New York City
‘I am always tying up / and then deciding to depart.’ Frank O’Hara’s lines, though written for a very different context, catch something of the poise of the new Whitney Museum of American Art. From the Hudson, Renzo Piano’s sleek, grey steel-cladded building nestles amid the pontoons and warehouses of New York’s Meatpacking District like an ocean liner that has just berthed for a spell. The new Whitney has arrived, it says, but also looks to be on the brink of departure.
Arrived, because, for all that the museum has been supporting American art and artists since 1931, in recent decades the Breuer building (its uptown home from the mid 1960s onwards) had proved inadequate for displaying the Whitney’s growing collection. The new building has around 50 per cent more gallery space than its predecessor, meaning that the museum will now constantly be able to present a versatile selection from its holdings of around 22,000 works – a fact celebrated in its opening exhibition, ‘America is Hard to See’. The reinforced focus on the collection is also marked by the new Whitney’s extensive backstage facilities; these include a large conservation lab and a study centre for works on paper, which bring the crucial activities of collection care and research onsite.
The brink of departure, because the new building conveys such a sense of possibility. Its four large outdoor terraces, flexible auditorium and vast column-free galleries feel primed for artists and curators, every space charged with the potential of the exhibitions, installations and performances that will be hosted in them in the decades to come. This museum is archive, forum and theatre all in one. ‘We created this building with the art at its centre,’ director Adam Weinberg told me on the eve of the opening. The critical verdict has been unanimous: American art, in its many stripes, has a superb new home.
Thomas Marks is the editor of Apollo