NEW YORK – It’s one of those dismal, drizzly days on the lower west side of Manhattan.
I’m in New York’s West Village, walking uptown headed to a very special museum.
As I saunter up Washington Street past side-streets with unusual architecturally designed brownstones and cafes – enjoyable sights to tourists and the aficionados of the West Village alike – I begin to feel the surrounding rush of people headed for this new institution.
The streets pass by in a flurry. People familiar with Greenwich Village know them: Bank, West 12th, Jane and Horatio streets. Finally, I reach Gansevoort Street, my destination, the southern boundary of the meatpacking district. I mention “meatpacking,” for a very good reason: This district, known as the Gansevoort Market, still retrains many wholesale meat companies that operate out of warehouses between Gansevoort and West 14th streets, and from the Hudson River east to Hudson Street. And right smack into this dilapidated, commercial meatpacking district, has been constructed one of the most iconic American art museums: the new Whitney Museum of American Art, which opened its headquarters in a vastly expanded, magnificently-designed building at 99 Gansevoort St.
The Whitney is one of the four great museums of New York City, the others being the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim.
No wonder than that the area around the museum is fast becoming one of the city’s fastest growing tourist destinations; just to the north of it stands Chelsea replete with art galleries and, immediately south, is the West Village with its burgeoning injection of cafes and restaurants.
So as soon as one spots the Whitney within walking distance, one finds oneself in one of New York’s fashionable neighborhoods with its “hip restaurants, exclusive clubs and paycheck draining boutiques,” as one observer of the area put it.
As for the boutiques one of the most exciting displays of fashion is that of Yigal Azrouël, an Israeli American, New-York-based fashion designer whose store is located at 408 West. 14th St., near Ninth Avenue. Azrouël was born in Israel to a family of French-Moroccan Jewish roots.
Before entering the museum, I spy another tourist attraction: the High Line, that one-mile-long public park built on an elevated railway of a disused New York Central Railroad spur once called the West Side Line.
The High Line also has become a worthwhile tourist attraction as the 35-foot structure blends plant life with long, narrow planks forming a smooth, seamless walking surface.
Featured on High Line is a viewing platform, sundecks, restaurants and gathering areas used for performances, art exhibitions and educational programs.
Frequent tourists to the Big Apple are abandoning their anxious intrusions into the mobs of pedestrians in Times Square for a walk along the brand-new, final section of the elevated park that curves from 30th to 34th.
And now to this remarkable museum itself. The building, whose architect is Renzo Piano, stands as a sensational eight-story building. Approaching it, I am immediately moved by its four large terraces, three of which are linked by an outdoor space. I thought of the Centre Pompidou museum in Paris – which Piano designed and is considered revolutionary for its complex, high-tech architecture. The Whitney possess steel gratings that seen from the street jut out over the buildings east face like a fire escape or a fragment of an aircraft carrier.
“The building is a lurching aggregate of shapes in striated steel cladding and glass, with outdoor stairways that connect terraces on three floors,” wrote art critic Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker magazine.
The inviting structure contains six floors of galleries, flour open-air terraces, spaces for performances and screenings, a library, reading rooms, a restaurant, a café and a bar on the piazza-like ground floor.
The views from the outdoor terraces are magnificent, the stately Hudson River, the new World Trade Center’s Freedom Tower, Greenwich Village and Lower Manhattan.
The Whitney opened May 1. Thousands of New York art followers view the current exhibition drawn from its extensive holdings of American art, a collection that now numbers more than 22,000 works in all mediums and created by some 3,000 artists.
The first exhibit to be shown is entitled America Is Hard To See, which reexamines the history of art in the US from the beginning of the 20th century to the present.
The title comes from a poem by Robert Frost and a political documentary by Emile de Antonio. “Metaphorically, the title seeks to celebrate the ever-changing perspectives of artists and their capacity to develop visual forms that respond to the culture of the United States,” noted the Whitney Museum Guide.
The greats are here: Andy Warhol, Norman Lewis, Alfonso Ossorio, Hedda Sterne, Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Georgia O’Keefe. I particular enjoyed the showing of Edward Hopper. The Whitney has the largest collection of his art anywhere, including such paintings as Railroad Sunset, and the storefront epiphany Early Sunday Morning. It is said that Hopper is America’s painter laureate; some even say, “our Picasso.”
Another painting that attracts my attention is Florine Stettheimer’s “New York/ Liberty 1918,” showing New York’s City Hall, the city’s bustling harbor and waving US flags. Naturally, American flags are often seen in this exhibit of art in the US. Outstanding is the Jasper Johns, Three Flags: Encaustic on canvas.
This show contains about 600 works by some 400 artists and is divided into 23 sections, representing epochs, ideas and styles.
The Whitney may have a new headquarters, but of course it is not unknown to New Yorkers nor the thousands upon thousands who visited it yearly at its former bastion of art, at 945 Madison Ave. Its founder was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney; her financial means early on supported indigenous artists. In 1914, she opened a building at 8 West 8th St. as a gallery and called it the Whitney Studio. In 1931, she founded the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in buildings on West 8th Street. In 1954, the museum left its original location and moved to a small structure on 54th Street connected to and behind the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street. In 1966, the Whitney Museum opened on East 74th Street and Madison Avenue and became a home for a large collection of American art. They called the building “Marcel Breuer’s (the architect) citadel.”
Construction on the new Whitney began in 2010 and was completed in 2015. Building costs for the 200,000 sq. ft. structure was about $422 million.
So, yes, the new Whitney, which is very visitor friendly, is here to stay and it augurs well for the continued future of art in New York City.Ben G. Frank, travel writer and lecturer, is the author of the just-published “Klara’s Journey, A Novel,” (Marion Street Press); ‘The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond,’ (Globe Pequot Press); ‘A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition;’ ‘A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine,’ and ‘A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America,’ (Pelican Publishing Company) Blog: www.bengfrank.blogspot.com, twitter @bengfran