This weekend we're checking out America Is Hard to See at the Whitney Museum's new building in the Meatpacking District, a huge new exhibition of American art from the museum's permanent collection. After the show, we'll stop for some food down the street in Gansevoort Market before heading up the High Line.
THE ART /
The Whitney is re-opening its doors with an exhibition of art from its permanent collection that pulls highlights from the past hundred years or so of American art. This wise choice allows the museum to show off the stunning depth of its collection, some of which rarely emerged from storage in the old building. "America Is Hard to See" is organized into twenty-three chronological "chapters" that group artists and pieces into thematic displays, allowing us to survey and celebrate the history of American art, both the familiar icons and their undervalued contemporaries, as we make our way down from the museum's top floor.
American art in the twentieth century is usually dominated by the huge, world-beating movements that emerged in New York in the decades after World War II. One of the best parts of this exhibition, though, is its celebration of artists who worked before the 1940s, when the museum's founder, Gertrude Whitney, was a leading patron of American artists like Edward Hopper. At the time when Europe was the center of the art world, many American artists thrived in spite of (or perhaps because of) their provincial, isolated status. Self-consciously American painters like George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton were masters of deceptively sophisticated Americana scenes. Artists like Georgia O'Keefe, whose "Music, Pink and Blue No. 2" was an early masterpiece of abstraction from 1918, showed that American painting could be just as forward-thinking as the celebrated European modernists. New York art critic Jerry Saltz puts it best when he writes that O'Keefe "was one of less than a dozen people on Earth at that time who were thinking of art in terms of total abstraction. It doesn't get more radical than that."
The big names of postwar American art -- Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, William de Kooning, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and the rest -- are here too, and in good form. Galleries featuring chapters like "New York, N.Y., 1955" celebrate the art from the era when New York became the artistic capital of the West. American artists, first led by the Abstract Expressionists' avant garde painting, engaged with the visual arts in completely new ways, and the results of their experimentation are no less satisfying in 2015 than they were sixty years ago.
The chronologically-organized show stays strong as it moves past the hundred-million-dollar names of the fifties and sixties and approaches the art of the 21st century. The chapter devoted to artists' responses to the AIDS crisis, "Love Letter from the War Front," is particularly memorable, and Cory Arcangel's slyly gorgeous "Super Mario Clouds" video installation is another highlight.
It's difficult to convey here the scope of the exhibition, which includes more than six hundred works of art spread out over tens of thousands of square feet of beautiful new galleries. Despite its size, though, "America Is Hard to See" is consistently impressive and engaging, without a boring wall in the show. Seeing highlight after highlight of American art here will surely make you grateful for the re-opening of the museum and its bigger building, and excited to see what the Whitney does next.
WHAT TO DO AFTER /
After seeing the museum, head down the street and check out Gansevoort Market, an open hall with more than a dozen food stands, each specializing in something different -- crepes, tacos, sushi, pasta, gelato, barbecue, even something called "bruffins." It's smaller and less overwhelming than the nearby Chelsea Market, and a nice spot to grab a snack to take on a walk up the High Line.