Chelsea Morning

The Whitney's proposed Chelsea site next to the High Line.Photo: Jeremy Liebman

The art world remains obdurately critical of the new version of the Museum of Modern Art. So much so that MoMA is probably not the real problem. Instead, MoMA now serves as the symbol of a larger anxiety: We have no museum of the 21st century in New York. We have many institutions that exhibit contemporary art, but none monkishly devoted to that task or committed to influencing and shaping opinion in a fundamental way. Contemporary art appears chaotic. On the one hand, it hares after new technologies, and on the other it dickers with traditional forms. It seems beguiled and corrupted by fashion and slick money. Where’s the focused eye to explore and penetrate the murk? What the city wants is a bold new museum, unencumbered by the past, to address our strange new world—just as, once upon a time, MoMA confronted the twentieth century.

Will any rise to the challenge? Suddenly, unexpectedly, the accident-prone Whitney is raising some hopes that it might make such a difference. It remains a long shot—the filly you bet on that will probably break its leg—but the recent news that Renzo Piano may build a Whitney downtown near the High Line and the Chelsea art world suggests some intriguing possibilities.

In one way or another, the major New York museums that now exhibit new art, including the Whitney, do not quite take the measure of contemporary culture. They appear uncertain, with a limited purview. Only the Metropolitan Museum seems at peace in this area, largely because the contemporary is just one of many cards in its varied deck. Of course, MoMA has never formally given up its franchise as the arbiter of the new. But the institution simply cannot, and should not, focus wholeheartedly on today’s culture. Its magnificent nineteenth- and twentieth-century collections are just too absorbing. It must, inevitably, tend its garden. At MoMA, the contemporary is becoming a kind of province, important but a province all the same. (P.S. 1, its outpost of the new, is located in outlying Queens.) An assortment of contemporary work is regularly shown on MoMA’s first exhibition floor in Manhattan, as trophies from Gaul might once have been exhibited in Rome.

As for the rest, the Guggenheim, while it exhibits contemporary art, is mainly absorbed in planting mini-Guggenheims around the globe and concocting art extravaganzas like “100% Africa,” “Brazil,” “Russia.” The Brooklyn Museum, like the Met, has a vast and varied collection to administer. Dia has a sharp contemporary eye, but remains focused upon Minimalist and Conceptual art and upon its handsome new facility in Beacon, New York. The New Museum, set to open a building on the Bowery next year, is a small institution specializing in the edgier edges of contemporary culture. As for the Whitney Museum of American Art, it has become the Rubik’s Cube of New York museums. No adult can solve it.

The Whitney’s predicaments are many. Its institutional focus upon American art made sense before World War II, when Americans were generally ignored, but seemed increasingly hollow, limiting—and, ironically, provincial—as Americans took center stage. At the same time, its building on Madison Avenue, designed by Marcel Breuer, long ago became a burden. An important work of modernist architecture, the building is also a dark castle-prison that puts viewers unconsciously on edge and saps the energy from paintings. (You cross a kind of drawbridge over a moat to enter this art-fortress, and if you misbehave, a curator could shoot a critical arrow at you from a slit.) Endlessly and forever, the Whitney has been trying to transform this building, commissioning no fewer than three full redesigns: by Michael Graves, Rem Koolhaas, and Renzo Piano. All the while, it’s fought a long and miserable battle with local preservationists. The expense in cost, time, distraction, and energy has been enormous. The result? Not much.

In short, the Whitney has tried for years to escape from both a confining creed and a confining building. Now, serendipitously, it may get the chance to construct a new museum downtown, at a site ideally located near the heart of the contemporary-art world. It could walk away from its never-ending, Procrustean torment of trying to fit itself into the fortress. It would keep the Breuer building, of course, but with a new structure downtown it could remake its fundamental identity, emerging transformed.

Well … I hope … I wish …

In the art world, the history of the Whitney inspires little confidence that its board will make the right choices. The important question is how the new Whitney’s vision will play out. What will the new building downtown actually do?

Since the news of its potential expansion broke, the museum’s administration has hunkered down, privately weighing its options. It will probably make an official announcement this week or next. I hope that the museum will be strong enough to invite and welcome public discussion about its vision for the museum downtown. In the New York Times, the architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that the Whitney’s director, Adam Weinberg, wants to avoid isolating the permanent collection on Madison Avenue, since that could turn the uptown building into a “mausoleum.” Instead, he’d prefer a “fluid” relationship between the two. In other words, the idea at the moment is one of “mixed use” for both buildings. It would certainly be pleasing to see portions of the permanent collection presented downtown in a fresh and well-lit space designed by Renzo Piano. And there is indeed a danger that the permanent collection would become the old uptown aunt if downtown came to own the hip and the contemporary. Weinberg’s concern is sensible—perhaps too sensible.

A Whitney made of two buildings, fluidly showing some of this here and some of that there, would be a conventional museum, cobbled together by sharing and compromises, with an inevitably divided focus and a largely mainstream perspective. The powers-that-be should at least consider a bolder, more radical effort. Instead of continuing to fit pieces haphazardly together, they could start from the beginning, rethinking from the ground up how a museum could best represent the 21st century. Few if any museums today seem prepared for what’s coming. To take just one example: The way we now present video and installation work is rarely satisfying. The rooms are typically noisy, shabby, and disorganized; something is usually out-of-whack about the scale. Installations often take up a lot of space, but shouldn’t we be able to see a piece in the permanent collection by Bill Viola or William Kentridge when we want? Museums and their architects need to make this possible. They should design new spaces for new kinds of art.

A museum that hopes to address such concerns, that hopes to be original in both outlook and design, should not have two heads. You would want it liberated—as the early MoMA was—from traditional responsibilities. A ruthlessly forward-looking place. Of course, you would also like its leader to have the vision and discrimination of MoMA’s founder, Alfred H. Barr Jr. The danger represented by a spanking new museum in Chelsea is that it will turn into nothing more than a big brassy horn celebrating fashion and moneyed taste. The promise is that it will restore a sense of the future to New York. The Whitney should take a flier.

As it plans a new building downtown, the Whitney’s alternative expansion plans—next door to its Upper East Side home—have often clashed with the wishes of preservationists. In 2005, the Whitney won the latest skirmish in that battle, after a plan that would have demolished two brownstones was revised to preserve one of the façades. The spared building, at 941 Madison Avenue, has “contributing” status; the other brownstone, at 943 Madison, does not (having been stripped of its exterior ornament decades before). What does “contributing” mean? The Landmarks Preservation Commission says it describes a building that constitutes a significant aesthetic, cultural, or historic part of a landmarked neighborhood—and the LPC has never voted to demolish one.

Chelsea Morning