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Whither the Whitney? Outtakes from My Tour of the New Whitney with Donna De Salvo and Carter Foster

“We’re expecting a very detailed review from you now,” the indispensable Donna De Salvo warned me, with a slight edge to her voice, when we had reached about the midway point of the very extensive tour she gave me (for my Wall Street Journal article) of the Whitney Museum’s expanded, reinterpreted and refreshed installation of its permanent collection.

Chief curator and deputy director Donna De Salvo, taking a breather in front of Jonathan Borofsky's “Running People at 2,616,216" Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Chief curator and deputy director Donna De Salvo, taking a break during my tour, in front of Jonathan Borofsky’s “Running People at 2,616,216″
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I gulped and said nothing, knowing l that the WSJ’s “Arts in Review” page could allow me only about 1,200 words, tops, to evaluate the entire installation (which I greatly admired, with some quibbles), as well as the interior architecture (about which I had some serious reservations).

In the spirit of today’s designation as International Museum Day, let me belatedly to give the Whitney’s chief curator and deputy director more space (albeit in a less widely read forum). Below are excerpts from De Salvo’s own narrative of the Whitney’s new narrative, with interjections by Carter Foster, curator of drawing, who accompanied us on most of the tour.

It was evident from their interactions (and from a cameo appearance at the beginning of my tour by curator Scott Rothkopf) that a warm esprit de corps had developed among the four members of the installation’s core curatorial team (also including Dana Miller, permanent collection curator). They had fun disrupting the canon and making discoveries, while enlisting other curatorial colleagues for their expertise in specific areas (including Barbara Haskell for the section on synesthesia, David Kiehl for prints, Chrissie Iles for film and video).

Visitor's line outside new Whitney, with end of High Line in the background Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Visitors lining up outside the new Whitney (with the end of the High Line behind it)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

One point I’d like to make forcefully at the outset: Sanctimonious critics who have scolded the Whitney for insufficient representation of black and Latino artists are not telling the curators something they don’t already know. As you will hear and see, they have been inspired by their increased gallery space to proactively address this problem through a “diversity initiative” to broaden the museum’s holdings of under-represented groups (also including women).

Also reflecting a commitment to diversity is the decision to launch the special exhibition program (once the initial permanent-collection show comes down) with a retrospective devoted to Archibald Motley (Oct. 2-Jan. 17), a lesser-known Harlem Renaissance artist.

A more intractable problem (as I further discussed here) is diversifying the overwhelmingly white audience (not to mention the curatorial staff).

For now, though, over to Donna and Carter…

On the overriding principles of the installation:

DONNA DE SALVO: [We are] looking very closely at works of art and then deriving the history from them, as opposed to having them fit into a preconceived idea of the history. That said, there are certain moments that are somewhat established within the narrative and are somewhat of a guiding principle. But we didn’t want to get stuck in those categories. That’s part of the reason why each of the [23] sections is named for a work of art.

[We are] doing it in a very cross-media way, so we have paintings, photographs, prints, drawings [combined in the same gallery]. It’s very much the methodology of how we designed the building. There are no designated galleries for photography or works on paper. [As I suggested at the end of my WSJ piece,  I had some reservations about that.]

How can you do “Machine Ornament” [one of the show’s sections] as an expression of Precisionism or industrial landscape without looking at photography? This is what makes it a more richly textured narrative, because it’s much more the way things work:

Some of the photographs in "Machine Ornament," including Toyo Miyatake's 1932 self portrait, center Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Some of the photographs in “Machine Ornament,” including Toyo Miyatake’s 1932 self portrait, center
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On why two paintings by Marsden Hartley were chosen as the signature works at the chronological beginning of the narrative on the top floor:

CARTER FOSTER: Marsden Hartley is widely considered one of the most original artists of this period. He was coming up with his own language and these were two of his strongest works, so we really thought it would be a bang to open it.

DE SALVO: They’re great paintings and we like the idea that they were painted in Germany, because it sets up whole issue of the dialogue of an American artist working there and coming back here. It’s really about challenging the notion of a monolithic idea of American art and about how ideas moved around.

And then the dialect: It’s very distinctly American and it’s influenced by what was going on at this time in Germany. And they have a lot of wall power!

The two Marsden Hartleys that confront visitors coming off the elevator at the beginning of the Whitney's installation Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Two Marsden Hartleys that confront visitors coming off the elevator at the beginning of the Whitney’s installation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On works acquired or brought out of storage in the “diversity initiative”:

DE SALVO: We’ve added some things, as a result of an analysis of the collection. We worked with some outside consultants and we were able to see some areas where we needed to grow the collection and we’re going to continue to do that.

This is a great beginning. If artists aren’t in this display, we will have so many more possibilities of being able to show them. We had scholars we consulted with who were experts in Asian-American art, African-American art, Chicano/Latino art. We worked with outside academics, curators.

You can trace the incredible shifts that took place in U.S. culture and the world by looking through the lens of the artist.

FOSTER: We bought a work by Richmond Barthé shortly after it was made [1933]. It was worked in terracotta but cast in either plaster or bronze, if he could afford it. [The Whitney’s is plaster.] It’s called “African Dancer,” so it’s a synesthetic expression of music.

It has a traditional form: He was deeply interested in classical sculpture and Renaissance sculpture but is grafting that onto African subject matter. It’s a theme that a lot of artists of the Harlem Renaissance were doing—looking back to Africa as a way to counter their history of slavery. They had no connection to Africa but intellectuals were encouraged to look back at Africa.

This is probably a direct nod to a poem by Langston Hughes called “Danse Africaine.” It has been shown, but I don’t know the last time it was shown.

Richmond Barthé, "African Dancer," 1933 (and purchased in 1933) Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Richmond Barthé, “African Dancer,” 1933 (and purchased that year)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

FOSTER: Miguel Covarrubias was a Mexican artist [born and died in Mexico City] who influenced Al Hirschfeld, with whom he shared a studio. He made caricatures for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. When he lived in New York, he was deeply involved in the Harlem nightclub scene, where he befriended a lot of the writers and intellectuals.

This was a new acquisition. He was a name that came up in our diversity initiative, as a Mexican-American artist who is quite well-known. But we didn’t own his work.

He was a seminal artist of the Harlem Renaissance, even though he was a Mexican artist depicting African-Americans.

[The label notes that there are aspects of his images “that are troubling to contemporary eyes. The facial features share some qualities with the stereotyped racist imagery that had pervaded popular culture.”]

Miguel Covarrubias, "Scene: 'The Last Jump,' Caberet on a Saturday Night," 1924 (purchased in 2014) Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Miguel Covarrubias, “Scene: ‘The Last Jump,’ Cabaret on a Saturday Night,” 1924 (purchased in 2014)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

DE SALVO: These woodcuts [of western U.S. landscapes] by Chira Obata were a real discovery. Obata was born in Japan, was in California, was very interested in Yosemite and knew Ansel Adams. Dana Miller really championed this acquisition.

Woodcuts by Chiura Obata, acquired by gift in 2015 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Woodcuts by Chiura Obata (acquired by gift in 2015)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

FOSTER: These were made on site but obviously in this very Japanese ukiyo-e style. They utilized Japanese tradition to make American imagery, so they’re a perfect hybrid.

DE SALVO: The Hedda Sterne in our collection was a bit of a discovery. It was acquired in 1956, and I don’t know when it was last shown. She was the only woman in The Irascibles [the famous photo of seminal Abstract Expressionists].

Hedda Sterne, "New York, N.Y., 1955" Photo by Lee Rosenbaum Hedda Sterne, “New York, N.Y., 1955”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum[/caption]

On making counter-intuitive juxtapositions:

DE SALVO: The new building gave us opportunities to consider different artists and to figure out how to weave them into this idea of different kinds of subjects and approaches—a kind of cut-and-paste aesthetic. Romare Bearden is now in dialogue with Yayoi Kusama.

FOSTER: Both are collages, and both use found material.

DONNA: Both deal with notions of an everyday landscape.

[HmmI still don’t get it.]

Odd couple: Left, Romare Bearden, "Eastern Barn," 1968; Right, Yayoi Kusama, "Air Mail Stickers," 1962 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Odd couple: On left, Romare Bearden, “Eastern Barn,” 1968; Right, Yayoi Kusama, “Air Mail Stickers,” 1962
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

On plans for the future:

DE SALVO: Artists not in this show include Clyfford Still, Milton Avery, Dan Flavin, Elie Nadelman. There are artists we’d love to show and will show, but we thought this was an opportunity to add some other figures. It is not an aesthetic judgement. You can’t do everything. It’s not definitive.

That’s why we called it, “America is Hard to See”: One, you can’t define it. Two, it’s impossible to show it all.

I often joked we could have done an A-to-Z show, with one artist each, and we could have all gone home early. [That in fact, is the organizing principle for the Whitney’s new collection handbook.] But that doesn’t make a visual experience that’s provocative.

What’s great about this is that it’s a great beginning. If artists aren’t in this display, we have so many more possibilities of being able to show them.

an ArtsJournal blog