Magazine | June 1, 2015, Issue

The Woeful Whitney

About a decade ago, Time magazine (remember Time?) voted the Genoese-born starchitect Renzo Piano one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He’s won every architectural award possible, including, in 1998, the Pritzker Prize, the top pop. He calls his company a “building workshop,” but “factory” might be a more appropriate term for the tireless multinational enterprise that disgorges buildings the way an assembly line disgorges automobiles. Piano was first catapulted to celebrity — fame is something different — in the late 1970s for his part in Centre Georges Pompidou, the art edifice in Paris whose notable innovation was to put the building’s insides on its outside. It’s a hideous structure, horrendously difficult and expensive to maintain, but it garnered enough publicity to ensure that irresponsible museum directors the world over would clamor for Piano’s services.

A few years ago, Piano defaced the Morgan Library in New York with a truly ugly addition, and he has performed similar courtesies for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the Fogg at Harvard, and the High Museum in Atlanta. His latest act of architectural vandalism is the new Whitney Museum of American Art on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District of New York City, between the High Line and the Hudson River. Until a few years ago, this neighborhood was populated at night by creatures deeply “confused about their sexuality.” Huge infusions of cash have rendered that species of psychopathology less flagrant, but the insertion of the Whitney Museum ensures that the budget of perversity in the neighborhood will remain high.

In April, a few days before the nation’s school-lunch czar, Michelle Obama, lent her distinctive luster to the gluten-free opening of the Whitney, I had occasion to stroll through the building with an architect friend during a press preview. In years gone by, I attended many such jamborees. I go to fewer these days, and I was surprised by the size of the throng assembled in the hangar-like ground floor of the museum that morning. There were many hundreds milling about waiting for some honeyed words from the great architect who had just gobbled up nearly half a billion dollars in exchange for this eight-storey monstrosity. The atmosphere in the room was festive, impatient, self-conscious. “This is a happening event — isn’t it?” was one unasked question. “We’re important — aren’t we?” was another.

My friend and I gave the presentation a miss and headed up to the top of the building, where America Is Hard to See, the Whitney’s inaugural exhibition — more than 600 works by some 400 artists, all drawn from the vast repository that is the Whitney collection — began.

The first thing that attracted my notice was the flooring. Throughout the exhibition space, the floors are seven-inch unfinished pine. “Does Renzo Piano have a brother in the lumber business?” I wondered. In a high-traffic space like an art museum, the floors take a beating. The Whitney’s floors will be trashed in no time. The museum folks know this, however, for I was told that they have tucked in loads of spare planks against the evil day — it will be along soon! — when the floors need to be replaced.

“What is essential in a work of architecture,” Immanuel Kant once observed, “is the product’s adequacy for a certain use.” I wish that Renzo Piano had attended to this simple but important injunction. He has not. The Whitney Museum, like so much else he has produced, is conspicuous for two things: 1) anonymous, convention-hall space combined with a shocking lack of attention to detail and 2) shoddy workmanship. The façade of the new Whitney is clad in whitish gray enamel-covered steel intersected with a huge block of concrete through its midriff. The steel will begin rusting in a few years (does he have a cousin in the steel-plate business?). The massive concrete is already cracking and showing signs of deterioration. (It is curious that Piano doesn’t do better with concrete: He worked with Louis Kahn, a master of that material, in the 1960s.)

The lack of attention to detail is systemic. What a pleasure it is to walk into a building in which the architect has lavished thoughtfulness upon every aspect of the structure, from its siting and the quality of the materials to the shape of the rooms and their ornamentation and workmanship. The guide of good architecture is the human body. You know instantly whether a room is well or ill proportioned, whether its detailing is carefully thought through, whether the structure is a fitting and pleasant abode for the human spirit. The new Whitney is conspicuous for its thoughtlessness. It was not designed so much as it was assembled or agglomerated. The many outdoor patios and cantilevered “plazas” have a bleak institutional feel, more suitable to a correctional facility or a fantasy by Piranesi than an art museum. (Piano’s press release says they function as a “decompression chamber between street and museum,” In fact, as one wit observed, they really function as invitations to suicide by jumping.)

There is one attractive aspect, or prospect, attending the new Whitney, but it’s God’s work, not Piano’s. I mean the views of the Hudson River that the building commands. They are spectacular. They are best seen not from the vertiginous outside spaces but from the corridor-like spaces on several floors that are segregated from the exhibition spaces by a partition. Stand with your back to the partition and gaze out through the huge windows and from certain spots you can see neither the building nor its contents, a double blessing.

An art museum is by definition a repository for works of art, and the significance of Piano’s new Whitney cannot be understood apart from the objects and activities it was fabricated (“designed” is too strong a word) to contain. The ghastly truth is that when one considers what the Whitney is all about, Piano’s building can be seen to have a certain perverse appropriateness. The institution is called “The Whitney Museum of American Art,” but it would be better called “The Whitney Museum of Pretentious Garbage Masquerading as Art.” Like so many art museums these days, especially those art museums devoted mostly or entirely to contemporary art, the Whitney is concerned only incidentally with art in any traditional sense. The origins of the Whitney date back to the 1930s, but by the time it arrived on Madison Avenue in Marcel Breuer’s neo-totalitarian cube, the place of the Whitney in the metabolism of the art world was already shifting. In 1966, when the Whitney opened its doors on Madison, the collection numbered some 2,000. Now, God help us, the collection is somewhere north of 21,000 objects.

The Whitney has some good art. Almost all of it dates to before 1950. And the nearer one approaches to the present day, the more absurd, politicized, pretentious, inane, and pathological it becomes. Item: Self Portrait/Cutting, by Catherine Opie, a color photograph of the naked back of Miss Opie. The “cutting” in question is scalpel-incised bleeding stick figures of two women holding hands along with a house and a cloud. The photograph, a wall label helpfully explains, depicts Opie’s “dream for a lesbian domestic relationship,” but the “fresh wounds suggest ‘the contradictions within that wish.’”

Of the more than 600 objects on view in this inaugural show, I’d estimate 580 are on the level of Opie’s sad feat of exhibitionism. Consider Untitled, by David Hammons. The list of ingredients tells you all you need to know: “Human hair, wire, polyester film, sledge hammer, plastic beads, string, metal food tin, panty hose, leather, tea bags, and feathers.” Now multiply that by 580.

This is not art. It is the end of art. Rather, it is the end of the art world’s enfranchisement as the guardians and transmitters of art. The Whitney, like most major cultural institutions today, serves to mock, undermine, and besmirch the culture it was created to cherish. The Whitney, again like most museums today, poaches on the prestige of art to purvey a species of anti-art fueled partly by money, partly by snobbery. In this sense, the gigantic, expensive failure that is Renzo Piano’s new building is paradoxically a success, for it is the perfect objective correlative of the pretentious confect of art-world snobbery, lavish though pointless expenditure, and aesthetic nullity it was created to encompass. The irony is that there is a vibrant and growing artistic culture in this country. It lives on in the old way, in out-of-the-way ateliers, studios, and schools, where the spirit, traditions, and techniques of the masters are passed down from teacher to student. But you won’t catch any glimpses of that at the Whitney. They’re too busy heralding the latest art-world poseur and fundraising celebrity event to look in on the real life of American art.

Mr. Kimball is the editor of The New Criterion. His most recent book is The Fortunes of Permanence.

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