdoor galleries.

Piano had a choice where to put these terraces, and the first instinct might have been to put them on the Hudson River side, where magnificent views of New Jersey will only improve as the city replaces functional buildings, including an incinerator, with more park space. But he placed them on the east of the building, where they offer exhilarating encounters with the architectural hubbub of the Village and Chelsea, with vistas that encompass Midtown and the Empire State Building. “It is important not to turn your back on the city,” Piano said. “You must connect to the neighborhood, its people and all its energies.”

So many architects and designers say this sort of thing that it’s worthwhile, even when considering buildings as pleasing as the new Whitney, to be suspicious. Why, in fact, must every building connect with its neighborhood? The old Whitney put a huge blank wall to its neighborhood, and yet it was an inspiring space for art. And who are the people with whom new buildings must connect? Wealthy new residents whose appetite for multimillion-dollar lofts and condos have displaced the artists who once made the art now hanging on the walls of the Whitney? And what are those energies? The thrill of shopping, the tipsy chortles of diners on bustling restaurant terraces?

A healthy city has many energies, of course, and the exterior of Piano’s building reminds one of some kind of space probe or monitoring device, a radically functional object for absorbing signals, energies and sights. It is organized around a central spine housing mechanicals and elevators (the interiors of which were designed by Richard Artschwager before he died in 2013), with the south side of the structure devoted to public space and galleries, while the north side is mostly reserved for offices, conservation, research and other functions. It steps down from the intimate gallery on its light-filled eighth floor, growing wider as it approaches ground level. Metal staircases on the exterior mimic the fire escapes on older buildings nearby, and air-handling units on the roof are roughly the same size and shape as the old water tanks that were once ubiquitous on the city skyline.

Each side puts a different face to the world: From the north, you see what appears to be some kind of industrial plant, with wide-open views into the conservation lab; on the river side, nautical windows with rounded corners make the building feel a bit like a luxury liner about to sail into the main swell of the Hudson; facing the city side is a jumble of terraces, protruding stairs and steel cladding; and the most significant feature on the Gansevoort Street side is the canted plane over the glass lobby, which reminds one that this is a building by Piano, who likes a high degree of finish and elegant connections, an architect who favors orderly irregularities over mere dissonance.

Inside, the floors are made of yellow heart pine reprocessed from beams that once supported old industrial spaces. Spaces are flexible, some intimate, with lower ceilings, others taller and more cavernous, including the fifth floor, which is an 18,000-
square-foot column-free space, billed as the largest uninterrupted gallery in the city.

Inside and out, there are references to the neighborhood’s industrial past, its residential overlay, its bohemian legacy and its increasingly odious present, where the mere 1 percent may find it difficult to find a place to lay their heads. All the contradictions of the High Line, spurred by democratic idealism yet now a catalyst for the great spectacle of wealth and inequity, are embodied in the building. Compared to other Piano buildings, it looks a bit of a jumble, but it certainly looks like New York.

So when it opens, on May 1, pay the $22 admission fee and go inside. Move through its galleries, through the synoptic history of the Whitney’s preeminent role in the history of American art, descend through its ever-wider and more open galleries, until you finally reach the lobby and are released from the great weir back into eddies of street life.

The experience feels like a love affair with the city, with art as its most significant epiphenomenon. A ground-floor gallery, open to the public free of charge, charts the origins of the Whitney, first as a studio, then a club, then a small museum devoted to American artists, supported by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the wealthy socialite who turned her back on her family, its wealth and social standing to pursue art and the society of artists in Greenwich Village early in the 20th century. The eighth-floor gallery takes up the story of her collecting and support with space devoted to early abstractionists and the enthusiasm for industrial and urban forms, including powerfully conflicted images of American manufacturing might by Charles Sheeler and Elsie Driggs. The seventh floor touches upon American regionalism, rural and small-town motifs, but quickly segues back to urban life, with a gallery arranged around Alexander Calder’s “The Circus,” his small theatrical diorama pieces once used as props for performance. Desire, spectacle and drunkenness creep in, but give way to a study of social protest, the labor movement and a daring ensemble of works by multiple artists decrying the use of lynching as a domestic terrorism tool for enforcing de facto apartheid in the South. It concludes — appropriately on the city side — with abstract expressionism.

The sixth floor takes up the 1960s, pop art, minimalism and work made in response to the social turmoil of Vietnam and the civil rights era. The fifth floor carries the story chronologically through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, with more conceptual work, a more focused look at feminist art, rooms devoted to art made in response to the AIDS crisis and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and almost up to the present moment.

It will be easy to notice what is missing, and easy to make too much of it. The Whitney’s collection is huge, and even in its enlarged space, only a selection of it can be shown.

The curators have managed a chronological overview that doesn’t feel pedantic, and is frequently enlivened by bracing juxtapositions: a bleak Andrew Wyeth winter scene next to a surreal Man Ray that draws the eye past into its own bleak landscape, a homoerotic Marsden Hartley figure deliciously close to a priggish Thomas Hart Benton, a video by Howard Lester documenting a week of slaughter in Vietnam that transforms the meaning of a nearby On Kawara date painting, “July 4, 1967.”

Yet no matter how far it strays from New York, or the inspiration of urban life, it always seems to come back to the city in typical New York fashion: smart, and insular, as if Los Angeles, Chicago and the heartland exist mainly as problems to be processed through the lens of New York.

As you descend through the galleries, you ultimately find yourself on a capacious outdoor terrace that seems to hover just above the end of the High Line. Perhaps as you look down, someone will look up at you, and thus engage that strange loop of voyeurism, envy, imagination and desire so fundamental to this city. The building is framing you, and framing the city for you, and you may feel for a moment that you have become part of the picture.

Oh yes, and what is all that stuff behind you? It’s called art, and it’s been beautifully presented by the inaugural exhibition — if you can forget the city long enough to really see it.

The new Whitney Museum of American Art opens to the public on May 1 with an exhibition, "America Is Hard to See." For more information, visit