The Whitney Museum of American Art's new Renzo Piano-designed digs are nearly ready for opening day on May 1. And now comes the art.
This week, the lineup for the relocated museum's inaugural show, "America Is Hard to See," was announced; more than 600 works from the permanent collection by more than 400 artists will be featured in the exhibition that will fill the Whitney's 50,000 square feet of gallery space as well as 13,000 square feet of terraces.
"Numerous pieces that have rarely, if ever, been shown, will appear alongside familiar icons, in a conscious effort to challenge assumptions about the American art canon," reads the announcement.
In other words, there will be truckloads of art.
The exhibition will present 150 years worth of American art in 23 "chapters" that explore various themes — from "East West Eighth," which looks at the museum's roots at a small space opened by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1914, to "Course of Empire," which brings the show to the present, exploring the idea of progress with works by artists such as painter Nicole Eisenman and collagist Mark Bradford.
On the Internet, where no good turn goes unstoned, the artist list is already being dutifully parsed. (Also being parsed: the fact that the museum's new site at the southern end of the High Line sits over a pipeline containing natural gas — some of which may have been fracked — something that drew protesters to the site Tuesday evening.)
Alexandra Peers at The Observer notes that the Whitney's debut exhibition is bereft of influential color field painters such as Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis. Hyperallergic goes for a race and gender breakdown, complete with pie charts. The good news: the inaugural show features more African American artists than the last Whitney Biennial. (I'm generally wary of comparing shows of contemporary art — like biennials — to shows based on permanent collections, since permanent collections invariably reflect the mores of earlier eras.)
There is also significant Southern California representation. This includes Bradford, filmmaker Kenneth Anger, conceptualist John Baldessari, light and space sculptor Larry Bell, "Semina" founder Wallace Berman, performance artist Chris Burden, finish fetishist John McLaughlin, multimedia artists Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, conceptualist Barbara Kruger, Sister Corita Kent, the art collective Asco, photographer Catherine Opie, painters Raymond Pettibon and Lari Pittman, assemblagist Noah Purifoy, cool pop master Ed Ruscha, sculptor Charles Ray and video artist Ryan Trecartin (now based in L.A.), among others.
As Peers points out, there are oversights: The show doesn't contain a single work by David Hockney — an artist whose swimming pools are L.A. writ in paint. But that may be because the museum hasn't been very good about acquiring Hockney's art.
There will also be nothing on view by assemblagist Edward Kienholz, though the museum has several of his assemblages, and is featuring other assemblage artists in the show (including Berman and Purifoy). There is also nothing by Goth-pop painter Jim Shaw, even though he too figures in the Whitney's collection. Admittedly, they mainly have drawings and smaller pieces.
Far more alarming: There isn't a lick of Robert Heinecken's wry conceptual photography in the show, even though the Whitney has several dozen of his works — among them, pieces from the seminal "ARE YOU REA" series. They would have fit perfectly in the chapter of the exhibition called "Racing Thoughts," about the ways in which artists use images to critique society.
It is, however, interesting to see Asco on the list. The L.A. collective came to widespread mainstream attention with its retrospective at the L.A. County Museum of Art in 2011, part of the Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions.
The Whitney has numerous photographic works by the group, whose founding members include Gronk, Patssi Valdez, Harry Gamboa and Willie Herron. It's noteworthy that all of the Asco works in the museum's collection were acquired after LACMA's exhibition (organized in collaboration with the Williams College Museum of Art).
The goal of the PST series was to draw greater attention to the work of California artists — some of whom may have been ignored by the mainstream in their day. The Getty and LACMA should be proud. Looks like the plan is working.