Fresh Look at Gertrude Whitney’s Collection

Lachaise 1912-1927 bronze Standing Woman with works acquired by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney herself

The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965 is a full-floor installation that focuses on the institution’s origin in 1930 as an eclectic, lively space where of-the-moment art could make a statement to the world – the same as today.

But rather than concentrate exclusively on all of the masterworks of American art that the museum owns, this show integrates some practically forgotten works and artists that the curators feel deserve a fresh look. So, walking through this chronological show, everyone gets a taste of something completely unexpected.

See some of our favorites here on Flickr.

When the elevator doors open, the first gallery is a tribute to the passion of Gertrude Whitney, the only American artist to establish a major museum. Lachaise’s bronze beauty beckons visitors to take a closer look at paintings that Gertrude herself acquired. Photographs of the Whitney’s earliest incarnation downtown are nearby to set the context.

Anne Goldthwaite’s 1926 Rebecca, purchased by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

It wasn’t a museum collection in the traditional sense, because Gertrude acquired paintings and sculptures by artists that she wanted to support. Better-known works by Bellows, Benton, and Bluemner are on display here, but so is a beautiful, rarely shown 1926 portrait by Anne Goldthwaite, a women’s rights activist from Alabama whose work was included in the 1913 Armory Show, but is not that well known today.

Subsequent galleries group artists inspired by uniquely American landscapes ­– urban engineering achievements of New York (Man Ray, Stella, Stettenheimer), O’Keeffe’s evocations of nature’s spirituality, and clean, idealized visions of modern industrial campuses (Demuth, Sheeler).

Andreas Feininger’s 1940 photo of the West Side Highway

Photographs dot the walls, including Herbert W. Gleason’s other-worldly 1908 images of Walden Pond and a modern 1940 image of the West Side Highway by Feininger, which anyone can see through windows in the Whitney’s Hudson-facing interior staircase.

A dark side gallery features one of the Whitney’s greatest treasures – Calder’s Circus, which has been newly conserved and restored. The ringmaster, bareback rider, and trapeze artists – all based upon actual performers from the Twenties ­– occupy the spotlight, surrounded by Calder’s performance props, Victrola, and whistles.

Here’s a recent video containing excerpts of how Circus was brought to life by the master himself and how it’s been conserved for posterity by a team at the Whitney:

An additional highlight in another gallery is the “show within a show” of Edward Hopper works and drawings – his early work from Paris, the solitary American townscapes, and a sketchbook in which he documented every painting he made. Everyone spends time here.

Edward Hopper’s ledger book documenting all his work

A melancholy dark gallery is hung with paintings by American émigré artists whose work evokes surrealist experimentation, the war, urban isolation, and growing societal dissonance. A counterpoint (and surprise) is a 1939 animated film by experimental film pioneer Mary Ellen Bute, a symphonic short shown to the crowds at Radio City Music Hall before movie features.

The gallery devoted to Fifties abstraction showcases the usual suspects (Pollack, de Kooning, Kline), but intersperses new acquisitions and lesser-known players, such as a 1959 abstract canvas by Ed Clark, an African-American artist who trained in Paris courtesy of the GI Bill, which holds its own against the other AE powerhouses in the room.

Ed Clark’s 1959 abstract poured-acrylic painting

Big David Smith and Barnett Newman sculptures reign on the outdoor terrace, right next to the joyful Pop Art gallery, dominated by a massive, four-panel 1964 Wesselmann and an engaging multi-person self-portrait (with dog) by Marisol in the corner.

The walk-through is a reminder of the riches that anchored the first 30 years of the Whitney and the efforts that the museum is taking to find powerful artwork from the archive that enhances the traditional narrative of 20th century American art history.

Getting a breath of fresh air: Barnett Newman’s 1966 Here III and David Smith’s 1961 Lectern Sentinel

Go soon before the team changes it out for the next collection installation, and take the audio tour on the Whitney website.

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