Peetie the Parakeet, Art-World Darling

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Photo: Whitney Twitter

Peetie the parakeet has a fantastic view. His cage sits on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum, across from a north-facing bay window that overlooks the courtyards of East 75th Street. The days are short this time of year, and the winter sky is pale, but even on brighter mornings, Peetie is never hit with direct sun. Politics and museum tradition conspire to ensure that the bird is pampered and kept away from too much light, which would cause him to overheat.

Peetie, who is blue and chirpy, is part of Edward Keinholz’s The Wait, an installation from 1964–65 that is one of twelve postwar masterpieces in "Singular Visions," the exhibition that opened last month at the Whitney. Keinholz is famous for arranging found objects in gruesome, domestic tableaux that look like Cornell boxes cracked open. In The Wait — which hasn’t been shown at the museum since a Keinholz retrospective in 1996 — the figure of an elderly woman, constructed from cow bones, sits atop an upholstered chair with a taxidermied cat in her lap. Dusty, nostalgic relics surround her; Peetie is the only sign of life.

But at 5 p.m. on a recent Thursday, the bird’s upright cage was empty. “Peetie left at 3:30 today,” explained Eric Vermilion, a museum guard.

“He’s still so new; we’re letting him ease into it.”

Peetie “leaving” means that he has been returned to his larger cage in the administrative office of Christy Putnam, the associate director for exhibitions and collections management. She’s worked at the Whitney since 1983, and this is her fifth Keinholz parakeet. She kept birds as a little girl and naturally assumes the role of primary caregiver whenever The Wait is on exhibition. Ms. Putnam has to be careful not to visit the birds too often in the middle of the day while they’re on view. Past Peeties have been known to recognize Ms. Putnam’s voice. “I don’t want them thinking work’s over!”

In the gallery where Peetie spends his days, a sign reads, “The parakeet on view here is well cared for on a daily basis by trained Museum staff and is removed from the display when the Museum is closed.” The Whitney has not yet had any problems with animal-rights activists, but it’s taking precautions. Mr. Vermilion, the guard, keeps a sheet of paper with the answers to frequently asked questions, and he’s quick to provide contact information for the museum’s registrar in case there are additional queries.

“I sing and whistle to Peetie all day,” said Mr. Vermilion with a smile. “I just hope he doesn’t mind my off-key voice.”

It’s not uncommon for works of contemporary art to demand unexpected tasks of industry professionals. Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde tanks, for example, are moved by art handlers in biohazard suits. The compliance departments of large auction houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, have lawyers trained in endangered-species law. Art objects that incorporate plant or animal material (coral, ivory, crocodile skin, etc.) often require special licenses and certificates. International buyers are urged to check with their own governments about import requirements prior to bidding; the buyers are responsible for obtaining the necessary documentation, which relieves the auction houses of possible litigation.

In Ms. Putnam’s office — the room with the view — sits the brilliantly white cage into which Peetie is transferred at the end of each day. The “palace,” as it’s referred to by staff members, is outfitted with literal bells and whistles, millet, clean newspaper, a cuttlebone, and high-end bird seed that’s kept in the break room freezer in a plastic bag labeled “Do Not Discard!” The daily relocation process is delicate and involves a pistachio-green cart on wheels; Peetie uses a shrink-wrapped Rudolph Stingel catalogue raisonné as a stepping stool. Often, he’s lured in with carrot tops, purchased at a discount from Marche Madison. His bedtime is 9 p.m. At night, Ms. Putnam covers his cage with a Jacquard tablecloth.

Beau Rutland, an assistant curator at the museum and one of eight staff members specially trained in the care of Peetie, explained the history and details of The Wait: “Keinholz’s installation instructions stipulate that the parakeet must be named Peetie, but they don’t stipulate what color Peetie has to be. In one of the oldest photographs we have of the piece, it’s a yellow parakeet. But for as long as The Wait has been shown at the Whitney, so for the past twenty years or so, it’s always been a blue parakeet.”

Rutland leaned in toward the cage and cooed. “See? He loves that mirror. It lets him believe he has friends.” He adjusted the carrot tops that were clipped to the cage. “We’ve been gentle on the vegetables, but when we go out to get lunch for ourselves, we’re encouraged to think about what Peetie might want. The only vegetable that’s off limits is avocado, since it’s poison to birds. So no California rolls.”

"Singular Visions" is up for a whole year, but the Keinholz will only be on view for three months. As she always does, Ms. Putnam will spearhead the adoption process. “Our last Peetie went home with a fabulous staff member who had just retired,” she explained. “He was an art handler, so he already had a relationship with Peetie. That was ideal. But we’ll definitely interview the contenders again this time. Peetie will need to go to the perfect person: no children, no other pets, they will need to be home a lot.”

Ms. Putnam sighed. “I miss Peetie. I can’t wait for him to get off work.”

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