The New Whitney Museum
En route to the new Whitney Museum press preview, I take the 14th Street crosstown bus to Ninth Avenue, turn south on foot past Little West 12th Street, then hang a right on Gansevoort where the last façade of temps perdu is that of long-gone Florent, the 24-hour restaurant of the gleaming zinc bar and the fanciful personalities. I flash on Ru Paul living at the Jane West Hotel in 1986. I’d already chimed in, earlier, to a Facebook thread about the old East Village when King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut at Seventh Street and Avenue A seemed a far outpost. Incited by a passing pair of magenta stilettos, I recall the pink Cadillac that starred in my poem, Major Celebrity in London, which I wrote for my friend Laurie Pike after her NY1 cable show went trans-oceanic.
If New York streets are liquid memory, then new buildings bespeak the satisfyingly contradictory effect of the city of New York, time without end. It’s presence as amnesia. You both can’t remember what wasn’t there beforehand, or what was there. Unlike passively regarding the cover shot accompanying Michael Kimmelman’s story in Arts & Leisure, it’s impossible to grab a full-volume view of Renzo Piano’s Whitney Museum from street grade. When I’m up on the outdoor terraces, later on, I muse how the fancy penthouse apartments (like the clad copper one), might grab the sight that reminds me partly of Marcel Duchamp’s drawing of a coffee grinder.
Maybe it’s inevitable that this new Piano museum also evokes approaching the Pompidou when living in Paris in 1980. In my last year of high-school the virtues and vices of the building’s primary colored extrusions had made for vivid conversational French debate. Cut to my Algerian teacher, Madame Amsellem, striding agitatedly, as she argued for context and against Piano and Rogers, the architects. Living in Paris, I’d disagree with my favorite teacher by riding the escalator weekly to the music library where you could plug in and zone out for hours, for free.
The new Whitney as part of New York’s incredibly dense, human- and rat-packed metropolis is a capsule for the experience of something gone missing that rearranges the past and the future. In my iPhone photos of it the sequence follows on views through a peephole of where 121 Second Avenue was before the gas explosion, gaping now with absence and one long white rose, in my old Ukrainian neighborhood. Call this ceaseless vitality the inevitability of money and matter rushing to fill space. Or call it public space, where we don’t know yet how America will be seen or which public will gather to show us to ourselves.
Renzo Piano in remarks to the journalists calls the lobby the “piazza,” the “square,” key to Italian public life in the cinquecento, Paris life in the 20th and New York life in the 21st. Heralding the fountaining whoosh upward onto the art floors are the slim silhouettes of four Richard Artschwager elevators that my friend David D’Arcy tells me on the phone the next day he believes foretell a “circulation disaster.”
The elevators are final works of art by Artschwager who owned the former bank building where I stay now with friends amid his furniture prototypes for Workbench. It is true that the Artschwager elevators are packed but I have no particular problem with doing as I always did at the Breuer Whitney — which is starting at the top, on floor eight. It is there that I find America Is Hard to See — the opening Whitney Museum of American Art exhibit, titled after a line by Robert Frost — arranging its modernism to AbEx to consumerist 80s to digital ways into the gorgeous building, as myriad changelings that impart dynamism to the experience. Column-less floors. Soft, pale, wide planks, easy to walk on. Views out wide windows and places to sit both indoors and out that draw the city physically and metaphorically into your gaze and experience.
Never mind that you’ve seen these artworks before, so many of them. They exude self-confidence. Galleries on eight spotlight a modernist corpus in Georgia O’Keeffe, Demuth, Hartley. Galleries on seven open to Calder’s Circus in the round, under glass, ringed by eggplant walls where the tumbling of George Bellows’s Dempsey at the hands of Argentinian boxer Firpo transport you into another season and heat. Firpo knocks Dempsey through the ropes. Says the voice of George Plimpton on the website, “it’s over dramatic, this picture. Dempsey..was famous for hitting low blows.”
The Ab Ex floor opens onto an extraordinary longer-than-long Lee Krasner and makes me hark to sixth grade when my grandma would bring me to MoMa and we’d look at Pollocks in a slot gallery of the old Modern. Jay De Feo’s The Rose brings me to tears not only because I wrote about it for six months straight one year, and still could never come close to saying anything right, but because the fact of the platform on the floor that is holding its one ton self up– the very reinforced floor — makes me remember that people stubbed cigarettes out in The Rose when it sagged off the wall at San Francisco Art Institute before The Whitney finally rescued it.
Scale is Renzo Piano’s true genius and, if you’re listening, Larry Bell, your transparent cube looks amazing next to a black Robert Smithson next to that blatant even lurid Don Judd in a shade that can only be called turquoise. From this spot near the terrace, near that view to the outside that keeps pinging you out and back in again, you can look back at Eva Hesse’s sinewy loops, and just be amazed by American art all over again. And just be amazed at how amazed everybody must have been when it all was happening, and the feeling — money and mass aside — that it all happens again every time anybody is in sixth grade seeing something great for the first time, or remembering a prizefight that the guy crowned the winner had actually lost, or measuring the weight of something so mystical as The Rose.
I loved the museum most of all, when I came to curator Scott Rothkopf describing re-curating the AIDS section, where Peter Hujar meets David Wojnarowicz all over again, where Mark Morrisroe’s pocked body still screams out in bemused anguish, where you are alone with the memories of 1986 in exactly this neighborhood and the one you left on the bus this morning. That’s when the art becomes not only object of worship but the intense and vulnerable object of memory and feeling it has always been, in this new incredible palace of sentience that is Piano’s new Whitney Museum, and New York’s.