America Through Whitney's Eyes

Flowers are in bloom, the temperature is steadily rising and spring has finally arrived in the city. Not only has the season decided to grace us with her presence, but the art community has been blossoming with activity…particularly this past week. While the auction houses are aiming for record sales, contemporary artists are showing at the Venice Biennale and the much anticipated Whitney Museum has re-opened its doors. Looking around it seemed like every subway poster, media outlet or editorial had something to say about the famously designed Renzo Piano fortress that is now dominating the Meatpacking District. My curiosity got the best of me and so I bought my ticket in anticipation for that first day of May. Walking down Gansvoort Street I noticed the High Line’s sightseers peer down to the ground as groups of people head to the Whitney Museum. Upon arrival, the museum’s architecture is staggering. Its features are almost reminiscent of boxes being stacked…maybe reflecting the area in which the museum is housed. Looking up you can see the protruding balconies with its attendees snapping photos of the Manhattan skyline. Thankful that I bought my ticket online, I was able to pass the long line of people waiting for admission and head in to start my self-guided tour.

After getting slightly lost trying to find the coat check room (because of course the temperature would rise unpredictably) I headed to the 8th floor to begin. Whitney’s debut show “America is Hard to See” sets the tone of American history through a visual dialogue. Starting with pieces from the turn of the 20th century to the present, “America is Hard to See” represented the reality of our cultural attitudes to changing social, economic and natural reforms. Abstract shapes, unconventional techniques and new mediums were the turn of the century’s break from traditional art making. Artists like Georgia O’Keefe took the simple subjects from nature and curved her attention to the experience of the natural world, rather than just the examination of it. While looking at her paintings, you feel enveloped in the petals with colors creating an ephemeral space. Other artists such as Lyonel Feininger used subtle geometric shapes and lines recreating a metropolis’ dominating presence…ironically reminiscent of New York. The gallery walls included photography on the rise of machinery in big cities and paintings evoking the growing impact factories and production lines were making on the economy.

One of the key features I found invigorating about the museum’s design, were the balconies leading down to each of the receding floors. Not only was it refreshing with the Hudson River’s breeze passing through, but it gives the viewer a moment to decompress and take in the recently seen pieces. After a few moments of taking in the spectacular views, I moved on to the 7th floor where Abstract Expressionism and influence of the Surrealist movement resided. The middle of the room housed wooden blocks stacked on top of one another like an abstracted Jenga game. Paintings and sculpture were more spread out but left room where no distraction could enter. Towards the back was an iconic Jackson Pollock with splatters of light blues, pinks and yellows mixed with neutral greys, white and black. Having seen other Pollock works I thought about the orientation the artist would have wanted the piece hung and immediately noticed the signature on the bottom left corner. The strange thing was that the signature was rotated to the left instead of facing towards the viewer. Others noticed the assumed mistake in hanging and was called to attention in articles such as Artnet’s “Whitney Museum Hangs Pollock Wrong Way”. Some of the pieces that struck me were works garnered to the racial tensions and civil rights movement during the 50’s and 60’s. Works from Jacob Lawrence are intimate and raw. Using a range of neutral tones and selectively placed colors, he recreates the struggles and challenges faced by the black community. A whole wall recreated in a salon style featured controversial drawings and prints of people lining up for food or lynchings that occurred in the south. Although these works aren’t uplifting, it shows awareness of the country’s low points and a reflection on rights we still need to secure.

The most impactful part of the show was the 5th floor featuring works from the mid-60’s leading to contemporary pieces. Of course, the icons of the past 20 years especially are hard to miss. Basquiat pops off the wall with his radiating yellow and Caribbean blue canvas, slashing out words with portraits (himself included) staring back at you. His paintings are visually poetic, using graffiti references and reminiscent cues that make you tap into the artist’s ongoing conversation. Speaking of portraits, Chuck Close wasn’t too far off. Close has garnered international recognition for his photo-realistic portraits of everyday people who now has expanded to doing portraits of celebrities and presidents…yes, Obama has been one of his models. Whenever you’re close to Close (pun intended) you can’t help but stick your face near his canvases and ponder over his precise articulation of a single strand of hair on the man’s chin or the perfectly defined wrinkles curling around his eyes and mouth. Simply outstanding! Aside from these two artists, pictures toward the end of the gallery are the most piercing. Planes crashing into the Twin Towers and collage cut outs of soldiers back-dropped into a war zone are all too familiar to our generation. The last piece that captured me was a self-portrait of Rashid Johnson, encircled by a target directly over his face. With the national attention on police protocol and the racial interplay involved in young Americans’ deaths, this piece spoke volumes. He drew attention not only to himself being part of the black community, but the stereotype what is considered criminal or wrong. Displaying works of past decades featuring moments of turmoil play a part of what has shaped our history, but tackling pieces that show what we as a nation are struggling with is brave and sincere.

While there are those that have opposing views of the new location or housing, it’s undeniable that the Whitney Museum is reinventing itself. By premiering with “America is Hard to See”, the Whitney took aim in addressing how we have been and continue to be a country consisting a mixture of viewpoints and backgrounds. America isn’t hard to see…in fact, America is easy to see through Whitney’s eyes. We are a country, still young, still growing, and still tackling issues that will define our place on the world stage. Acknowledgment and display of some of these works reveal a higher level of integrity for not only art but the American belief of a more equal society. The Whitney has set the stage with this stimulating reflection on our country and I can’t to see what will come in future exhibits.