The New Whitney: Class Dismissed

By Daniel George


A simple, plaintive and defeated sentence: “America is Hard to See.” Things that are distant, obscured, shaded, shrouded or hidden are hard to see. The inaugural exhibition at the new Whitney Museum opened with that sentence as its dour title, signaling a problem with our ability to see contemporary American art. The story of the previous century of American visual art is one of revision, erasure, appropriation and distortion. Here we are, with blurred vision.

Art museums are prominent forces in the muddying cycle of revisions of how we view American art. The opening of the new Whitney is an occasion to pause and consider the way our most prominent contemporary havens for art have been repopulating spaces that once belonged to butchers, millworkers and the workers of a box-printing factory. What is an art museum doing when it fills a traditionally working-class space with contemporary art? What identity are these curators, collectors, benefactors and others worthy of printing their names above galleries and wings in these museums aiming to reclaim in these spaces?

The simple change of address, in a city like New York, can be the occasion for much curiosity. Claps and groans have been echoing through the gridded streets of the city ever since the Whitney moved downtown earlier this year. This movement, from the old moneyed nest of Madison Avenue to the (once) working-class environs of the Meatpacking District seems representative of the shifting identity of the contemporary art museum. The Whitney’s relocation may represent a larger move to reclaim a working-class identity that has been lost in the contemporary art world.

REVIEWIn 1986, Mass MoCA repurposed a complex of mill-buildings and factory spaces in the wilds of North Adams, Massachusetts, into an art destination. The museum describes its sprawling campus as a system of “bridges, viaducts, elevated walkways, and red brick facades [lending] a distinct architectural ambiance to the complex, which throughout its history has been a place for innovation and fabrication using the most advanced knowledge and technology of the day.”

The complex proudly displays the skeletal and rust-bitten innards of the building, brick walls shedding geologic layers of white paint gone sour with mineral greens and oranges, large windows, and concrete floors marred by the furrows of industrial movings, droppings, tumblings of years past. The specter of a working-factory history frames the work within – this past summer, one could listen to David Lang ensembles performing in front of Liz Deschenes’ photographic work, wander through Francesco Clemente’s hand-painted fabric tents, climb through three floors of Sol LeWitt wall drawings.

In a sense, these works are all ripe for a consideration of class dynamics in the contemporary art world. Deschenes refocuses our attention away from the representational functions of photography toward processes and production. Clemente’s tents are small monuments to a globalized production of art, with the symbolism and actualization brought to America from India. LeWitt’s wall drawings are not proof of his own mark-making, but rather the fulfillment of a contract serviced by a team of artists.

Dia:Beacon follows the Mass MoCA model, converting a Nabisco box-printing factory in the Hudson Valley into a sprawling home for large art and sculpture. Dia similarly makes use of its industrial trimmings as garnish for the works within. Bruce Nauman’s eerie mapping of his studio is banished to the dark basement, Louise Bourgeois’ hive-like and arachnid sculptures nestle into the odd spaces of an upper floor, more LeWitts dot and speckle the walls, Serra’s torqued ellipses loom large and hull-like in a loading dock, Judd’s boxes float freely in the halls where people once labored to assemble cracker boxes.

Read the rest of this story in the Winter 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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