The new Whitney Museum of American Art celebrates in earnest on May 1 when it opens to the public. Around 8 p.m. that evening, the top of the Empire State Building will illuminate LED interpretations of work by Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and other artists in the museum’s collection.
“Now the real fun begins,” said museum director Adam D. Weinberg, during a press event at the museum last week.
The $422 million dollar building at 99 Gansevoort St. was designed by Renzo Piano, the architect behind the Morgan Library and Museum addition and Harvard University’s renovated museum. In moving the Whitney from its uptown home, Piano said he wanted to retain the personality of the bulky Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue and 75th Street, creating an atmosphere that was “equally brave and equally unpolite,” he said.
Though the building may take some time to work its way into the public’s favor, he doesn’t seem to mind.
“Architecture, it doesn’t work on short time,” Piano said. “It takes time to absorb it, to love it. Architecture is like a river, like a forest. They need time to be what they are. And so buildings can sometimes please like a novel, like a movie can please, but what really stays is not necessarily what pleases immediately.”
With its gleaming plaza facing Gansevoort Street, which houses the museum restaurant Untitled, from Danny Meyer’s hospitality group, the Whitney retains plenty of unfinished, industrial qualities, with concrete flooring in the lobby, an exposed stairwell that evokes a minimalist fire escape route, and a row of large elevators with interiors designed by artist Richard Artschwager. Recycled pine floorboards on the upper levels were salvaged from three different facilities, including a piano factory.
Though based on Madison Avenue since 1966 (and before that, on W. 54th Street) the museum started downtown in a bohemian fashion. Signposts of the Whitney’s origins, as a modest, Greenwich Village studio museum formed by sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1914 (she officially opened the museum in 1931, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art turned down a donation of her contemporary art collection) and references to its current incarnation in the Meatpacking District pepper the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “America is Hard to See.”
The show offers an extensive look at the Whitney’s holdings, with more than 600 works on view throughout the museum. The first-floor gallery, which is free to the public and devoted to the museum’s early days, includes a bust sculpted by Whitney and a public commission for a memorial for the Titanic, which was scheduled to dock at nearby Pier 59.
“This neighborhood changes from the morning to very late at night,” said Donna De Salvo, chief curator for the museum. “It’s an extremely different vibe.”
The area’s after-hours coterie reminds her of some of the work in the collection, including Lisette Model’s photographs from the mid-20th century, taken in Bowery nightclubs.
“There’s a kind of gritty edge to the neighborhood,” she said. “Yet there’s also an incredible high fashion slickness to it.”
Piano, known for sky-lit gallery spaces, incorporated opportunities for ample natural light to come into the building on both the east and west sides. Curators are “drooling and fantasizing” about the possibilities for sculpture shows in the eighth floor galleries, which can be entirely sky-lit, said Dana Miller, a curator at the museum.
“The space will get reinvented over and over again,” De Salvo said. “That’s the true test of a building, is the capacity to be able to reinvent it.”
Reinvention is a familiar refrain in lower Manhattan, and the Meatpacking District in particular, which has embodied many identities in recent years (the evidence is just next door, where Weichsel Beef purveyors is located), and is now one of the busiest commercial and tourism districts in the city.
De Salvo sees the history of the area as a “database” for the artists who will show at the museum.
“This is like a giant book,” she said of the neighborhood. “You see these layers of history that are what a city is about, and I think there are going to be a lot of artists who engage with that.”