After about the 30th painting, my eyes were going cross-eyed, and any comprehension was questionable. Reading the artists’ notes, peering into the artwork, contemplating the exhibits, one gets a bit weary. And, I’d only gone through two of the Whitney’s massive seven floor art collection. What was I to do, especially since every art piece was just as fascinating as the previous one.
The Whitney Museum, located between the High Line and the Hudson River on Gansevoort Street is an elegant and shiny building with an open rooftop for dining and city-viewing. Opened in 2015, this new entry in the organization’s list of museums is kind of its fourth. The first one, opened in 1914, was located in Greenwich Village, founded by heiress and sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was a descendent of the railroad tycoon, Cornelius Vanderbilt. A friend of the living American artist, Whitney wanted to exhibit their works. Over time, she amassed over 500 works and after the Met refused her offer of the collection, she founded her first official museum: The Whitney Museum of American Art on West 8th Street, again, in Greenwich Village. Another museum came in 1954 (West 54th Street), then another in 1963 (Madison Avenue), and now its newest in the trendy Meatpacking District. Whitney’s plan was to advocate for twentieth century artists who were unable to show their works, and thus became their greatest champion; Whitney died in 1942.
Because it offers, as the website says, ““the only continuous series of exhibitions in the country to survey recent developments in American art,” I wanted to make sure I left a little more informed about just one American artist I’d never heard of. So, with the museum’s summer late night hours, I took the 8 p.m. tour given by Elizabeth, one of their Fine Arts teaching fellows.
We gathered near the elevators on the fifth floor, and as Elizabeth explained, the focus of this tour would be on one artist, Stuart Davis (1892-1964). After a clever opening (“Raise your hand if you came in here for the air conditioning”) Elizabeth provided a forty-five-minute explanation into the mind and talent of an important contributor to American art. Rather than read the label beside the work and walking on as I had done already, this tour was eye-opening, entertaining, informative, and made the visit all the more memorable. As we stood next to one of Davis’ most important work, we learned his intentions in relation to what was going on in that period in art and in our culture, and who inspired him.
The one piece she examined, “Lucky Strike” (1921), was a culmination of Davis’ time in Europe, suppored by a generous stipend from Whitney. What Davis did was take a typical American object, the Lucky Strike cigarette package – a favorite among WWI soldiers — and create a style which came to be called “Americanized Cubist.” His took something from our everyday life, and put his abstract spin on it. Another work, “Super Table” (1924), combines abstract with still life.
A day at the Whitney is a great way to spend the afternoon. Learn a little bit more about American art, enjoy a bite or beverage in one of its two restaurants, and savor the panoramic views from the roof. Throughout the rest of the Whitney, visitors can enjoy in total, seven floors of art pieces, photographs, 3D works, and even art films in the third floor theatre.
Visit whitney.org for exhibit information, ticket information, directions, and special summer hours (til 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the rest of August); on Fridays from 7 – 10 p.m. is a “pay as you wish” option.
Photo credit: Stuart Davis (1892–1964), Lucky Strike, 1924. Oil on paperboard, 18 x 24 in. (45.6 x 60.9 cm). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. © Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photograph by Cathy Carver