Let the Sun Shine In

The Whitney Museum of American Art is the worst piece of important architecture in New York. On the one hand, Marcel Breuer’s building is a landmark – an austere modern castle with a drawbridge and moat. (The archers of modern art seem to hide behind its slivered windows.) On the other hand, it’s a grim place to exhibit art. Compare its design with another piece of architecture said to tyrannize art, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The Guggenheim may present unending problems to curators, but its light-filled dome also warms the eye and awakens the mind – a good initiation into the world of the imagination. The Whitney, by contrast, immediately puts both body and imagination on guard. One walks into a stone-and-concrete box with little natural light. The interior spaces, with few fixed walls, appear shapeless. The permanent collection has no regular home. The unspoken message of the building is that modern art is a fortress, a tomb – at best, a theoretical construct insulated from the outside world.

Breuer’s vision, despite its ascetic brilliance, creates an arid environment where the stress falls almost inevitably upon the harsh, the abstract, and the ideological. It makes any exhibit look at least 20 percent worse than it would in a more welcoming space. It is particularly cruel to painting. (Last fall, you could almost hear the Diebenkorns gasping for breath.) Too bad Louis Kahn – the great architect who gloried in natural light – didn’t receive the commission in 1963 to build the museum; the Whitney’s history might well have been less troubled if Kahn, whom the trustees almost selected, had set the tone for the institution. Several years ago, the museum tried to liberate itself from Breuer by asking the playful postmodernist Michael Graves to transform the building. The failure of that effort has now led the Whitney to a more modest ambition: The Breuer design must remain uncompromised while the museum fixes what can be fixed and, wherever possible, tempers his cold ethos with daylight and a whisper of elegance.

Richard Gluckman – an architect of seductive intelligence – has performed this task extremely well. His most important challenge was to transform offices on the fifth floor into about 8,000 square feet of new exhibition space for the permanent collection; his eleven Leonard & Evelyn Lauder Galleries, filled with art from the prewar period, open to the public at the end of this week. New York has long needed permanent galleries at the Whitney to survey, in particular, early American modernism. (That it has taken this long is shameful.) Interspersing American art of this period among the great European masters, as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art must do, simply overwhelms the distinctive American note. Now you can see a characteristically American vision – often modest and homespun in spirit – without the distracting presence of the grand Europeans.

Organized by Adam Weinberg, the installation surveys the period while emphasizing points of strength in the Whitney collections: Individual rooms are devoted to Edward Hopper, Alexander Calder, Elie Nadelman, and Georgia O’Keeffe. (No out-of-towner will ever come to the Whitney without being able to see several great Hoppers.) Calder’s hugely popular circus, for which he fashioned whimsical performers and creatures, is being displayed in conjunction with a movie of the artist enacting his circus; tiny spotlights will illuminate individual works as they come up in the film. There is also a small photography gallery, for which Elisabeth Sussman has organized a survey of American images. In contrast to the Breuer spaces, which tend to overwhelm small work, the scale of the new galleries suits the size of prewar American art.

Gluckman fills many of the new galleries with daylight – a wonderful change. Yet these luminous rooms do not contrast disagreeably with the rest of Breuer’s building, partly because Gluckman has created a space just beyond the elevators that serves as a deft transition between old and new. With its elegant gray walls and a bluestone floor, this room evokes both Breuer’s dark palette and the smoky clubroom milieu of the museum’s blue-blood founder, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. (Handsome Art Deco doors used when the museum was on West 8th Street close off one side of the room.) From this dark space, visitors then walk toward daylight. Gluckman also works with Breuer’s angled windows – reflecting their shape in his skylights – so that the original architect’s visual vocabulary never seems rejected out of hand. At the same time, Gluckman does not follow Breuer’s use of rough textures, notably the concrete found throughout the building. The bronze in the portals looks as soft as leather. The walls are crisp. The galleries never seem boxy.

The Whitney’s difficulties are by no means resolved. Ideally, the museum would have still more space to tell the story of twentieth-century American art, especially if it ever hopes to present work created after 1945 in its permanent collection (a time when art and sculpture also became larger and larger). And the philosophical brief of the institution – to address only American art – remains awkward. If the Whitney had a clear mission when the United States was a cultural backwater and American artists required support and attention, that purpose today seems artificial and, at times, confining: The world is smaller, America bigger. The news that David Ross is leaving as the museum’s director perpetuates the unending blah-blah-blah of “Whither the Whitney?” The next director will need a strong vision to stop this thumb-sucking, but he or she will at least have the benefit of a handsome permanent collection upon which to build – and, occasionally, to rest.

Are clothes the man? In the fifties, “the gray flannel suit” came to symbolize the indistinguishable men who conformed to corporate culture. Today, people like to call men simply “suits,” as in “three suits came to lunch yesterday.” The Cheim & Read Gallery in Chelsea has put together a clever show called “Men in Suits” that exhibits the work of two artists – the American portrait painter Alice Neel (1900-1984) and the German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) – who explore the strange, often fraught affair between a man and his suit. In Neel’s portraits, the head fits awkwardly on the clothing; a man never quite becomes his persona. In Sanders’s photographs from the Weimar era, the clothes may mirror a man’s public performance, but they cannot reflect the expression in his eyes. Both artists offer a useful antidote to our designer-besotted culture.

Let the Sun Shine In