On Friday night the Whitney held an opening for its new building, ending a week of events that fêted the new Renzo Piano-designed space, which opens to the public this week.
The turnout was robust, even though one had to assume that at least half the art world had already visited the museum in the past week. Perhaps they were there to see DJ sets by the likes of Saint Vincent. Or maybe, the opening show, “America is Hard to See,” which features stellar works from the collection, was enough of a draw on its own.
Nearly every one of the spacious new galleries was packed with art-world dons and doyennes (to say nothing of the elevators, where the museum’s chief curator, Donna De Salvo, continued to charm the pants of Don and Mera Rubell despite being within one inch of them), along with a handful of real celebrities.
“A friend of mine showed me a picture of Jay DeFeo’s The Rose the other day,” Solange Knowles said on the fourth floor, “so I had to come and see it.”
On the floor below, three members of the feminist group the Guerrilla Girls mingled near some outsider art. They were dressed in sensible suits and, though they are known for highlighting the dearth of women in such institutions with interventions and humor, they might have been taken for ladies who lunch (the group was formed in 1980s) except for their gorilla masks.
“We’re part of the Whitney collection,” one said, only slightly muffled. “And we love the new building. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep complaining about the Whitney, or museums in general.”
It’s an odd thing to transition from one of the more closed buildings in New York to one of the more open ones but the Whitney managed to pull it off with aplomb, party-wise.
On each floor there was the low hum of collective ooos and ahhhs, though on the fifth-floor terrace, a jumpsuit heavy performance by Tony Conrad and John Cale drowned that out slightly. The top floor featured drinks and smoking, probably far away for those tempted by the Claes Oldenburg ashtray on the fourth.
“It’s beautifully installed,” said Jessica Morgan, the new director of the Dia Art Foundation. “It’s really a pleasure, seeing the collection. I’d probably just be happy if they kept showing the collection for the next few years.”
But it wouldn’t be the Whitney if the museum weren’t a place for ambitious shows by living artists. The painter Walton Ford, whose work is in the Whitney’s collection, said he attended the special preview of the building they’d had for artists earlier in the day and that if everyone is impressed with it now, they should really see it in the afternoon light, as the sun sets over the Hudson. Plus, he said, everyone was very impressed by the building’s simple, open, modular structure.
“I feel like everyone was salivating,” Ford said, planning what they could do. “‘I could build walls HERE and here…’”
“I love how they named this room for that [Joseph] Cornell box over there,” Swiss Institute director Simon Castets said. “Do you know if any other rooms are named for works like that?”
(Actually he was referring to the thematic title of the room for this show, which all come from artworks—Rose Castle, in this case. None of the rooms are named for artists, though one is named for Jasper Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg’s one-year-old grandson.)
Critic Hal Foster was reticent about his early reading of the building. “I haven’t thought enough about it yet,” he said. Was I crazy for thinking it reminded me a lot of the Pompidou Center, which Piano co-designed? Foster thought. “Hmm. That’s a thought. It’s luminous. Open.” (He would not confirm that I was not crazy, though.)
The party went until midnight and things really only started swinging, on the ground floor, around 10. (The bar down there had in fact been closed until 9:30—to encourage exploration of the museum, one imagines. Even Zoe Kravitz couldn’t get a drink!)
The art collector and Whitney trustee Richard Chang said he couldn’t have been more pleased with the new building. He’d followed the construction closely over the years, from the original design to improvisations like flood walls to protect the building in the event of another hurricane like Sandy.
He said he was also thrilled with how the museum’s capital campaign was going, which is a big part of the new building, of course.
Asked if anything surprised him about the building, seeing it in person, he said actually nothing at all did. “That’s what’s so great about being a trustee at the Whitney and having a director like Adam [Weinberg],” he said. “You were never surprised, he kept all of us in the loop step-by-step.”