cultural capital

Tom Wolfe Wants a Bonfire at the Whitney


Wolfe in his natural habitat, the Upper East Side, in 2004.Photo: AP

Tom Wolfe called the Landmarks Preservation Commission “de facto defunct” in a Times op-ed on Sunday, its members pawns of developer Aby Rosen and his evil plans to build a 30-story glass condo in the Upper East Side Historic District. Then today came news that the Whitney Museum, located in the same historic district and after decades of fighting to build an addition, would give up on its Madison Avenue expansion plan and instead build a “satellite” branch along the High Line in the meatpacking district. So does Wolfe think that this move, finally, is the right stuff? We called to find out.

So, Tom, happy that the expansion has been stopped?
Everything possible should be done to keep the Whitney from expanding. I mean, we really don’t need any more of that, unless they improve in taste. Mainly, they should just get rid of the building. Almost anything they could put in its place, as long as it’s no higher than that, would be real plus for the city.

Then where would the museum go?
I think they should tear down the Whitney and move everything to No. 2 Columbus Circle and have it re-restored the way Edward Durell Stone designed it.

You really love the Columbus Circle building. Why?
One, it would bring back what is now perceived as one of the greatest works of architecture in the city’s history, meaning the museum Stone built for Huntington Hartford. Also, it would force the Whitney to winnow down its collection, which could only be good. And the third reason is that the Whitney looks like a WWI machine-gun emplacement set up to drive away all the bourgeoisie who are trying to get into the boutiques across from it. I couldn’t imagine a grosser intrusion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan than the Whitney. Inside, it looks like a warehouse. Just go on a floor! Any floor! Even the elevators are like freight elevators.

Have you ever had a visit to the Whitney you enjoyed?
I always go to the Biennial to see how desperate young artists are to do something new. And they’re very desperate. I mean, when you get to things like installation art, the end is near.

But back to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Isn’t this in some way a victory for them?
I wouldn’t credit or discredit the Landmarks Commission in this case. I don’t know what goes through their minds. I couldn’t pretend to psychoanalyze that decision.

Jada Yuan

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Tom Wolfe Wants a Bonfire at the Whitney