Inside Out and Outside In
Someone asked me how I felt about Michael Sorkin’s criticism of me in his survey of responses to Renzo Piano’s new building for the Whitney Museum of American Art [“Lost at Sea,” Oct. 19]. I was surprised to be asked, because I didn’t feel very criticized—at least not in comparison with many of the other writers Sorkin mentions. Besides, it seems to me his issue is that people don’t know how to evaluate a building. He’s probably right, in general and about me, but I claim a pass on that one because I am not an architecture critic and would never pretend to be. If I need to criticize a building, I’ll have to wait for Sorkin to teach me how.
However, since he raises the hoary old form/function dichotomy, I’ll admit that I spoke of this building’s function, which I take it is basically to make the art it houses look good. At that, I think, it succeeds very well. Still, but just by the by, I had to express my bemusement at the fact that the Whitney succeeds in making the art inside it look good precisely through neglecting to make its own exterior look very good. Maybe there’s some loss in that—I can still see the point of a museum drawing you toward it through its sheer sense of style, of its giving you a visceral feeling that you’re heading toward something wonderful before you’ve even stepped inside. But I’m not unhappy with a different idea: that of the museum as deferential servant, silent until directly addressed, of the art it presents.
Beyond that, I have only one objection to Sorkin’s treatment of me: I have to insist that I do not ever “riff.” And in this case particularly, I did not riff on Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. I described it (although I’ll admit to wishing my editor had granted me space to analyze it at greater length) and tried to indicate the effect that it had on me, which I found rather interesting: that of making me want not to look at it longer, but to go outside and look around at things at street level. Again, this has to do with the thought of buildings and what’s inside and outside them, though not in the way an architecture critic might think about this.
Although my interest in writing about the new Whitney was primarily in its exhibitions and only secondarily in the building itself, the fact that the structure is a new one, never before seen, made me ponder more than usual the fact—trivial perhaps and yet somehow unavoidable—that most artworks are encountered in buildings. And I was trying to reflect a bit on the fact that, in general, I am very comfortable with this circumstance of encountering artworks “housed,” even despite it being the nature of much contemporary art to direct my attention back to the outside, to the environs, to the at-large, to all that is not contained by the building in which I encounter it. And so I went outside and looked around me with some echo in mind of the art I’d seen.