The old Whitney haunts the new one, as if the chalky skeleton of Breuer’s concrete dinosaur had been encased in a carapace of glass and steel. The shiny replacement, designed by Renzo Piano, is as ugly as its predecessor, which is reassuring in a way.

Instead of grasping at easy elegance, the architect wants his design to mean something. The building (see Edwin Heathcote’s article below) clings like a bionic barnacle to the edge of the High Line elevated park, absorbing the city’s energy; at the same time, it opens on to the Hudson River and the nation’s western expanse. The trouble is that Piano has produced a lumpy mash of metaphors: a cruise ship crossed with a factory, promising both movement and efficiency. In truth, it’s really an inert vault for increasingly expensive commodities, more bank than machine.

With its crisp angles and smooth, reflective surfaces, the Whitney shares its DNA with the glass towers sprouting up all over Manhattan, built to gratify the same gazillionaires who can afford a de Kooning, a Koons, or any of the other pricey masterworks that are still acclimating to their new digs. Chelsea is the capital of the art-world bubble, and the Whitney’s new glass bubble has just become the capital of Chelsea, proclaiming a future fuelled by money.

What the new building offers, in addition to more space, is views. Its profusion of windows, including several immense glass walls, practically commands visitors to drift toward the edges. We are ceaselessly drawn to halos of light, to greenhouse-like hallways, to terraces and cafés and couches bathed in sun. The seductions of Manhattan spread out all around. Though the outside looks bulky and protuberant, the interior has a Cartesian logic that allows visitors to orient themselves in the city and navigate by the stars in the New York skyline.

The old Whitney offered no such comforts or temptations. An assemblage of square concrete boxes stacked like an upside-down ziggurat, it related warily to the outside world. Small apertures in the façade were pitched at odd angles or in corners. The staircase was a dark vertical corridor. Moveable walls divided each floor into labyrinthine passages where you could get thrillingly lost. So, for instance, you might turn a corner and find yourself face to face with Jay DeFeo’s colossal “Rose”. She spent eight years on this 2,300-pound monster, which swelled to block the natural light from her apartment window. It took a forklift, and the partial removal of a wall, to get it out of her house. This study in obsession and claustrophobia needs a small space to fill.

“The Rose” shrivels in the new Whitney’s pellucid vastness. It hangs near one of Lee Bontecou’s huge, hungry orifices and a monumental sculpture by Louise Nevelson, a troika that would make a fierce sisterhood if the airy setting didn’t diminish its effect.

The Whitney opens its doors with America Is Hard to See, for which curators sifted through the entire collection and came up with 600 objects elaborating “the themes, ideas, beliefs and passions that have galvanised American artists in their struggle to work with and against established conventions” — in other words, a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of the Whitney’s mission. As a compendium of greatest hits, the show does its job. As an excavation of unsuspected treasures, or as evidence of the need for $422m of fresh real estate, it fails.

The story breaks into 23 chapters, each named after a work of art that sums up a unifying theme. “New York, NY, 1955,” a mediocre abstraction by Hedda Sterne, introduces the New York School, while the usual suspects populate the rest of the gallery. We get one each by Gorky, Pollock (hung vertically because, hey, why not?), Krasner, Klein, Rothko, Guston and Newman. De Kooning’s “Woman and Bicycle” wouldn’t have missed this party for anything. It’s fun to see the whole gang together again in such handsome surroundings, but that approach also mirrors the habits of international investors who cram their one-of-every-flavour collections with all the right brands.

The curators, led by Donna De Salvo, try to offset these concentrations of prestige by clustering token specimens of obscurity together and withholding wall labels. Instead, plastic bins contain laminated maps that challenge viewers to match the numbers to the art. You want to know who took that photograph? You’re going to have to work for the information. In effect, the museum has created a two-tiered system: masterworks that announce their presence through labels, and less celebrated items such as lithographs of lockouts and lynchings, anti-war posters, and drawings, which viewers have to decode on their own.

Pieces featured in the ‘America Is Hard to See’ exhibition
Pieces featured in the ‘America Is Hard to See’ exhibition © Ronald Amstutz

The last time the Whitney questioned itself so searchingly was in 1999, with An American Century, a delirious two-part survey of its collection, crammed with finds: film of Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, art deco cocktail sets, magazine covers from The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, clips of Valentino and Gloria Swanson, Edward Steichen’s fashion shots, architectural drawings of the Chrysler Building and so on, a thrilling cornucopia of culture, high, low, and in between. That glorious messiness is gone. Though the current exhibition purports to “unsettle assumptions about the American art canon” — has any modern art show ever claimed to be confirming conventional wisdom? — it is actually a carefully edited statement of consensus, as firm as a corporate press release. It’s definitive, rather than open-ended, valuing clarity over multiplicity.

As I marched through these prairies of art, clanked down external stairs and shivered on windswept platforms that seem to have floated away from the High Line, I kept thinking what it might have been like if Piano had modelled his design, not on a loft or a mall, but on Álvaro Siza’s exquisite Galician Contemporary Art Centre in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. There, a winding course leads past sudden openings on to the landscape, around surprising corners, and into unsuspected vaults bathed in light from a hidden source. Siza’s museum helps visitors discover its contents. Piano’s, on the other hand, presents art as an accoutrement of real estate, along with high ceilings, river views and minimalist furniture.

The Whitney closed its old building with a blowout retrospective of Jeff Koons, who reappears here, bestowing his ever-appreciating blessing on the museum’s new home. First, we get his encased vacuum cleaners, ambassadors from the wry early stages of his career. Then, towards the end, comes Adam McEwen’s “Untitled (Jeff)”, a fake newspaper obituary of Koons, whose immortality the Whitney has helped ensure. With the commercial gallery world a few blocks away and all those new maintenance needs to fund, the Whitney seems caught between critiquing the art world and sucking up to it. The new building perfectly embodies that dilemma.

Maybe that’s why an inaugural exhibition that opens with the urban optimism of the Gilded Age ends on an apocalyptic note. The last segment, “Course of Empire,” includes images of the burning World Trade Center and Edward Ruscha’s Blade Runner-like vision of “The Old Tool and Die Building”, emblazoned with Korean and Chinese characters (as if there were something calamitous about the influx of Asians). This ominous finale suggests less concern with society’s implosion, though, than with the truly frightening possibility that the art market’s tulip fever might someday break.

‘America Is Hard to See’, to September 27,

Photograph: Ronald Amstutz/Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation/Andrea Rosen Gallery

Slideshow photographs: Nic Lehoux; Spencer Platt/Getty Images; Brendan McDermid/Reuters; Ronald Amstutz

Faux factory for art on an industrial scale

Weichsel Beef. Murray’s All Natural Chicken. Sausage. Quality Veal Corp. The city of words and fading signs that surrounds the site of the new Whitney Museum is meaty, writes Edwin Heathcote. White trucks back up to the aluminium shutters of the low-slung meat markets, while across the riverside freeway more trucks idle waiting to transport garbage or grit across the city from the to-be-demolished Department of Sanitation.

A few storeys up, another city of symbols describes another landscape — of water-towers, air-handling units and steaming exhaust ducts, of rooftops inhabited ad hoc by residents desperately trying to carve a niche of outdoor space from the density.

The new Whitney Museum, which opened on May 1, is a self-conscious amalgam of all these elements, a post-industrial landmark consolidating a fast-gentrifying quarter where fashion and fine dining now far outstrip any income from trade and the real money is in real estate. It is an attempt to capture the last remnants of an older version of the city before they disappear, to preserve them in architectural memory.

Just as the city’s restaurants are fed by the refrigerated trucks that congregate here, the Whitney is fed by the High Line elevated park, the artery of regeneration that has turned this slice of the West Side into a stage for “starchitects”, a real estate explosion expressed as a cultural phenomenon.

The museum is the end point of the Meatpacking District’s transformation from a market into a machine for cultural consumption. It is ugly, awkward, lumpy. It is also the best building by Genoese architect Renzo Piano for many years. He has built in New York before, the Morgan Library and the New York Times Building, taking on respectively the Manhattan archetypes of robber-baron mansion and skyscraper. The new Whitney is better than either.

The old Whitney (which will be taken over by the Metropolitan Museum of Art) became familiar as the darkly shadowed inverted ziggurat on Madison Avenue. Hungarian-born architect Marcel Breuer’s brilliant building was a determinedly brutal kick to Uptown’s upscale parts, a building which subverts New York’s Aztec-stepped Deco skyscrapers by starting skinny and flaring upwards. It smashes the streetscape, a stone-clad castle complete with drawbridge and moat, a kink in the urban fabric. Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, it was an introverted building, disdaining the form of the city, a difficult act to follow.

The Whitney’s roof terrace
The Whitney’s roof terrace

In response, Piano has created something odd. He has eschewed his usual delicate transparency to create a building that from some angles looks like an industrial monolith, from others more like a massive photocopier or a private hospital. The $422m structure revels in the industrial language it is replacing, but that language has been colonised by art; the huge steel factory elevators; the massive loading bays, the rooftop array of air-conditioning. This is a home for American Art. Big art for a big country. Art on an industrial scale. And this is the building to accommodate it: a faux factory in which consumption of culture replaces production of goods.

Piano’s building is very much about its city. Its open glass lobby presents itself as an extension of the street, its steel gantries and stairs evoking the city’s iron fire escapes. More than anything, it is a building with expansive views across the Hudson and the bristling skyline. Its biggest space, the stunning Floor 5 gallery, is like a supersized container, open at either end, sucking the cityscape in. It yearns for the sparkle of the water and the shimmer of the skyline; even the finest art here is upstaged by the view.

The lofty ceiling is characterised by a theatrical open grid, more backstage than gallery. The reclaimed industrial timber floors keep the interior from getting too precious. Best of all is the vertical sequence of sculpture gardens, terraces and cafés that allow the visitor to explore the building from the outside, modulating the city through art, framing the water tanks through sculpture.

On the walls is plenty of evidence of American artists having been seduced by the unselfconscious forms of industrial and agricultural engineering: barns and grain silos, factories, chimneys and bridges, the elements that infuse the architecture. Ralston Crawford, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Elsie Driggs, Louis Lazowick, Charles Sheeler — Piano has clearly studied the art as well as the city, the lumpy over-engineering of the High Line, the filigree layering of the fire escapes, the corrugated tin sheds on the piers, the dead flatness of the cold stores and the shuttered warehouses.

What he has not done is create a building that is easily characterised. This is no waterside Sydney Opera House or Bilbao Guggenheim. There is no defining view or image, instead it is elusive and looks different from every angle, with none of the confident stridency of Breuer’s building. That mid-century arrogance has disappeared to be replaced by something less certain, less tangible, a building that refers to local language but doesn’t propose its own.

Simultaneously massive, modest and slippery, it is more practical housing than it is a landmark. Piano is too smooth to quite create a real industrial architecture. The details are too precise, the surfaces too perfect; this is the expensive industrial chic of the oversized domestic stainless-steel fridge rather than the pared-down functionalism of the factory.

It is also, undoubtedly, a very fine building for art. A persistent awareness of the city in the background and the permeability of the inside/outside terraces and sculpture gardens make it easy to navigate and give the visitor moments of urban relief from the collection. The light is even and excellent, the top floor skylit galleries gently glow.

Architects always claim to have designed their building from the inside out. They almost never do. Here, Piano has. The building has no single defining image because it is made of a series of spaces pressed together to work well as a museum, not as a logo. And it works. Meat is packing up. The industry of New York is now art.

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