To pomp and protests, the Whitney Museum of American Art has relocated from the Upper East Side to an area that some real-estate geometricians call Chelsea, others the meatpacking district, and still others Greenwich Village. The museum’s own website claims the new building “engages the Whitney directly with the bustling community of artists, galleries, educators, entrepreneurs, and residents” in all three neighborhoods. But surely that’s limiting. “It’s nice to have the art a little bit closer,” NoLITa resident Dakota Fanning told Forbes at the museum’s “opening night party” on Friday. We at Back Issues must have misplaced the invitation, but we’ll try to get over it: For us and the rest of the public (i.e., those with $22 and some time to spare), the Whitney’s new building, designed by Renzo Piano, opens this Friday, May 1.
The Whitney Museum grew out of a private collection maintained by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor, patroness, and society dame. When the first location opened in 1931 in a space created by the conversion of three brownstones on West 8th Street, The Nation’s art critic Paul Rosenfeld—one of the most influential tastemakers of his era—reviewed it in his column, focusing more on the collection than on the building.
He wasn’t impressed. “Dismally enough, it appears very possible that only the grace of the gods can prevent the new institution from recoiling upon the prestige of the American art it proposes to enhance.”
The collection, Rosenfeld continued, was “puny and gray. Few forces, few personalities radiate from the walls. One passes yards of uncreative canvases. The impression of American painting left is extremely disaffecting: that of a matter devoid of large life, of individual charm, of eloquence; and provincial and secondary to a degree.”
Not only did the paltry Whitney collection diminish the vitality of American art, Rosenfeld suggested, it might actually serve to stifle what excitement did already exist:
It will be asked what the reasons for one’s fear that the Whitney Museum may prove a boomerang to American art, actually are? The answer is that it is very likely that in pretending to represent American art and actually misrepresenting it the museum may deprive American art of the confidence of the artistic public—at a moment when the prestige rightfully American art’s, and fought for during may years, is on the verge of holding its ground…. At this moment, then, the Whitney Museum plays into the hands of the picture dealers, who batten on the kind of snobbery which sees in all French things symbols of transcendent value, the apparently conclusive proof that American painting is a second-rate affair. The publicity obtained for the museum assures it of a wide influence. It is now the place where the outsider in New York will come to gauge the quality of American painting, and where the Europeans will come to investigate the reality of its claims. And it is scarcely to be supposed that those who do not turn aside to smile will remain to pray. Nor is it to be supposed that the large public will understand the decorativeness of the gesture which offered it this museum. It will see what the President and Al Smith [they had attended its opening] and all the rest have helped to persuade it to see: a large, disinterested, and devoted gift to art and America. For this reason, then, one could almost wish that the Whitney Museum had never opened its pompous doors.