ARTS & MUSEUMS
Review

At new Whitney Museum site, a show is shrouded in parochialism

Christopher Knight
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Art Critic
New Whitney Museum of American Art has friendly Renzo Piano design, but collection has a glaring parochialism

— More than 30 years after the Whitney Museum of American Art announced its ambitious plan to substantially grow its facility, the deed is finally done.

Accomplishing the feat meant abandoning its 1966 Upper East Side home and moving five miles to the rapidly gentrifying meatpacking district along the Hudson River. May Day marks the public debut for the Whitney's much-needed expansion.

The new $422-million, nine-story building is the most recent of two dozen art museum designs by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Now the Whitney has something it never had before: substantial permanent collection galleries, including snazzy study-storage for 17,000 works on paper among its 22,000 art objects.

The opening exhibition is a celebration of the fact.

"America Is Hard to See" is a five-month-long presentation of nearly 650 collection works by more than 400 artists in every imaginable medium, including film and video. The art, which spans from about 1900 to the present, fills nearly 50,000 square feet of galleries primarily on four floors.

Here's an easy prediction: As an entertainment, it will be a hit.

Here's another one: The collection's glaring parochialism will mostly get a pass, unnoticed by tourists and embraced by the locals for its cozy familiarity.

One aim of the move was to maximize potential for cultural tourism, already captured by the Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. The Whitney was attracting about 350,000 visitors per year in its old home. Officials hope to triple that.

Architecturally, the old building said a lot about the place of art in American life. Designed by Bauhaus-trained Hungarian expatriate Marcel Breuer as a handsome, hulking fortress, it came complete with a metaphoric moat and drawbridge separating art experience from daily life.

Americans have always been hesitant about art; when they've traded indifference for attention, hostility has been a common response. Breuer's citadel gave art a shelter from the storm.

Piano's friendly new Whitney couldn't be more different.

When I visited on a very gray, very rainy recent day, the sun-splashed river views reported elsewhere were absent. Nor was there access to the 13,000 square feet of outdoor terraces overlooking the city, where sculpture is displayed, adding substantially to the indoor galleries.

But the spiffed-up industrial style of the building exterior — it looks something like an elegant power station clad in steel and glass — fits seamlessly with the spiffed-up industrial ambience of its neighborhood. The new Whitney occupies a choice spot at the southern end of the popular High Line, the former elevated train track that is now a tourist-friendly linear park, which will surely deliver a steady stream of visitors to the front door.

So in two short generations the Whitney has gone from being art's stern but caring homeless shelter to its chic and eager tourist destination. For American art's place in the bigger civic picture, that's quite a transformation.

One modest gallery is at the end of a short hallway off the lobby, tucked next to the restaurant. Artist Richard Artschwager designed the witty elevator interiors — a basket motif for the freight lift, for example. A theater is on the third floor.

After offices, the fifth-floor special exhibitions hall is followed by permanent collection galleries on the sixth and seventh floors, then a skylighted project space on the eighth. All have terraces.

The biggest disappointment: A visitor's full art encounter doesn't come until the museum's fifth floor. Why?

Think L.A.'s Getty Museum or Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art: Gallery placement seems primarily intended to make the most of city views to the east and water views to the west from five and more stories up.

The Whitney turned over all of it to a temporary exhibition, through Sept. 27, of its little-seen permanent collection. The results are iffy — a lot of compelling work and some piercing curatorial insights but shrouded beneath old-fashioned parochialism.

Its title, "America Is Hard to See," is taken from a Robert Frost poem that filmmaker Emile de Antonio also used for a 1970 documentary on the failure of Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign. It certainly describes the collection show.

It opens with a beautiful pair of Marsden Hartley's symbolic spiritual abstractions from 1913 to 1915 — an American in Germany, synthesizing Eastern and Western European avant-gardes. Then it promptly falls apart.

Hartley's Berlin pageantry would be augmented by something like Charles Reiffel's great, heaving Expressionist landscapes, their World War I convulsiveness as powerful as anything by Chaim Soutine. But nothing by Reiffel is here. Working in San Diego put a talent like his far beyond the Whitney's Manhattan-centric view.

Not that I expected much more. America is a big country. Naturally, vast swaths of its often marvelous art history have always been missing in action in New York.

Take Los Angeles, whose 20th century legacy is distinctive because it begins not with paintings or sculptures but with photographs, that most modern of Modern art mediums. Edward Weston was arguably the city's first great artist, but he didn't make the inaugural show's cut.

There is, however, a wonderful 1931 photograph by barely known Toyo Miyatake — a self-portrait, composed with his eye framed first by eyeglasses and then by the camera's viewfinder, a lens behind a lens. Japanese American camera clubs flourished in L.A. in the 1920s and '30s, and their dialogue with Weston was profound.

Weston was instrumental in overthrowing Pictorialism in photography, which manipulated camera images to look like European paintings. Japanese American photographers were also Pictorialists, but their source-aesthetic was Asian art: flat, patterned, spatially abstract painting. Weston — like Manet or Van Gogh, excited by Japanese prints — was partly inspired by the camera clubs.

That's a level of detail one finds in "New York, NY, 1955," the show's Abstract Expressionist room, which keys off an airbrush painting by the little-seen Hedda Sterne. (Her architectonic image is like being underneath the High Line.) But it's rarely encountered elsewhere.

Consider a weird and wonderful 1931 painting by Agnes Pelton, who inventively applied Art Deco machine style to jewel-toned nature, producing ecstatic celestial fantasies in little Cathedral City, outside Palm Springs. Her intense interaction with the brilliant New Mexico abstractionist Raymond Jonson is omitted, however, since the Whitney owns none of Jonson's work. Together, they would have provided amplitude for the show's popular Georgia O'Keeffe paintings.

For me the most provocative moment comes in the juxtaposition of photographs by Cindy Sherman and the L.A. Chicano collective Asco — Harry Gamboa, Gronk Nicandro and Patssi Valdez. Both adopted a complete pop culture vocabulary to explore manufactured social identity.

Asco's is a glam celebrity self-portrait from its mid-1970s "No Movies" series. The photographic still promotes a nonexistent film; by default, it pictures Chicano exclusion from Hollywood's dream machine.

Sherman had just begun her own "Untitled Film Stills." In her self-portrait photographs, she assumes the role of an actress performing cinematic clichés of femininity.

The Whitney's iconic works include Alexander Calder's "Circus" (1926-31), Arshile Gorky's "The Artist and His Mother" (1926-36), David Smith's "Hudson River Landscape" (1951), Jasper Johns' stacked "Three Flags" (1958), Jay DeFeo's "The Rose" (1958-66), Willem de Kooning's "Door to the River" (1960), Joan Jonas' video "Vertical Roll" (1972), Nan Goldin's slide-show installation "The Ballad of Sexual Dependency" (1979-96), Mike Kelley's stuffed-animal quilt "More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid" (1987) and more.

Surely all will remain on permanent view — a welcome prospect.

Yet, divided into 23 sections — loosely chronological and thematic — the show mostly charts ideas once dominant in New York. That pretty much rules out things like 1950s Bay Area figuration, 1960s L.A. Light and Space art, and 1970s Pattern and Decoration.

It also forestalls homegrown Color Field painting and its affinities, currently out of critical favor. The absence of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell and the rest is a brash, not-unpleasant surprise.

But you open a museum with the art you have, not the art you wish to have. Whitney chief curator Donna De Salvo and her six museum colleagues have tried to make the best of a tough situation, since no museum can really tell art's whole American story. But looking at the list of artists, I just kept wondering what the show might be like installed, say, in alphabetical order by artists' name.

The Whitney has always been a regional institution, despite a name that stretches from sea to shining sea. Born during the Great Depression, it grew out of grinding frustration with the general indifference shown to living American artists by its local institutional colleagues, the encyclopedic Met and Eurocentric MoMA.

It blossomed as an artistic bellwether during an era when the United States became an undisputed superpower, with New York its world headquarters. "What is American about American art?" director Lloyd Goodrich famously asked in 1958, articulating the old institutional mission. The Whitney was a museum for the American Century.

Inevitably, that history passed the Whitney by. Now the world is transnational, thanks to easy travel, flows of global capital and Internet connectivity. It demands a transcontinental view of American art. Curators are valiantly trying to work their way out of the collection's profoundly Manhattan-centric view, but there's a long way to go.

christopher.knight@latimes.com

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