Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In 2015, it moved to its current beautiful building in New York City meatpacking district. We were lucky enough to get tickets on the opening day. Since then, we try to stop by every time we are in town to see its permanent and special exhibits.

Permanent Exhibits

The Whitney has close to 30,000 works in its large permanent collection of 20th and 21st-century contemporary American art. Its collection focuses on living artists. While it rotates its permanent collection exhibition, we often see a compilation of works from virtually all major genres since the beginning of the 20th century. These included works from George Bellows, Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, Man Ray, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Claus Oldenburg, Ray Lichtenstein, Louise Nevelson, Alexander Calder, Cindy Sherman, and a series of Jacob Lawrence’s poignant WWII remembrances.

O'KeeffeWhittney - Permanent Collection (2)Lawrence War SeriesWhittney - Permanent Collection

The top floor is has a large Alexander Calder exhibition with representative examples of all the types of fun mobiles, stabiles, and wall-mounted sculptures with which most of us are familiar, plus a few pieces that we would have never recognized as being from Calder.

Calder 02

2021 Whitney Visit

Jasper Johns Retrospective Special Exhibit

Our main reason for our 2021 visit was the Jasper Johns Retrospective special exhibit, which occupied the entire first floor. The Whitney contains one-half of a large-scale retrospective on the art of Jasper Johns. The other half is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The huge exhibition provides highlights of a 70-year career (and counting) and its many themes and transitions.

Johns arrived in New York from his native South Carolina in the late 1950s. He quickly became embedded in a society of free-thinking, gay artists including Robert Rauschenberg (with whom he became both artistically and romantically involved), and composer John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham (both of whom he collaborated with artistically).

By the early 1960s, he destroyed most of his previous work vowing to develop his own style and remain independent of other artistic norms. While most avant-garde artists at that time were exploring inner emotions and perceptions, Johns began producing cool, impersonal representations of familiar objects (such as letters, numbers, targets, and the American flag) with his own interpretations often in black, white, and shades of gray. He, for example, painted the flag right-side-up and upside down and a target with a row of sculpted human faces above which could be covered up (seemingly suggesting that we could people by stripping them of their individuality and viewing them as targets.

Jasper Johns (60)

His work included representations of beer cans and other everyday objects in a day in which his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries were representing concepts and feelings in abstract forms. He was credited with helping give rise to new genres of art such as Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism. During this time he also began transposing images and experimenting with mirroring or doubling images, such as by producing two or more identical or minimally different ways (techniques he would employ throughout his career).

Jasper Johns Painted Bronze

In the early 60s, Rauschenberg broke up with him and another of his gay friends killed himself after being violently rejected by someone he had propositioned. John’s work turned dark, both figuratively and literally in his use of darker palates. He later returned to his earlier subjects, adding another familiar image to his repertoire—the map of America and began expanding his palate to include many more colors. But once again he did it in his own way.

  • He painted the flag in different colors to suggest optimism or especially pessimism about a country engaged in the Cold War, Vietnam and the struggle for Civil Rights.
  • He applied colors to maps in ways that obscured rather than accentuated state borders.
  • He introduced new motifs and new techniques to which he would periodically return through his career. These included the use of repetitive hashmarks, the use of puns and subtle references (including multiple copies or slightly different versions of an image on the same canvas),  and by using more exuberant and splashy brushstrokes.

Jasper Johns Map 1961Jasper Johns Map 1962-63Jasper Johns According to What 1964

His 1964 large, important, transitional work, According to What was a multimedia work that incorporated multiple subjects and references. He also expanded more into doubled paintings, revisited a number of earlier themes, and returned part-time to South Carolina which seemed to open a nostalgic vein. He started painting people he had known and even the incorporation of a floorplan of the house in which he grew up in one of his pieces.

Jasper Johns According to What 1964

From the 1970s through the 1990s. he expanded his repertoire by:

  • Creating almost autobiographical charcoal images in which he applied oil to his face and hands, rolled them onto the canvas, and sprinkling charcoal that adhered to the oiled images;
  • Adding favored lines of poetry into his work by adding more references to himself and his life into some of his works;
  • Changing and experimenting with different scales;
  • Launching a series of catenary pictures (forming arcs by hanging a string between two points on the canvas); and
  • Taking a more active role in planning some of his exhibitions as hanging works in relationship with one another to emphasize images or styles.

In 1982, he introduced another signature series of Saveran Monotypes (images of coffee cans in which he placed his brushes). He made modifications to the printing of images or the orientation of the image and used double or mirrored images on a single print.

His 1983 Thoughts incorporated a number of historical references and his 1986 Seasons series represented stages of his life. He made selective returns to his earlier grayscale pieces and his 1979 Dancers on a Plane marked as a return to his crosshatches. The 80s and 90s also saw a number of pieces that represented fragmented and distorted body parts and the introduction of a mysterious shadow person into a number of his works.

Jasper Johns Racing Thoughts 1983Jasper Johns Dancers on a Plane 1979

By the 2000s he was using many more symbolic associations by:

  • Adding more three-dimensional representations into his work; and
  • Adding more associations with death, loss, and sorrow by incorporating skeletons into some of his paintings.

In 2020 (the first year of Covid-19) he started looking at health, mortality, and our/his role in the universe as with his painting that incorporates a detailed medical drawing into a work that appears to depict the stars.

Jasper Johns Slice 2020

In the last two decades, he also returned to sculptures. For example, he created new representations of Ballantine beer cans that were the subject of some his early drawings with one that had been opened (and presumably drunken) and another unopened.

The last gallery in the exhibit was dedicated to a recent series of small scale-wax sculptures that reprised his periodic focus on numerals— apparently by cutting wax models that were used in a previous large-scale work into smaller blocks in different metallic colors.

Crafts in Arts Special Exhibit

Another special exhibit mostly pulled together pieces from Whitney’s permanent collection to examine how artists were merging traditional crafts materials (such as pottery, wood, wire, fiber, quilting, and even beads) into fine arts pieces that are intended for display rather than functional use. And how these materials are being used in works that are intended to deliver messages around themes including, identity, color, sexual orientation, racism, pop culture, and many more.

Kelley - More love hoursGibbon - Birds of a feather

Although the exhibit included a number of beautiful and powerful works, we—not to speak of everybody else in the gallery—were enthralled by Liza Lou’s incredible, full-size sculpture Kitchen. She created a detailed representation of a roughly 1950/60s era kitchen where every surface is covered with beads. The work took five years to complete. It includes details such as cereal boxes, dish detergent bottles, dirty dishes piled in the sinks, and a pie ready to come out of the oven. It is meant to indicate an extravagant slice of life and an indictment of the sexism that suggests that women still must shoulder an inordinate burden of housework and that such work is supposed to be pleasurable.

Lou - Kitchen (2)

Women Abstractionists

While the Whitney and dozens of other museums are filled with abstract works of art, they overwhelmingly represent the work of men.  Although a few women such as Lee Krazner and Louise Nevelson have broken through to become widely recognized, they are few and far between. This small exhibition provides notable examples of works by a handful of women who deserved greater recognition and commercial acceptance.

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