Friday, August 14, 2015

Day 2: The Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney is the foremost museum of American art of the 20th century, and we have visited it on a few previous trips to New York. It used to be located in the museum district near the Metropolitan Museum, but its collection outgrew its space and there was no way for them to expand, so they built a brand new building in the former meatpacking district, a gritty area much farther south in Manhattan.

It was designed by Renzo Piano, currently the go-to guy for museum architecture in the U.S. In the Bay Area he is best known for the new California Museum of Science in Golden Gate Park. One of Piano's characteristics is that his buildings fit into their environment. This is certainly true of the new Whitney; by using a mix of materials that might be used in warehouses or small office buildings, Piano made the museum fit well among industrial buildings around it. Yet it has the elegance and style that mark it as a museum. 

From the street it is impossible to get a broad view.

The new Whitney Museum fronts on a narrow street
in a neighborhood of light industry

The Whitney has no set façade;
many different sections give it a different look from every direction.

There are terraces with outdoor seating on two levels so that visitors can take a break from art while enjoying expansive views of the city on one side and the Hudson River on the other.

Terraces offer food, fresh breezes, and expansive views.

Originally, the museum was called the Whitney Studio. It was started in a townhouse in Greenwich Village in 1914 by artist and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Here is a portrait of her by Robert Henri, one of the foremost painters of the time, who taught and influenced many of the contemporary artists in her collection. She was 41 at the time—an heiress, an artist, and a sophisticated socialite. Henri was 51—at the peak of his career.

Robert Henri, 1865-1929
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1875-1942
An heiress with a passion for art.

As a sculptor, Whitney was respected, but not famous. Most of her work that is known today is in public monuments and memorials. She designed the Titanic Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1875-1942
Titanic Memorial
Internet grab

The museum showed this marble model of the statue's head.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1875-1942
Head for Titanic Memorial, 1922

For the inaugural exhibit of their new building, the Whitney chose to display a large portion of its permanent collection in a show called "America is Hard to See."

Women Artists

An artist with a similar background to Whitney's was Florine Stettheimer, who also trained with Robert Henri. Though not an heiress on the same scale as Whitney, she, too, was born into a wealthy, sophisticated, and socially prominent family. She remained single and lived with her mother and two of her three sisters her entire life, mostly in New York. Not needing to offer her paintings in the buffeting market-place, Stettheimer showed them at private salons she held with her sisters for celebrated artists, poets, and taste-makers. She painted diary-like pictures in a playful, decorative style that embraced a stereotype of femininity. She was clever in her use of perspective.

Florine Stettheimer, 1871-1944
New York/Liberty, 1918

Florine Stettheimer, 1871-1944
Sun, 1931

Another contemporary of theirs, Agnes Pelton, was a pioneer of abstraction who frequently strove to express transcendental ideas. I really love her work.

Agnes Pelton, 1881-1961
Untitled, 1931

In the next generation of women artists, Georgia O'Keeffe became one of the most important and most famous painters of all time. I'm particularly fond of her early abstractions, painted when she was part of the in-crowd in New York.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1887-1986
Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, 1918

After she moved to New Mexico, she dwelt more on desert themes.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1887-1986
Summer Days, 1936

In the following generation, Alice Neel specialized in portraits that were both gritty and tender.

Alice Neel, 1900-1984
Pat Whalen, 1935

The show included a work by a woman who was unknown to me, I. Rice Pereira, with I standing for Irene. She was an early abstractionist who was very interested in machine technology. In this example, she dismantled the parts of a boat, in the manner of cubism, and reassembled them in a dynamic design.

I. Rice Pereira, 1902-1971
Boat Composite, 1932

In the 1950s expressionism overtook abstraction. Instead of being invisible, brushstrokes took on a life of their own, with each one having its own energy. The most famous woman working in this style was Joan Mitchell. Sometimes you can read something into Mitchell's paintings, but mostly they work as all-over multi-layered designs.

Joan Mitchell, 1925-1992
Hemlock, 1956

One of the most unusual paintings of all time was created by Jay DeFeo, an artist associated with the Beat generation of the 1950s in San Francisco. For this work, DeFeo spent 8 years applying layers of paint and plaster. In the end, it weighed more than a ton, and a fork-lift was necessary to remove it from her apartment. It is 9 feet tall. Is it a painting or a sculpture?

Jay DeFeo, 1929-1989
The Rose, 1958-66

In the 20th century, women sculptors were bold and innovative. Louise Nevelson liked to make designs from scraps of wood and wood products, like an early recycler. She gave her compositions unity and significance by painting them all black or all white, and by giving them poetic titles.

Louise Nevelson, 1899-1988
Dawn’s Wedding Chapel II, 1959

In the next generation, Ruth Asawa, a renowned Bay Area artist and teacher, explored the uses of wire to make hanging sculptures. You may have seen a magical group of these works in the tower of the de Young Museum in San Francisco. The Oakland Museum of Contemporary Art also has examples of her work in wire.

Ruth Asawa, 1926-2013
Number 1 - 1955, 1954

In the 1950s, many women artists turned away from abstraction toward depictions of their own lives, and especially of their own personalities. A sculptor called Marisol, having dropped her family name of Escobar, used wood, paint, and found objects to characterize her roles in life. In this work, the three women and the girl all represent the artist herself, two with plaster masks, one with a photo, and one with painted features. The found objects include a hair ribbon, a handbag, and a taxidermy dog's head. The figures are slightly larger than life-size and 3-dimensional.

Marisol, b. 1930
Women and Dog, 1963-64

African American Artists

In the 20th century, artists from an African American background made even less impact on the scene than women artists did.

William H. Johnson's life was full of drama. He overcame poverty and a rural upbringing to become a well-known artist, but half-way through his life he fell prey to syphilis-induced mental illness, and spent the rest of his years in an asylum, unable to paint. During his art career, he painted in a variety of styles, but he is best known for a sort of folk style influenced by cubism.

William H. Johnson, 1901-1970
Jitterbugs VI, 1941-1942
William H. Johnson, 1901-1970
Blind Singer, 1942

By contrast, Jacob Lawrence had to work menial jobs to put himself through school, but he went on to become one of the greatest artists of the first half of the 20th century, while pursuing a long career as a professor of art and maintaining a life-long marriage to artist Gwendolyn Knight. His great innovation was to use a series of paintings to tell a story, usually an episode from African-American history. Each panel was accompanied with a poetically succinct caption. His genius was to distill an incident or a situation to its essence, and paint it in a style that is so dynamic and moving that each panel is strong enough to stand alone.

The Whitney's opening exhibit included his entire "War Series." The first scene depicts the moment when the draftee sees his future. Notice that the figure has light-colored skin and hair. Receiving a fateful letter during wartime was common to all races.

Jacob Lawrence, 1917-2000
The Letter, 1946

Lawrence himself served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. This image shows a group of young black sailors boarding a vessel.

Jacob Lawrence, 1917-2000
Shipping Out, 1947
This one shows the irony of what we call Victory.

Jacob Lawrence, 1917-2000
Victory, 1947

Mainstream History of American Art in the 20th Century

You could say that Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney shaped the history of American art in the first half of the 20th century. The artists she collected are now considered the major artists of their time, but when she was buying, they were her contemporaries, and their work was too "different," too "modern," to be of interest to most collectors and museums, who were withholding their praises and their dollars for European Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. When she offered her collection of 500 works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1929, they rejected it; that is why she founded the Whitney Museum in 1930.

Whitney's collection featured followers of Robert Henri. Throughout his career, Henri gathered like-minded artists together in groups for the purpose of exhibiting their work, reading and discussing poetry and philosophy, and raucous socializing. In general, the artists in these groups believed art should be tied to everyday activities. Scenes and individuals were depicted in a recognizable way but in a modern style that was personalized by each artist. The most famous group was known as the Ashcan School, but a broad spectrum of artists embraced the social scene as their subject.

The oldest of these was George Luks, who started his career as an illustrator for a newspaper in Philadelphia. In this painting, he captures the essence of a frenzied celebration at the end of World War I, without dwelling on particulars.

George Luks (1867-1933)
Armistice Night, 1918

Instead of the big news, John Sloan, another of Henri's students, often liked to look at the small scene, the neglected corners of life. This painting seems to celebrate the value of cats, kids, and underwear.

John Sloan, 1871-1951
Backyards, Greenwich Village, 1914

Edward Hopper accepted the commonplace scenes of the Ashcan school, but his true subject always seems to be loneliness. His austere style isolates his subjects, creating aloneness. The shopfront in this painting is isolated at the end of the street, somewhat improbably next to deep woods. He distilled the shop to a prototype, so that I feel I've seen it…I've been there. And I knew the time was early morning; the artist was able to convey the particular quality of early morning light.

Edward Hopper, 1882-1967
Seven A.M., 1948

Hopper often portrayed women chatting at a table, but in the painting below, their conversation isolates them from the rest of the world. They sit in the shade, but the rest of the space is bright. Notice that the scene has been reduced to symbols: the figures are sitting where the river meets the sea, and the river is crossed by a classic arched stone bridge. But what about the four cypresses growing on the bridge? Can that be right? The trees give the image a focal point and stand for "someplace on the south coast of France."

Edward Hopper, 1882-1967
Le Bistro, 1909
In contrast with Hopper's constancy of approach, his contemporary George Bellows, another student of Robert Henri, used many different approaches in his comparatively short career (he died at the age of 43). He was especially good at sports reporting. This scene depicts the moment when Firpo knocked Dempsey out of the ring with a tremendous blow to the jaw. The viewer has the perspective of someone at the scene. Dempsey was pushed back into the ring, by the way, and went on to win the match. I'm not a fan of boxing, but I love the arrangement and dynamics of the boxers' strong bodies.

George Bellows, 1882-1925
Dempsey and Firpo, 1924

Reginald Marsh was a student of John Sloan's and continued the tradition of social realism, as in this depiction of women offering themselves in the window of a dance hall.

Reginald Marsh, 1898-1954
Ten Cents a Dance, 1933

In the painting below, Paul Cadmus seems to have been thinking of the same women as Marsh. Cadmus' father was a commercial lithographer who had studied under Robert Henri.

Paul Cadmus, 1904-1999
Sailors and Floozies, 1938
George Tooker was a student of Reginald Marsh's. His paintings usually express isolation and paranoia.

George Tooker, 1920-2011
The Subway, 1950

While the artists connected with Robert Henri, and their students, were the core of Gertrude Whitney's collection, artists from other artistic schools were also represented in her museum.

Thomas Hart Benton was from the Midwest and started his training in Chicago. Even while he taught and painted in New York, he championed regional subjects. Benton's greatness is demonstrated by the fact that from the beginning he developed a curving, muscular line that makes his work immediately recognizable, yet he could adapt his style to suit his subject matter. Early in his career, when Regionalism was his main concern, he painted this stereotypical view of an old-time, pious farm couple.

Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1976
The Lord is My Shepherd, 1926
Much later, when Benton went to Hollywood and did publicity paintings for the studios, he created a more dynamic look, all angles and drama.

Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1976
Poker Night (from A streetcar Named Desire), 1948

While these artists have been largely concerned with the human figure, many artists of the time left figures out of the picture and concentrated on buildings, places, and environments.

Joseph Stella was born in Italy, and came to the U.S. when he was 19 to study. Although he had some success as an artist, he wasn't happy here and returned to Italy in 1909. In Italy art was then dominated by a movement called "Futurism," which declared that artists should embrace industrialization and express the energy of modern life. When Stella returned to the U.S. after seven years abroad, he brought these values with him. He saw Luna Park, a large amusement park on the Coney Island boardwalk, as a good symbol of modern life because of its profusion of electric lights (which were fairly rare at the time) and its frantic energy.

Joseph Stella, 1877-1946
Luna Park, c. 1913

Lyonel Feininger was born in America, but he trained in Germany and spent much of his career there. This caused him to be influenced by German Expressionism, a broadly diverse movement which emphasized styles that were intensely personal. Artists used boldly simplified or distorted forms and exaggerated colors. In the painting below, Feininger conveyed the spirituality and monumentality of a Gothic cathedral in Gelmeroda, a small town in Germany, through overlapping planes of colored light, making it look faceted like a jewel.

Lyonel Feininger, 1871-1956
Gelmeroda VIII, 1921

Later, Charles Demuth, a life-long resident of Pennsylvania, used a similar approach of layered planes of light to jazz up a typical American icon, the grain elevator. To give the homely image even more mystique, he titled it My Egypt, suggesting that farm country was the painter's idea of eternal majesty. His style came to be known as "Precisionism."

Charles Demuth, 1883-1935
My Egypt, 1927

Arthur Dove applied the lens of abstraction to landscape painting. In the example below, the background is a wave pattern, layered to indicate clouds, mountains, and beach. Along the bottom of the canvas, the wave represents the coast where the ferry boat sank; the black shapes are flotsam, now caught among tree branches. But what is the red disk?

Arthur Dove, 1880-1946
Ferry Boat Wreck, 193

Water-colorist Charles Burchfield focused his attention on nature as it is seen in backyards and parks, and instead of being concerned with the appearance of the trees and shrubs, he was interested in the atmosphere in the scene; he tried to convey the breeze fluttering the foliage and even the greedy buzzing of insects.

Charles Burchfield, 1893-1967
Noontide in Late May, 1917

Man Ray was born in Pennsylvania in a family of Russian Jewish immigrants; the family changed their surname from Radnitzky to Ray, and Emmanuel shortened his name to Man. He studied and worked in New York during his twenties, but at the age of 31 he moved to Paris, where he worked for the next twenty years. Therefore his work fits in with the European story more than with American trends. Surrealism was a European mode that didn't get much traction in the U.S. Surrealist paintings usually juxtaposed realistically depicted but impossible conditions, as in a dream state. This painting seems to symbolize futility. The colorful clouds are unattainable dreams. The billiard table, like life, is rigged against us.

Man Ray, 1890-1976
La Fortune, 1938
Contemporary with paintings about the American scene, what it looked like and what it meant, there was art that moved away from subject matter as such and toward abstraction and a preoccupation with form.

Marsden Hartley painted his way through a wide array of styles. During a period when he was living in Germany, he became fascinated by the regalia of the German military, and he painted bold, emblematic abstractions.

Marsden Hartley, 1877-1943
Painting, Number 5, 1914-15

Stuart Davis, another student of Robert Henri, tied his images to the real world, but flattened and simplified them into an abstract pattern.

Stuart Davis, 1892-1964
House and Street, 1931

Stanton Macdonald-Wright was born in Virginia, but he and his bride moved to Paris when he was 17 so that he could immerse himself in European art. There, he and Morgan Russell innovated an abstract, color-based mode of painting called Synchromism. This painting is dominated by a circular pattern of colored beams, with a bright turquoise light near the center; but as you stare longer, figures emerge. The artist has said there are four figures, huddled around an opium pipe.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright, 1890-1973
Oriental - Synchromy in Blue-Green, 1918

Who knew that the maverick poet E. E. Cummings was just as serious about painting as he was about poetry? In his twenties he studied art in Paris, and painted "thousands of abstractions." This is considered one of his best works; it has remarkable movement toward and away from the viewer. Eventually, Cummings' literary success pulled him away from painting.

E. E. Cummings, 1894-1962
Noise Number 13, 1925

Jumping ahead to the middle of the 20th century: artists got interested in paint itself and what they could do with it, and they experimented with different modes of application. There was interest in creating a painting that had intrinsic value, like the pattern of bark on a tree. Jackson Pollack, a student of Thomas Hart Benton, came up with the idea of dripping paint onto a canvas tacked to the floor. He walked around the canvas, bent over, flinging house-paint from a bucket with a stick or a brush in movements that engaged his whole body. And though it sounds wild and crazy, if you look at the painting below for awhile, you'll see that the colors come from a narrow palette and they are harmoniously interlaced, while the drips themselves are long and narrow and highly controlled.

Jackson Pollock, 1912-1956
Number 27, 1950, 1950

Pollock's contemporary, Dutch immigrant Willem de Kooning, had a similar interest in paint for its own sake and an inclination toward abstraction. For me, a sloppy, simplistic looking painting like the one below is hard to like, but something about it holds my attention. The dark blotch in the center is like a dark doorway, the yellow strokes above it seem to be much closer to the viewer, and the pink areas on the right budge right into our space; its remarkable that de Kooning could get a tunnel effect with so few strokes and so little nuance of color.

Willem de Kooning, 1904-1997
Door to the River, 1960

From the beginning of his career, Roy Lichtenstein took the comic book as his basic inspiration; in particular, the dark outlines of figures and the dots of color used by the printing process of his day. In the Ben-Day process, four colors are applied in dots of the same size, spaced wider or denser as needed; the results are smooth at a distance, but the dots are visible with a magnifying glass. Whatever movement was going on in art, Lichtenstein tried it out with his comic-book technique. Here he used it to gently poke fun at the self-consciously spontaneous brushstrokes of a painting like de Kooning's.

Roy Lichtenstein, 1923-1997
Little Big Painting, 1965

In the 1950s there arose a very strong interest in Minimalism in American Painting. The idea was to use only a small number of aesthetic features at one time—to reduce the number of colors and shapes needed to express a concept. In the painting below, because its title is Atlantic, the shapes made me think of waves. It turns out, however, that they are derived from shadows cast across the pages of a book. The facing pages and the central fold are indicated by the painting's two-part structure, but the dark shadows are reversed to be white shapes on a black page.

Ellsworth Kelly, b. 1923
Atlantic, 1956

Minimalism soon segued into conceptualism. What was important was not the paint or the canvas or even the effort of the painter, but the idea behind the painting. If the artist can accurately express his idea in words, application of paint can be done by other trained artists. It was Sol LeWitt who made the most successful use of this approach. He wrote instructions for large scale murals that he called "Wall Drawings." The plans could be adapted to spaces of different sizes and applied to the wall by others. In the drawing below, of which I got only a small detail, he detailed the plan in the title.

Sol LeWitt, 1928-2007
4th wall: 24 lines from the center,
12 lines from the midpoint of each of the sides,
12 lines from each corner

After all this analysis and experimentation, some artists began to long for subjects, but instead of looking at the real world, they were fascinated by symbols as presented by billboards and advertisements. This trend was called Pop Art. Jasper Johns created new images composed of conventional symbols painted in an unconventional manner. He made the art world look at the American flag anew by painting it with encaustic, which is a mixture of pigment suspended in warm wax that congeals as each stroke is applied. This continues the reverence for the individual brushstroke of the abstract expressionists.

Jasper Johns, b. 1930
Three Flags, 1958

The painting below, by Tom Wesselmann, looks like a collage of billboard images. It's like an ad for a typical American lunch for a worker of that era.

Tom Wesselmann, 1931-2004
Still Life Number 36, 1964

Jean-Michel Basquiat got interested in street art and adapted a graffiti style. The title of the painting below is misleading. It calls out not just Hollywood Africans, but all sorts of deceptions and dead-ends.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1960-1988
Hollywood Africans, 1983

Even artists who clung to subjects and objects in the real world were influenced by contemporary art trends. In this painting, Wayne Thiebaud uses the richness of paint itself to depict luscious looking pastries, but he arranges them like a geometric abstraction; moreover, an image of food in a display case fits right in with Pop Art as well.

Wayne Thiebaud, b. 1920
Pie Counter, 1963

Alex Katz painted mostly portraits, but he flattened and stylized the depictions like billboards.

Alex Katz, b. 1927
The Red Smile, 1963

During the 1960s several artists took an interest in photography. Robert Bechtle generally painted enlarged, literal versions of snapshots, imitating the look of film with paint. Cars and the neighborhoods where they live were a frequent subject. This painting is named for a '61 Pontiac, but the real subject is the way of life that car supported. Being a station wagon, it was the right car for a young family. This was Bechtle's own car and family. I suppose he used a timer to take the selfie.

Robert Bechtle, b. 1932
’61 Pontiac, 1968-69

Chuck Close also works from photos. During the first phase of his career, he started with a carefully composed photographic portrait on black and white film. In the following example, he used special kinds of pencils to enlarge the portrait to nine feet tall, while retaining the seamless look of a photograph.

Chuck Close, b. 1940
Phil, 1969

Sculpture in the 20th Century

The best known sculptor of the 20th century was Alexander Calder, and deservedly so. Nowadays we take mobiles for granted—babies have them over their cribs—but it took a great leap of imagination to think of hanging a sculpture from the ceiling and enabling its parts to respond to air currents.

Alexander Calder, 1898-1976
Hanging Spider, c. 1940

Although his innovations were important, Calder seems to have spent his entire life playing around. His art seems to assert that having fun is enough. This is symbolized by his circus. Calder could fashion all sorts of figures and equipment with wire. For several years he worked on a wire circus; he would carry it to parties, unpack it, and proceed to give a little show in which he moved the figures around himself, like a kid playing with a toy train. The Whitney is the custodian of this idiosyncratic relic.

Alexander Calder, 1898-1976
Calder’s Circus, 1926-1931

Figurative sculpture was generally considered old-fashioned, but George Segal made it relevant by depicting familiar scenes. To make the sculpture below, he used plaster-soaked medical bandages, which he wrapped right onto real people's clothes, faces, and bodies. Thus, the figures have unique shapes and postures, but the lack of color gives them an anonymous, archetypal quality. His characters seem isolated and stressed out. Segal thought that people walking around the cities seemed hypnotized.

George Segal, 1924-2000
Walk, Don’t Walk, 1976

Claes Oldenburg, a Swedish immigrant, has used basically one gimmick throughout his career, and it always works. He renders an ordinary object in an extra-large size and inappropriate materials. One of his early works was a stuffed electric room fan; its puffy blades flopped limply. In the following example he depicts an ashtray full of urethane-foam cigarette butts. It effectively conveys the revulsion most people feel toward the smelly mess associated with smoking.

Claes Oldenburg, b. 1929
Giant Fagends, 1967

Mark di Suvero was born in Hong Kong of an Italian family, but he immigrated to San Francisco at the outbreak of World War II. For their bold gestures and experimentation with scraps of wood and metal, di Suvero's sculptures may be compared to abstract expressionist painting. The game for him was to make an arrangement of found elements that would keep its balance. He is said to have pioneered the crane as a sculptor's working tool. Recently San Francisco hosted a parade of his lumbering sculptures on Chrissy Field, looking like a cross between construction cranes and dinosaurs.

Mark di Suvero, b. 1933
Hankchampion, 1960

Minimalism had a huge impact on American sculpture. In this early work by Richard Serra, he was concerned only with illustrating the verb "to prop." The wall is propping up the tube, and the tube props up the square sheet of lead. The whole situation is precarious.

Richard Serra, b. 1938
Prop, 1968

Donald Judd was perhaps the most dedicated minimalist of all, frequently working with just one shape. He gives that shape importance by repetition, presenting a certain form in a series. Sometimes he added interest by using some highly refined finish. The work below is so appealing that I wanted to crawl through the open space like a kid.

Donald Judd, 1928-1994
Untitled, 1966

Nam June Paik was born in Korea and educated in Japan. His first interest was music history, which he studied in Germany. He was 32 years old when he came to the U.S. Somehow his interest in music led to an interest in synthesizers and then to televisions in which he controlled the patterns. Most of his work features one or more old TV sets. He is said to have invented video art, but I might point out that his preoccupation with TV parallels the interest of pop artists in billboard advertising.

Nam June Paik, 1932-2006
V-yramid, 1982


Thanks to the generosity, the good taste and the inspiration of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an art collector with an artist's insight, the Whitney Museum of Art has a definitive collection of American art of the first half of the 20th century, and a representative group from the following few decades. It was great to see so much of it on display for their opening exhibit, "America is Hard to See." This show was the main reason we stopped in New York on our way to Europe, and it was rewarding.

The new building by Renzo Piano is quite functional. It's true that it is lacking in fine materials and finesse, but I think it would have been rude to erect a temple of art in a neighborhood that recently housed the meat-packing business. Instead of being an intrusive monolith, the building is a collection of familiar and functional units; it is welcoming to folks stopping in after work. It is not pretentious; it is just a place to show art.

We enjoyed a gourmet lunch at their trendy café, called "Untitled," and late in the afternoon, we sipped a latte on one of the terraces and enjoyed the sunset. 

Gourmet chicken salad at "Untitled."