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Whitney Museum of American Art
May 1–September 27, 2015

It is impossible to separate out the new Whitney Museum from its inaugural show. So marking is Renzo Piano’s fierce building on the canvas of New York that it presents both as a freestanding artwork and a frame for the art it contains. The inaugural show, titled from a Robert Frost poem, is a palate-cleanser between the Jeff Koons blowout farewell to the Marcel Breuer–designed building uptown and the upcoming Frank Stella retrospective this fall. On view are roughly six hundred of the twenty-two thousand works in the museum’s collection, by more than four hundred artists, which illustrate the nation’s narrative over the past one hundred twenty years. “Nation” is loosely interpreted, given that (apart from a directorial decision in the 1970s and ‘80s to exclude those born elsewhere) the artists’ birthplace has been held irrelevant to a career that was formed here; and yet, not loosely enough, given the virtual shutout of Latin America, and even—with the exception of sculpture by Jimmie Durham and Nancy Prophet—of Native America.

Awash in light, floated on wide pine flooring and white walls, cantilevered out to mega-foot sculpture galleries, and connected umbilically by stairs indoors and out, the art looks terrific. With all its big guns lined up—there’s Bellows! O’Keeffe! Hopper! Bourgeois!—the show could have sunk under the weight of its commitment to be a review of the Whitney’s history, but, billed as a gourmet tasting of more treats to come, it’s as frisky and promising as a pedigreed colt let out for its first full-length run. To give shape to what might otherwise run away, the selected works have been separated into galleries themed by concerns of the day, each taking its title from a work on display. Some, like “Raw War” are self-explanatory, while others, like “Scotch Tape” are more obscure, but all
are selected and arranged to give pause. It was brilliant to take Calder’s beloved Circus (1926–31) out of context and regroup it with works by Paul Cadmus, Charles Demuth, and Weegee, which all reference entertainment; less clear is why Andy Warhol’s looming canvas of Coke bottles is positioned to dwarf Jasper Johns’s iconic Three Flags (1958). Some questions are answered, some not.

To follow the overarching narrative, borrow the thoughtful multimedia guide (the one for children is delightful) and begin on the eighth floor. The opening gambit, a pair of throbbing Marsden Hartley paintings that shoot him to the top of artists dropped from the pantheon, augurs well for curatorial sophistication. Suspended between reassur- ance and surprise by shrewd juxtaposition and selection, one moves chronologically through the conceits of prairie, cowboy, assembly line, and road trip; the concerns of expansion, industry, labor, suburbia, racism, capitalism, and the AIDS crisis; and the stylis- tic expression, refutation, and invention that collectively form the American experience. The Whitney has never shied from strong material and here strength delivers. There are wrenching takes on poverty; there’s a powerful wall of works on paper addressing heinous injustice; a Nan Goldin slideshow plumbing social identity; and—rendering the neighboring Koons vacuum cleaners oddly anodyne—the response to mass culture of Nam June Paik’s pounding televisions.

Unexpectedly for a teaching exhibition, the show’s aura is joyous. Even the most restrained installations exhilarate—I challenge any coming across the pristine grouping of Ad Reinhardt, Jo Baer, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, John McLaughlin, and Frank Stella to think Minimalism slows the pulse—and when they fly, as with the vast atrium given over to masterworks of Abstract Expressionism, they knock you out of the ballpark. It’s not just their size and fame; it’s how Rothko throbs alongside Kline, how Kline thrusts out to the light, how Di Suvero unfolds like the gate to a temple, and how Lee Krasner, given her own wall, rules over her husband (“Give me five!” you can hear Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney crowing), who is represented by a far smaller canvas, hung across from hers, and vertically, as if in her shadow.

The Whitney’s oft-criticized predilection for shaking things up is played out here with welcome surprises; how many are familiar with artists like James Daugherty and Agnes Pelton? And who knew that E. E. Cummings was a painter? There are startling pairings, like a sculpted limb placed next to a pretty pastel, both by Robert Gober. And subtle enactments of the museum’s mission statements: it cannot be coincidental that the work of three powerful women artists—Lee Bontecou’s vulcan orifice, Jay DeFeo’s obsessive wall encrustation, and Louise Nevelson’s massive montage—converse here together; that a security guard stands next to an installation by Fred Wilson (himself once a security guard) that comments on their anonymous presence; or that a neon piece by Glenn Ligon spelling “America” backward riffs on the show put on by Whitney interns in 1973 (the last such experiment) titled Muesum.

Most successful is the exhibition’s conclusion that the melting pot that has generated the art of these United States has produced work that shares no DNA apart from the one characteristic that can be fairly ascribed to America, namely, an overarching compulsion to push the envelope, to make “radical” itself the most compelling investigation, even should it veer, as with the work of Elaine Sturtevant, to stealing the hallowed identity of an original fake, as she did by making, in 1967, Oldenburg’s Store her own Store, faking the fake, to create one of the most radical ideas in the authentic vernacular of American art.