American Beauty

Linda Yablonsky at a gala celebrating the new Whitney Museum of American Art

Left: Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg and collector Anne Bass. Right: Whitney Museum chief curator Donna De Salvo with architect Renzo Piano. (All photos: Linda Yablonsky)

IT’S UP. IT’S AMAZING. And it’s never coming down. So said its architect at an exclusive, black-tie dinner this past Monday night, when Whitney Museum director Adam Weinberg “delivered” Renzo Piano’s new 28,000-ton baby to the people who paid $422 million for it.

With a select group of artists in the museum’s collection—think Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Claes Oldenburg, Cindy Sherman, Zoe Leonard, Roni Horn, Wade Guyton—and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, they had already seen for themselves what the rest of the world will know on May 1: that the Whitney has put its money where its heart is—on its made-in-America art—and given it a space and a frame so choice it’s almost invisible.

Following the Museum of Modern Art’s dismaying 2004 expansion, New Yorkers had good reason to dread what might be waiting for them inside the Whitney’s new Meatpacking District home. Move the museum out of its storied and distinctive, Marcel Breuer–designed headquarters on Madison Avenue and into an ungainly, industrial-looking structure designed by a hit-or-miss architect? Like the price tag, the risks were enormous.

Left: Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, Diana Taylor, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Bloomberg Philanthropies CEO Patti Harris. Right: Artist Cindy Sherman and singer-composer Rufus Wainwright.

The excitement was palpable as the four hundred opening night guests filed into the glass-walled lobby. (Unlike the Brutalist fortress uptown, transparency is the keyword here.) Though she has been working in the building for some time, curator Elisabeth Sussman still couldn’t get over how marvelously it turned out. “Just look at the trees framed by the windows!” she exclaimed. “I hate to sound like a convert to a cult, but after the Breuer, the light is amazing.”

Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs was so blown away he couldn’t quite get his sea legs. “Is this the bar or the elevator?” he inquired of a group who appeared to be waiting for liftoff. For this night only, it was both. The doors closed and, as a bartender filled flutes of champagne, the car, with trompe-l’oeil walls designed by the late Richard Artschwager, rose slowly to the eighth floor, where the earlier works in the 22,000-works-strong permanent collection were about to astonish.

It was almost as if no one present—not Charlie Rose, Chuck Close, Dorothy Lichtenstein, or Brice Marden—had ever seen an Edward Hopper, Arthur Dove, Jacob Lawrence, or especially a John Covert before. “The installation is really profound,” said collector Thea Westreich of “America Is Hard to See,” the museum’s inaugural exhibition. As arranged by Donna De Salvo, Scott Rothkopf, Dana Miller, and Carter Foster, the exhibition’s core curators, the show makes such clear art-historical sense of its decade-by-decade contents that it belies the title. Personally, I don’t think any of the works on view ever had better placement or a more spacious hang. “It’s clean, it’s healthy, and it’s beautiful,” added Westreich. With her husband, Ethan Wagner, she has given the Whitney five hundred works. “The show opens in November,” she said.

Left: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden and artist Glenn Ligon. Right: Artist Jasper Johns.

The exhibition galleries all have high ceilings that both reveal and hide the infrastructure of the museum. (They also echo the gridded ceilings of the Breuer.) The reclaimed-pine floors are warm and gorgeous. Ditto the appropriately rich colors of the flexible walls on the seventh floor. The conservation lab looks like the most glamorous operating room imaginable, and a Minimalist gallery with an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture and paintings by Carmen Herrera, Ad Reinhart, and Agnes Martin feels like a meditation room here. Outdoor terraces offer not just panoramic views and fresh air but sculpture; Mary Heilmann’s commissioned Sunset installation of painted outdoor furniture is especially joyful.

Inside, comfortable couches face the biggest picture windows, with more artworks on the walls behind them. (Glenn Ligon’s neon Untitled (negro sunshine) stares down the city to the east.) “It’s downtown architecture and it belongs downtown,” said Leonard Lauder, a leading light of the Whitney for many years and a voice for resistance to the move early on. He wasn’t complaining anymore.

Politicians mixed with the artists and other trustees, like Brooke Garber Neidich, Neil Bluhm, Ray McGuire, Stefan Edlis, and Gael Neeson. The relaxed Bloomberg toured the exhibition with an all-female posse and spoke to nearly everyone, including Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehmann, Rudolf Giuliani’s old nemesis.

From the current administration at City Hall came cultural affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl with first deputy mayor Alicia Glen in tow. (Mayor Bill De Blasio will arrive next week for the ribbon cutting.) Also on hand was Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell, whose institution has the lease on the Breuer building for the next eight years. “We’re his landlord,” chortled De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator. “Modern and contemporary art is an area of high interest to us right now,” he said.

Left: Whitney Museum curator Scott Rothkopf. Right: Artist T.J. Wilcox and Whitney curator Carter Foster.

Waiters signaled it was time for the Sotheby’s-sponsored dinner by playing single notes on triangles. They had a hard time getting people to leave the galleries. Some went down slowly on the stairs, which surround a Félix González-Torres curtain of light bulbs hanging in the shaft top to bottom.

With everyone seated at tables in the expansive lobby—clearly the future go-to room for social New York—board cochair Robert Hurst was first to take the podium. It was the high-level donors evening, and he celebrated them. “We did it!” he began. “We exceeded our goal of $760 million.” Looking to Lauder, who has (so far) donated 950 artworks to the museum, he said, “Leonard, this night, this Whitney, would have been impossible without you.” There was loud applause at Weinberg’s appearance onstage. “Change is good,” he said. “It makes New York New York.”

But he addressed his first remarks to the reason that the city needs such a museum in the first place. “Every square foot of this building has been designed with the artists in mind,” he said, recalling that Bloomberg, as mayor, had told him, “Don’t screw this up.” Bloomberg also privileged artists, underscoring the way art and culture are inseparable from New York, while De Salvo reminded everyone that the Whitney has always been an artists’ museum. “It’s also a curators’ museum,” she said, describing the opening show as “a novel in twenty-three chapters.”

“I think that this is the real beginning of the twenty-first century,” said a starry-eyed Josephine Meckseper, surveying the room during a break in the speeches. “Adam and Donna did everything right. And for the right reasons.” Finally, just past 10 PM, the main course was served. Unlike most events of this size, the food—from Untitled, the Whitney’s new Danny Meyer restaurant—was actually good, not rubber.

Left: Collectors Ethan Wagner and Thea Westreich. Right: Artist Josephine Meckseper.

Rufus Wainwright bounded to the Steinway on stage, looking up midway through his first number, “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” surprised that his listeners were so rapt. He was just a few bars into “New York, New York” when he went blank on the title words. Recovery was swift; he started over, and the song was perfect. Finally, board president Neil Bluhm presented Piano with a kind of medal—a cement block designed and inscribed by artist Lawrence Weiner.

“To have a great building you need a great client,” Piano said, and went on speak with such honesty and humor that it was obvious why the trustees chose him as architect. “Today is a great moment, a moment of joy,” he said. “Yesterday it was our building. Today it’s yours. It’s still the Whitney,” he added. “Not the new Whitney. To me, an Italian, American art has always been freedom. This building is a house of freedom. I love making buildings. I especially love making buildings for art, because art is about beauty, and beauty will save the world, I’m pretty sure.”

When he returned to his seat beside a grateful Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughter of the founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, I followed Paul Chan, Rachel Harrison, choreographer Sarah Michelson, and Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould back up to the ’80s/’90s floor—“our floor,” as Gould put it, the one with the Barbara Kruger and the David Salle over the Donald Moffett wallpaper, the one with Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the one with the David Hammons–Fred Wilson–Karen Kilimnik group and the Charles Ray–Jeff Koons–Peter Halley configuration, the one with the art of our time.

Congratulations, Whitney! You’ve always gone to bat for the home team, and this time you’ve done us proud.

Left: Artists Rick Liss and Mary Heilmann. Right: Artist Mark di Suvero.

Left: Whitney curators Chrissie Iles and Elisabeth Sussman. Right: Artist Vija Celmins.

Left: Collector Leonard Lauder. Right: Whitney assistant curator Carrie Springer with artist Fred Wilson.

Left: Collector Brooke Garber Neidich and Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman. Right: Writer Elisabeth Lebovici with artist Zoe Leonard.

Left: Artist Paul Chan. Right: New York City Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl with First Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen.

Left: Collector Raymond Learsy and artist Lawrence Weiner. Right: Artist Brice Marden.

Left: Author Flora Miller Biddle, granddaughter of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Right: Artist Chuck Close and Noosh.

Left: Artist George Condo. Right: Jewish Museum director Claudia Gould with Barney's creative director Dennis Freedman.

Left: Tom Alexander and artist Wade Guyton. Right: Guggenheim Museum director Richard Armstrong.

Left: Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell and his wife Phoebe Campbell. Right: Andy Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs.

Left: Studio Museum director Thelma Golden with former Whitney Museum director David Ross and Whitney curator Dana Miller. Right: Collector Beth Rudin DeWoody.

Left: Writer Eric Banks with artist Carol Bove. Right: Collector Alice Tisch.

Left: Writers Calvin Tomkins and Dodie Kazanjian. Right: Joel Shapiro and Ellen Phelan.