The New Whitney Museum as Social Network: Musings on Building, Crowd, and Views

Mark standing in front of Chuck Close’s Phil

If art is the lie that tells the truth, then there is something gorgeous about the new Whitney, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of revelation, as if it were related to an intricate algorithm that registers expression ten thousand miles away.

Renzo Piano has long responded to the vital moments when culture declares the inside out and the outside in, the uptown down and the downtown up. Perhaps more than any other architect, he has ably detected the nascent beats of emerging times and interpreted them as frozen music. Unfortunately, truly perceptive feats of association often linger unacclaimed until what has been made finally becomes music to everyone’s ears.

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WHITNEY HATERS GONNA HATE

Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times cleverly covers his paper’s tracks and leaves a trail of pebbles for later day backsies by saying that “buildings take time to reveal their true selves.” Nevertheless, he is determined enough to presently take the stance (presumably from a desk inside a Piano masterpiece) that “the new museum isn’t a masterpiece.”

And that’s nothing compared to what Justin Davidson does. The New York Magazine’s architecture critic slams the Whitney, barely stopping short of suggesting that it should be torn down and that the sanitation department next door should throw this baby out into its Hudson River bathwater.

We’re not exaggerating. Davidson bullies the newborn building. Big time.

He kicks off his scathing review with a swift Red Hook: “There’s nothing seamless about this awkward kit of protruding parts and tilting surfaces, though: The thing might have arrived in an Ikea flat pack and then been prodigiously misassembled.”

WHAT HATERS REALLY HATE IS THE WHITNEY’S POLYMORPHOUS PERMEABILITY

But what appears to anger him most (and, to be fair, many other old school critics who are too timid to say so) is precisely what we find so perceptive in this building: Piano’s sense that, in this mobile and social phase of the digital age, a museum must do more than provide a secluded space for “an intense communion with art.” Through his Whitney, Piano has voiced the position that museums may no longer (query if they ever did) simply serve as sanctified loci for unbroken sequences of successful bidirectional encounters between solemnly spectating subjects and serious aesthetic objects.

Piano plays this theme out with the Whitney’s sheer permeability. And it’s not just the civic permeability that Davidson mocks as the “panoramic version of an audio guide. Made right here!” Perhaps more importantly, it’s the social and natural and technological permeability, the spectacular permeability of digi-social personhood, of “social life, urbanity, invention, construction, technology, poetry, light–an immense rich bouillabaisse,” as Piano told the New Yorker; or, as a situationist quoting Guy Debord might aver, “the social relationship between people that is mediated by images”; or, as Kevin Systrom might snap, “Instagram!”

THE WHITNEY DEALS WITH OUR BOREDOM (WITH ART)

Davidson derides Piano for architecting a building that concedes the point that, in this age of infinite distraction, museum guests may grow bored when confronted with nothing but art, for hours on end, and that those guests may need to “rest,” by perhaps doing a bit of people watching, checking a mobile feed or fifteen, ripping a selfie, or gazing out onto what really is a killer view. Oh no, Davidson’s not going to let Piano get away with even a momentary sleight of sight; he ferociously pins Piano down to one of the his distractingly transparent walls and tunes him up with the charge that “The new Whitney is a wonderful place for people who get easily bored by art.”

Not to get all Millennial, but who doesn’t get bored by endless hours of nothing but art? Newsflash: it’s not just art. We’re all bored by lengthy, logically progressing sequentiality. We’re bored by long emails, long articles (like this one), long arguments, long essays, long speeches, long books, long plays, long stories, and, yes, long sentences. #BecauseInternet.

But our new state of omnipresent boredom is not the antithesis of engagement; it acts as the precondition for and the genesis of new (or newly prominent) forms of engagement: cacophonous, polymorphous, rhizomatic, dispersed, chaotic, dialogic, and perspectival engagement. Do you know what we find engaging, even for long stretches of time? The simultaneity, surprise, sensation and serendipity we discover in whole new worlds — and that’s why we’re addicted to social networks. And that’s why we love the Whitney’s world.

Long before the Internet, Saul Steinberg, the cartoonist whose Manhattan-centric wit partially inspired the building even happened to argue that boredom and creativity go hand in hand, “The life of the creative man is lead, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.”

So we refuse to let Davidson and his pre-digital critical tribe pressure us into pretending that we don’t wonder what kind of cell phone signal we’d get in his “medieval room at the Met,” or that Breuer’s brutalism beams us “from the actual world into the [Wonkaesque world of pure] imagination.”

We’re not about to filter our gaze and muffle our ears to what Piano, his partners Mark Carroll, Elisabetta Trezzani, and the entire RPBW team have accomplished with this blessed new Whitney. We’re not about to qualify our superlative assessment. Perhaps because we’re impatient, we refuse to wait the years that Kimmelman claims a building needs to “reveal itself.” We refuse to wait a moment longer.

Though this may be hard to hear, we wish to hereby declare that the new Whitney is an unqualified masterpiece. Effective immediately.

THE WHITNEY INAUGURATES THE MUSEUM AS SOCIAL NETWORK #MSN

It’s not like we just got out hair done at Sally Hershberger by the amazing Travis, splurged on some Junya at Jeffrey, had a blast at the opening party with Sarah Jessica Parker and Dakota Fanning (who glowed in the sunset-lit galleries like a little angel in all-white Max Mara), stared at Solange like she was an exotic bird, tried to party with Betsey Johnson like it was the 80s, attempted to talk about the Diving Bell and the Butterfly with Julian Schnabel, and then cracked open iA Writer over tinis and lobster at Perry Street and declared this museum a masterpiece.

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Sarah Jessica Parker. Photo: BFAnyc.com

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Dakota Fanning. Photo: BFAnyc.com

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Solange. Photo: BFAnyc.com


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Betsey Johnson. Photo: BFAnyc.com

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Julian Schnabel. Photo: BFAnyc.com

Well, yeah, ok, we did do all that, but then we, like, woke up the next day and developed a thesis — and we will indeed argue it persuasively, logically and sequentially, Mr. Davidson (even as we admit that, yes, it may bore the bejesus out of many intelligent people in our generation who will close out of this screen, skip our polemics, and do something more engaging with their time, for which we refuse to blame them).

The new Whitney is not merely a museum. It is a new model for a museum: the museum as social network (#MSN). The #MSNWhitney, owing to the focus of its world, happens to be connected to asking and responding to the question of what is American Art (to paraphrase and co-opt Whitney’s chief curator Donna De Salvo). But the concept of an #MSN is bigger than any one question or any one museum world. It is the plausible now of the museum as such. It is the museum as the simultaneous experience of worlding.

When the Whitney last moved from downtown, uptown to Breuerville in 1966, Foucault had just finished The Order of Things. 2015 marks another watershed moment in the history of visible thought: Piano, who, lest we forget, put Lyotard’s postmodern condition on display in the Marais, is playing with us in a whole new way.

WE ❤️ YOU JERRY SALTZ (NOW PLEASE JUST AGREE AND RT)

Jerry Saltz wants to agree with us, even though his colleague, Justin Davidson, is our beloved building’s biggest bully. We heart Jerry Saltz almost as much as we hate the word “hermeneutics,” so it would mean so much to us if he took our side. And he’s already come out as a huge fan of new Whitney (though he punts on matters of architectural worth to Justin Davidson), but we believe that we can persuade him because we share the Saltzian conceptual analogy about how art is best experienced.

Saltz sees art as a synchronic, polyphonic conversation, whose rightful participants are the artists, the artworks, the characters and forces emerging from those artworks, the curators who dramaturgically stage and shape the whole shebang, and, of course, the visitors who — for 22 bucks a pop — get to step right up with their own curious worlds hanging out in full relief.

And that’s why Saltz dislikes the all those museumed screeches of starchitectural hubris. It’s so hard to hear what the art is saying when your venue keeps screaming its name like Daryl Hannah in Splash (and that’s true irrespective of whether teeming droves will pay a fee to see the mermaid). Naturally, Saltz dislikes the MoMA redesign because it privileges empty event space over additional evocative artworks. And he mocks the Stellaphilic conch Gehry has built in Bilbao, because it’s a place lacking in other rooms where other voices of art may properly converse.

Saltz sees the new Whitney as brilliant in its unobtrusive humility and spaciousness, but we wish to persuade him that it is in fact the manifestation of a profound new insight about how to frame the artversation in the mobile phase of the digital age, how to frame the world of art amidst the many distractions of the now.

We wish to suggest that calling it a great building because it’s unobtrusive is a bit like saying that Instagram is brilliant platform because it gets out of the way and just lets people share pictures. Like Instagram, the Whitney’s #MSN is a brand new medium, and a million subtle decisions go into building any successful social product. We believe that it is even more important to recognize this building’s greatness because those decisions are ultimately obscured by the careless impression of the bricoleur’s Sprezzatura.

Yeah, we just said that the Whitney is the Instagram of Museums. Which is to say that there’s no way to logically explain it (we’ll spare you talk of minimum viable museum products and rapid iteration) save to say that, like Instagram, it somehow strikes the right balance between action at a distance and tangible addiction, the personal and the social, and, in Newmanesque zips, it achieves the sublime heights of lyrical simultaneity.

SHINE BRIGHT LIKE A MEIER

Why did we end our first night at this museum at Perry Street wolfing down Cedric’s lobster? Because Richard Meier is the founding architect of Manhattan’s West Coast.

To him tribute must be paid. He deserves a shout out. That’s why, on Friday night, we poured a drop of our ‘tinis onto Sriracha-encrusted tuna.

Meier set the tone and established the idiom of Manhattan’s West Coast. White bright, light bright; he turned on the magic of shining light.

Before Piano’s Whitney set sail, before Gehry iglooed Barry Diller, before Nouvel shattered glass, Richard Meier landed on Perry Street at the turn of the Millenium.

And New Yorkers hated it. The reaction of all (save for Vincent Gallo) was something like, “He better Get-ty that California crap out of Gotham!” It was practically all anyone could talk about in that oh-so-innocent summer before 9/11.

And now look around! Save for one Stern brown reminder of superiority and absolute power, all the notable structures have embraced Meier’s pallet.

Guess who coined the term “Meiericity”? We’re often accused of neologisming all over the place, but it was not we. ‘Twas the Grey lady.

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GRACE NOTE

We couldn’t help but wonder why they let Frost title the inaugural exhibition “America Is Hard to See”? It’s a nice line ‘n all, but the poem itself is a biter screed against Christopher Columbus, “all he did was spread the room of enacting out the doom.” Now, we’re not saying that’s not true (and we wouldn’t disagree with Neil Young about Cortez being a killer) but icy metrical condemnation doesn’t capture the vibe of this new, big, light, contradictory, polymorphously permeable Whitney.

You know who’d better serve the inverted double sail, the persistent on-beating, against the current, of great gamma Gertrude’s art, busting and pulsing out of Experimental Jet Set’s fluctuating W, running faster, stretching farther…

It’s so obvious.

Walt Whitman:

“Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself;

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

The opening exhibition should have been titled:
(I AM LARGE, I CONTAIN MULTITUDES)

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WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN THE NEW WHITNEY MUSEUM OPENS

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