Saturday, 17 October 2015

Touring the New Whitney

A look at the Whitney's outdoor terraces with great views
This past May the Whitney Museum of American Art moved from Madison Avenue to Chelsea in a multi-terraced building which also happens to be the end or beginning of the Highline.

So, not wanting to miss out on the latest new thing, we headed down there for a look.

Looking down on the Highline from the Whitney
It's a brand new building designed by Renzo Piano and when you enter it looks promising, with sleek modern lines, and outdoor terraces on several floors.

Admission is not cheap -- $22 for adults, $18 for seniors and students -- considering how much there is to see here.

The museum says there are eight floors, but interestingly there's no fourth floor -- was it influenced by the Chinese?

We worked our way from top to bottom, starting with the new show, "Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist".

We knew nothing about Motley (1891-1981) beforehand and it was fascinating to read that he was biracial, African American and European. He struggled with his identity, not being able to fully associate with one or the other.

The Octoroon Girl by Archibald Motley
Racial identity became a theme for him in his work, as he hoped art would bring "a better understanding between the races". He also wanted to help African Americans feel pride and beauty in their looks.

His earlier work featuring portraits mostly women, are wonderful portrayals of people at the time. In particular I liked The Octoroon Girl painted in 1925. She is sitting on a couch, slightly off centre, leaning on the arm rest next to a funny-looking statue of a man with a massive bushy mustache. He seems to act as a counterfoil to her serene elegance, in a black dress with passionate red wide collar, sleeve and button details.

I also enjoyed the portraits of his paternal grandmother, who told him stories about what it was like to be a slave working for a mistress. In one portrait of her called Mending Socks, she sits with a wrap around her shoulders held together by a brooch, mending a sock in a parlour. The portrait above her on the left gives a hint of a white woman, who was her mistress, who his grandmother says treated her well.

Motley paints his grandmother mending a sock
There's another painting of her called Portrait of My Grandmother done in 1922. She wears a white blouse with a brooch, and black skirt underneath. What drew me the most in the work was the detail of her hands, more so than the face. It is evident she is already old as one can see from her facial features, but the hands are a testament to the hard work she did to survive.

Motley's wife was German American, and they were childhood sweethearts before they got married. However the implications of their relationship were huge -- her parents disowned her when she married Motley, and it was difficult for them to walk down the street without being ogled.

The exhibition has two portraits of her, one looking sweet and vulnerable, maybe because she is in the nude. while the other is of her dressed up with a fox stole and looking stern.

The Freedom Tower stands tall, and a tiny Statue of Liberty
After the portraits section of his earlier work, Motley's paintings begin to portray African Americans in a cartoonish way which seems to go against his earlier mission statement. Nevertheless, the earlier paintings of scenes in Chicago are vibrant and lively, dancing and drinking.

He also goes to Paris from 1929-30 on a Guggenheim fellowship and captures the bohemian lifestyle there, like jazz and Josephine Baker.

However, his work becomes more and more cartoon-like, simplified depictions of African Americans that maybe seem OK because they are painted by him and not someone who is white.

Prop by Richard Serra
After the show one can grab a bite to eat at the cafe on this floor, or wander outside to take in the views. From here you can see the Freedom Tower and in the distance, the Statue of Liberty.

We found the views much more absorbing and interesting than the art on show which seems strange, no? We went back inside to cling onto a tour that was happening of the permanent collection and were introduced to some interesting pieces.

One is a piece of lead propped up on the wall by a nine-foot long lead pipe, and not the sheet of lead hung on the wall and then the pipe leaning against it. It's by Richard Serra called Prop that was made in 1967, but was "redone" in 2007 because the lead pipe created a groove not only into the lead sheet but the wall as well thanks to gravity and time.

Another is called Giant Fagends by Claes Oldenburg, featuring giant cigarette butts haphazardly placed in a container, with one or two scattered in the room, as the curator was given permission to place them wherever they wanted.

A lone cigarette butt by Claes Oldenburg
The cigarette butts are about the dangers of smoking and public service announcements trying to get people to butt out, and at the same time they look like legs as it was during the time of the mini skirt era. What a mix.

We were kind of modern art-ed out after covering the two floors of the permanent exhibition and also it was almost closing time. We hit the gift shop, but were disappointed to find there wasn't much in terms of souvenirs that tempted us to dig into our wallets.

Even the Whitney T-shirt -- a white one with thin W's on it was hardly inspiring. And what was Yayoi Kusama's black dotted pumpkins made of fabric doing here for sale at $300 for a small one? She's not even American!

Oh and if you want to eat in the ground floor cafe called Untitled, you have to make a reservation otherwise don't bother. Strange that this is considered the place to dine when the art upstairs doesn't draw much of an appetite...

Whitney Museum of American Art
99 Ganesvoort Street
New York
(212) 570 3600

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