PRINT September 2015


View of “America Is Hard to See,” 2015, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. On wall: Jonathan Borofsky, Running People at 2,616,216, 1978–79. Photo: Nic Lehoux.

FOR THE MOST PART, American artists have been denizens of the dark. Sure, there have been jaunts en plein air and epic engagements with The Land, but for much of the past century the American avant-garde has lurked in places where vitamin D is scarce: the smoky bar and the speakeasy, the boxing hall and the factory floor, midnight piers, Lower East Side squats, and other enjoyably unwholesome spots. Many paradigmatically modern sites for entertainment have scorned natural light as well, for ambience and discretion (the nightclub) or out of a vampiric incapacity to survive in the sun (the cinema). The diffuse incandescence of art galleries may sometimes be bright, but it radiates artificiality, the white cube perhaps owing less to sunshine than to Times Square at midnight. In most museums, windows have been a rarity, as they take up valuable wall space and can expose artworks to damaging or unflattering light. More important, however, is the ideological work that windowless museum space accomplishes: It serves as a metaphor for art’s autonomy, establishing the museum as a hermetically sealed space in which the visitor’s gaze is cut off from the rest of the world. The few small windows puncturing the walls of Marcel Breuer’s 1966 building for the previous home of the Whitney Museum of American Art, for example, were like eyes whose main purpose was not to gaze outward but rather to express heavy-lidded disdain for the commercialism of Madison Avenue. From within the museum, the shape of Breuer’s windows, which enjoyed a family resemblance to the contemporaneous shaped canvases of Frank Stella and faceted solids of Tony Smith, demanded to be looked at rather than through, coaxing viewers’ attention away from the street beyond the glass and back onto the objects displayed inside.

But in recent decades, the cultural appetite has grown for art that is in the world and of it, and this shift—the result of both art’s march toward a politics of engagement and institutions’ growing need to attract larger crowds—demands an exhibition space that is appropriately porous. Thus the sun has been let into the realms of art, and perhaps nowhere more generously than in Renzo Piano’s new building for the Whitney in New York’s meatpacking district. With its multiple terraces and banks of floor-to-ceiling windows facing all cardinal directions (not just the customary north), the new Whitney is suffused with light, dramatizing the osmosis between art and the world, but it also creates a curatorial head-scratcher: How should one organize works of modern American art in relationship to these zones of illumination?

The new Whitney’s inaugural exhibition, “America Is Hard to See,” is a great success on a number of fronts, as many have noted. The title (with its intriguing evocation of illumination, or its absence) is drawn from both Robert Frost’s 1951 poem (in which Columbus is described as a narcissistic bumbler) and Emile de Antonio’s cinematic autopsy of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid; the show, which covers just over a century of American art, is at once encyclopedic and astonishingly cohesive. While tracing a narrative that contextualizes American art within American history, it avoids patriotic grandstanding by aiming at the nation’s eccentricities, vulnerabilities, and, occasionally, atrocities. The curatorial team has grouped objects from the museum’s collection chronologically and according to thematic rubrics (“Breaking the Prairie,” “The Circus,” etc.). They’ve mined the collection for artistic gems both famous and obscure, and their exhibition strongly reflects recent revisions of the canon, with admirable representation of women and artists of color, and long-central figures inspiringly juxtaposed with once-peripheral ones (e.g., Cy Twombly and Alma Thomas). Crowds of visitors not only gather around major New York School canvases but also stand fascinated before the work of deserving underknowns, from Bill Traylor’s watercolor-and-graphite Walking Man, 1939–42, to Candy Jernigan’s archaeological finds and annotated maps of crack vials found in New York. The exhibition is also peppered with works that are tempting to read as moments of institutional self-reflection. The wistful irony of Warhol’s ode to rhinoplasty, Before and After, 4, 1962, adds a bit of self-deprecation to the promise of upgrades, architectural and otherwise. Dominating the center of a wall dedicated to war, terrorism, protest, and death, Adam McEwen’s fictional 2004 New York Times obituary for Jeff Koons might be read as a teasing acknowledgment of the ever-controversial subject of the old Whitney’s last big blockbuster. Other artworks almost overwhelm with densely packed references: R. H. Quaytman’s painting Distracting Distance, Chapter 16, which debuted at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, features a naked K8 Hardy (a 2012 Biennial alumna) standing before one of Breuer’s trapezoidal windows, posed like the woman in Edward Hopper’s A Woman in the Sun, a 1961 work owned by the Whitney, though not on view. Whew.

But in the interaction between the windows and the art, the installation is equal parts victory and defeat. Florine Stettheimer’s paintings have never looked better than they do on the bright top floor, with the Hudson shimmering beyond the western windows; all frothy and arch, they are perfect for this penthouse apartment. Ruth Asawa’s lacy wire bulbs similarly benefit, as they hang right in front of a broad window that shows their delicate intersections and nested shapes to great advantage. The stacked and telescoping planes of Thomas Downing’s shaped canvas Five, 1967, seem custom-made for this building; light coming in from the side plays a disappearing act with the glossy paint that rims each of its otherwise matte rectangles, so as the viewer moves past the work, reflections shift between flatness and depth to provide a formal epiphany that is deliciously dated.

Among the works that lose out, however, are the abstract paintings whose economy of form makes them especially vulnerable to infelicitous lighting. Barnett Newman hoped to inspire a sense of the sublime with his paintings, but with Day One, 1951–52, installed perpendicular to a bright window, viewers will mostly feel sorry for this work, whose surface shines in raking light. The subtle ombré effects on the car-paint panels by David Novros may be dismissed by viewers as a mere side effect of the constant retinal recalibrations necessary in a room that is unevenly lit. Mark Rothko famously preferred low, artificial lighting for his canvases, and at the Whitney’s new installation you will be able to see why: All it takes is a bright blue-white gallery to make his Four Darks in Red, 1958, look washed-out and pasty.

Then there are works whose installation is problematic because of a conceptual mismatch between the art and the light coming in from the outside. The inverted black steps of Robert Smithson’s Alogon, 1966, look fine up against the window, but I wonder whether the artist would have installed them there. Smithson morbidly admired the museum’s grim commitment to keeping art in isolation. In the 1967 issue of Arts Yearbook (which was dedicated to museums because of the Whitney’s then-recent relocation to the Breuer building), Smithson famously rebutted Allan Kaprow’s blurring of art and life by saying that the “nullity implied in the museum is actually one of its major assets.” His Earthworks decayed and dispersed outdoors, but the natural habitat of his painted steel sculpture is the deep freeze of the white cube—Alogon is not a work that should be sunning itself like a cat on a windowsill. Conversely, Robert Rauschenberg’s Satellite, 1955, which like most of his Combines embraced all things non-art, is cloistered within the interior of a gallery like a hothouse flower.

However, some works are allowed to retain traces of their shadowy provenance and actually benefit from the stark contrast with the Whitney’s new Apollonian environment. The layering of Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero), 1987, against the orange glow of Gran Fury posters is all the more visually dissonant, and conceptually resonant, in its oblique orientation to the nearest wall of plate glass. But in many ways Nan Goldin’s documentary slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1979–96, a signal achievement of New York’s artistic bohemia in the age of AIDS, is even more affecting. Viewers who duck out of the glare and into the darkened projection room can develop a visceral appreciation for Goldin’s crepuscular world—from the baroque tenebrism of unwashed linens to the meticulous rituals of a drag king’s evening toilette to the slimy sheen of a photoflash against a black vinyl bar booth—a world that provided sanctuary for people escaping the chipper, overlit spaces of mainstream culture.

Such moments in which the art contrasts productively with the bright building are especially welcome given that the Whitney has, with this move downtown, traded in its more general posture of contrast with respect to its immediate environment. When Nam June Paik arranged for his poor jaywalking robot to become roadkill on Madison Avenue in 1982, or when Zhang Huan took his meat-suit constitutional around the Whitney’s old neighborhood in 2002, those pieces were disruptive precisely because they abraded the mercenary blandness of the Upper East Side, land of Chanel jackets. The Whitney has now taken up residence among the bluest of blue-chip galleries, affording visitors breathtaking views onto the contemporary art market as well as onto the Hudson. At the base of the High Line, the museum’s doors also catch the downward flow of public taste to which the previous Breuer building declared itself aloof. In this new, two-way traffic of eager hospitality, the Whitney might have to resist the tropism encouraged by its sunny design. Some art, with good reason, leans away from what’s outside.

“America Is Hard to See,” organized by Donna De Salvo, chief curator and deputy director for programs; Carter E. Foster, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing; Dana Miller, curator of the permanent collection; and Scott Rothkopf, Nancy and Steve Crown Family Curator and associate director of programs, with assistant curators Jane Panetta and Catherine Taft and curatorial assistant Mia Curran, is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Sept. 27.

Sarah K. Rich is an associate professor of art history at the Pennsylvania State University.