In 1966, the Whitney Museum of American Art moved into a new building designed by Marcel Breuer that perfectly embodied its institutional contempt for museum-goers. Building and curatorship worked hand-in-glove to deliver a truly unpleasant experience: The permanent collection was so far above the lobby that only mountain-climbers could tackle the stairs. Everyone else spent five minutes waiting to be stuffed into one of two excruciatingly slow elevators—emerging at the top to find the curators had hidden all the art.
The Whitney collection is unbelievably strong: Its masterpieces by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Stuart Davis, and Edward Hopper (who left his personal collection to the Whitney) are even better than the collections at the Metropolitan or the Museum of Modern Art. But at the Whitney, masterpieces would spend most of their time inside storage vaults to make room for their unknown, lesser-known, and downright worse contemporaries.
Now, the Whitney has opened its lavish new headquarters in the Meatpacking District. The new building, which has twice the exhibition space of the old one, was designed by Renzo Piano, who is extremely, delightfully charismatic. He told the press about his vision for the new museum—how the building “speaks with” the city on one side, the world on the other (the world being represented, in this case, by New Jersey). He pointed out that the upstairs galleries are some of the largest column-free spaces you’ll find in any museum and that there is practically no division between the lobby (“which I call the piazza, because I’m Italian”) and the cobbled street outside. The press adored him, this writer included.
The building is, indeed, fascinating—and like so many museums, it would be a tremendous success if it weren’t a museum. Were it, for example, a workspace for a startup company, it would be fantastic. As an art gallery for a large audience, however, it’s a disaster. It is extraordinary how all the worst aspects of the Breuer building have been replicated. Access to the upper floors is, again, by way of a totally inadequate elevator bank. Once you get to the galleries (floors five through eight), the only staircase available is outdoors. There is an emergency staircase indoors, however, and a desperate guard trying to cope with the rush-hour elevator crush suggested we give it a try. I couldn’t suppress a bitter laugh when we walked down eight flights of stairs and ended up not in the lobby but on the sidewalk. The flow is absolutely pazzo.
The best parts of the building don’t have any paintings in them. The view of the Hudson from a fifth-floor glass lobby with comfy sofas is fantastic, even cathartic. The outdoor spaces are magnificent. The paintings, meanwhile, are dwarfed by high ceilings, overwhelmed by empty space, and washed out by blue sunlight from massive windows at the east and west ends of each floor. (Ask artists why they prefer a northern exposure.)
The inaugural exhibition, which occupies all four gallery floors, is called America Is Hard to See—and the curators have done their best to keep it that way. The organization is bizarre: Each gallery floor is nominally devoted to a segment of the 20th century, but the different segments overlap, and it is impossible to predict where a particular artist will be. Everything is scattered hither and yon, and an artist may find his two or three paintings separated by quite a walk (or quite a wait at the elevators). This is the result of dealing with art thematically and academically rather than visually: None of the curators appears to have wondered at any point whether the results of their speculations on the American Century actually looked good.
This perverse approach has one curious benefit: When you finally stumble onto a great painting—and there are perhaps six or seven on the walls right now—it does feel like a moment of discovery, like struggling through the gray and grim-faced crowds on Fifth Avenue and suddenly bumping into a long-lost friend. De Kooning’s 1960 masterpiece Door to the River is one of the century’s greatest works. You might have seen it at MoMA’s masterful de Kooning retrospective in 2011, but the Whitney only very rarely lets it appear on its own walls. That painting alone is worth the steep $22 admission. Hopper’s masterpiece, Early Sunday Morning (1930), is also on view. So is one of Pollock’s greatest works, Number 27 (1950).