Museum Musings: At the Whitney

Visitors move among the galleries at the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Photo by Benjamin Long)

During a recent tour of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Benjamin Long and Ruth Ostrow explored the meaning of two iconic paintings that offer insight into New York society.

A Bold Fashion Statement

By Benjamin Long

 “This is Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s radicalized pantsuit,” said  Erica Cooke, a doctoral candidate in art history at Princeton University and a teaching fellow at the museum.

Cooke was referring to the painting of Whitney by Robert Henri, an American painter, that shows her reclining nonchalantly on a chaise lounge, resplendent in blues and green.

Robert Henri’s portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art now hangs in its gallery (Photo by Benjamin Long/Courtesy of the Whitney Museum of American Art)

As the story goes, Whitney’s husband Harry Whitney refused to hang the portrait in their Upper East Side apartment because he didn’t want to see his wife sitting so brazenly in such attire. She, on the other hand, didn’t want artwork to be censored by people like her husband who weren’t happy if it veered from social norms, whether that be the clothes depicted or the gender of the artist.

Now the Whitney Museum, founded by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, incorporates many female artists in its 22,000-piece collection.

“It’s clear they make a concerted effort to be super-inclusive,” said Mallory Imler Powell, a writer from Brooklyn who was visiting the Whitney.

Her friend Bronwyn Cumbo, an Australian Ph.D. candidate, agreed, saying, “You notice it, the women whose work hangs on these walls – it’s not just a bunch of men.”

March is National Women’s Month in the United States, but year-round, the Whitney ensures female artists are being showcased in a museum that the Telegraph ranks as one of the top 47 museums in the world.

In a video profile for the Whitney, Flora Miller Biddle  – the honorary chairman of the museum and a previous president (1977-1985) – discusses how she, her mother Flora Whitney Miller and her grandmother Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney affected the museum.

“Artists have always been central to the lives of my grandmother, my mother and myself,” Biddle says. “The Whitney is an idea, not just a building.”

Gloria Vanderbilt Whitney believed American artists were underappreciated and, as such, created the first museum of solely American art. With World War I launching women into the workplace and that, in turn, creating social shifts, women were exposed to situations previously limited to men. So Whitney named Juliana Force as the first director of the museum – putting two women in control, something unheard of at the time in the museum world.

Of the four exhibitions the Whitney is currently hosting, three (Fast Forward: Paintings from the 1980s, Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection and Sibyl Kempson: 12 Shouts to the Ten Forgotten Heavens) are about  feminism, identity and, in the latter, the promotion of a female playwright’s work. The museum’s coming biennial – the longest running survey of contemporary art in the United States – promises to revolve around the “formation of self and the individual’s place in a turbulent society.” Of the 63 artists participating, the majority are women.

The Whitney also hosts, on occasion, the New York Times Feminist Reading Group as well as  Guerrilla Girls, a group of female artists, writers, performers and other arts professionals who fight discrimination through humor, activism and the arts. The group’s merchandise is sold in the museum gift shop. Indeed, a recent post on the Whitney’s Instagram account shows a Guerrilla Girls tea towel listing “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist.”

In its first 10 hours online, the image had gained 6,700 likes. As Biddle says in her video, “Change is always ahead for the Whitney” and with the continued inclusion of up-and-coming artists, Whitney’s pioneering legacy will live on.

Simple View or Complex Message?

By Ruth Ostrow

At first glance, “Tallest Residential Tower in the Western Hemisphere” is a vivid image of a luxury apartment building’s view of a silhouette of New York City. The pale lavender walls of a bathroom frame the entire painting, drawing attention to the bright sunset falling onto the horizon of dark buildings. Inside, a calm bathtub full of water seems to await use.

Leidy’Churchman’s “Tallest Residential Tower in the Western Hemisphere” depicts a penthouse-level view from 432 Park Avenue (Photo by Ruth Ostrow/Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art).

Although the painting, by Leidy Churchman, depicts a simple scene, Cooke, the teaching fellow, describes its imagery as “creepy.” During a tour of the museum, Cooke drew attention to how the piece seems “too perfect” to the point of appearing staged, pointing specifically to its exuberant colors and lack of human presence.

Whitney curators seem to intend that this piece be both a critique and celebration of New York (museum officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment). The demonstrated beauty of the pictured apartment juxtaposed against the skyline suggests themes of growing gentrification within the city by showing aspects of both “high” and “low” living.

According to the painting’s accompanying plaque, Churchman created the painting in 2015 after being inspired by a real estate website. The advertisement featured the view from a 1,396-foot-high luxury condominium at 432 Park Avenue. Though heralded as an engineering feat, the building has been widely criticized for its height – it is the second-tallest building in New York City and actually casts a shadow on Central Park at certain times of day. In some quarters, it is viewed as the physical embodiment of the ultra-rich.

The annual median income of renter households in Manhattan was $61,910 in 2016, the Census Bureau estimates. Apartments at 432 Park Avenue rent for as much as $70,000 a month.

“Tallest Residential Tower in the Western Hemisphere” is a part of the New York Portrait exhibit that opened last April and close on April 2 this year.  The exhibit demonstrates that “the city may serve as a stage for intrepid self-invention or as a backdrop that shapes the dreams and fears of its inhabitants and visitors alike,” the Whitney Museum website says.

All pieces on display, part of the Whitney’s permanent collection, are arranged in one of the museum’s many collapsible rooms, sectioned off from the other examples of portraiture by deep purple walls.

Whitney curators decided this painting fit the definition of a portrait, said Cooke.

Although this painting aims to draw attention to developing issues in the socioeconomic reality within the city’s neighborhoods, casual viewers of the image seem to be largely drawn to its idealistic imagery.

“How I wish the Whitney would let me hop into this painting and chill out for the day to escape the chaos of New York,” one New Yorker, Shayne Hindes, says on her Instagram page.

Nevertheless, curators push the piece as an example of both gentrification and isolation.

“Living in a tall penthouse in New York may be the ultimate luxury,” the museum says in a children’s audio guide. “But here, Churchman suggests that living on top of the world could also be lonely.”