Art of the City

The Whitney’s Final Uptown Hang: Lots of Men and a Few Heartening Surprises

Jeff Koons, Cake, 1995–97.COURTESY THE ARTIST AND THE WHITNEY

Jeff Koons, Cake, 1995–97.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND THE WHITNEY

It’s Tuesday, September 2, the day after Labor Day. The new season is here. Some brave galleries are opening tonight and tomorrow, and Thursday is looking pretty much like pure mayhem. I should have spent a final weekend at the beach, but instead I visited the Whitney’s Jeff Koons show for the sixth or seventh time, and I’m at least happy to report that it once again filled me with more pleasure and anger than any show I’ve seen in years.

As much as I do love the show, this repeat trip was not completely by choice, though it was somewhat my fault. I had out-of-town friends visiting, and I suggested Koons. “It’s required viewing to understand art today!” I told them. I do think that is true, but I was more interested in seeing the Whitney’s new hang of its permanent collection, which went up in mid-July and is the last such iteration before the museum leaves the Upper East Side for its nearly complete new Renzo Piano building in the Meatpacking District. How, I wondered excitedly, would the museum say goodbye?

Andy Warhol, Ethel Scull 36 Times, 1963 COURTESY WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART AND METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

Andy Warhol, Ethel Scull 36 Times, 1963.

COURTESY WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART AND METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART

The answer, it turns out, is with a fairly predictable, but not unsatisfying, display of works by big, mostly male, names—Rothko, Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol (1963’s Ethel Scull 36 Times, which is funnier and sexier every time I see it), Basquiat, Twombly, Oldenburg, and so forth. To emphasize, it is very male. By my count, the men outnumber the women almost 2 to 1, and that’s not even taking into account the small Hopper and Calder exhibitions that are also on view. (By raw work totals, the discrepancy is even worse: of the 82 works on view, just 12 are by women. Meanwhile, there are 14 Ruschas and 11 Mardens.)

Titled “Shaping a Collection: Five Decades of Gifts” (the 1940s through the ‘80s) and organized by Dana Miller, it presents an anecdotal, pretty surface-level glimpse at the museum’s collecting. A label for Barnett Newman’s handsome The Promise (1949), for instance, informs us that it was once owned by Clement Greenberg and that it was donated by Adriana and Robert Mnuchin in 2000. (“Three other works of art have come to the Whitney through their private holdings,” it continues. Good to know, I guess?)

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983COURTESY WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, 1983.

COURTESY WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

The show also looks almost intentionally overhung, as if to say, “You better believe we need this hot new $422 million building!”

The gender imbalance is seriously worrisome (if perhaps an honest reveal of the museum’s historical acquisition record), but it’s hard to get upset about any of those other problems. The Koons retrospective is bringing in the masses, no doubt including many people who don’t often visit museums, so the Whitney may as well deliver some hits, and the donor stroking is more funny that anything else. (Another label shares that the film producer Douglas Cramer bought the very excellent 1983 Basquiat, Hollywood Africans, at Gagosian in 1983 and donated it the next year. Thank you, Mr. Cramer.)

Really I’m just overjoyed because the show has three wonderful little surprises (an elegant hanging coil by Ruth Asawa from 1954, a super loose 1959 painting by Grace Hartigan that prefigures Amy Sillman in some remarkable ways, and an achingly sad Martin Wong painting of a locked storefront from 1984-85) and two big, heartening ones.

Bob Thompson, Triumph of Bacchus, 1964COURTESY WHITNEY MUSEUM

Bob Thompson, Triumph of Bacchus, 1964.

COURTESY WHITNEY MUSEUM

First, the Whitney has tucked into a corner gallery three works by the great Bob Thompson, whose death in 1966 at the age of 28, of a heroin overdose, is one of American art’s great tragedies. His brightly hued outdoor scenes, at once deathly and bacchanalian, and made of solid, flat planes of near-Fauve color, gamely pull everyone from Poussin, Piero, and Ensor into an electric, hallucinogenic present that could also very well be the ancient past. Despite a 1998 Whitney retrospective, we still don’t see enough of him.

The second surprise, and this one is even more gratifying, is a full-gallery installation of Agnes Martin’s 12-painting suite The Islands, which she made in 1979, when she was in her late 60s. It is a masterpiece. Each six-foot-square panel has rectangles of white and light blue with a few thin, horizontal graphite lines. They absorb some of the room’s light, and so it seems like a faint, faint pink is hovering in the air. You will want to spend some time there with them. They’re otherworldly and utterly peaceful—spiritual, even—and I can’t imagine a more perfect antidote to the Koons elixir being offered up on the floors below.

“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.

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