Exhibit Review: 'America Is Hard to See'

By Tanya Silverman

It wasn’t so hard to see–the nation’s art itself, at least.

America Is Hard to See is the premiere exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building in NYC’s Meatpacking District.

Masters are counted; classic paintings like Edward Hopper’s Seven A.M. hang up on the seventh level’s “Breaking The Prairie” themed gallery, while the American artist’s nude-model sketches are featured within the first floor’s “Eight West Eighth.” The latter gallery pays homage to the Whitney’s roots, when the original downtown space offered discount life-drawing classes about a century ago.

Distinguished American movements like Abstract-Expressionism are accounted for, along with numerous “Post-,“ hybridized, political, or cross-disciplinary concepts.

The ‘Racing Thoughts’ chapter of America Is Hard to See.

Navigating the 400-plus names of American artists and historical “chapters,” scaling anything from lithograph prints of spectator scenes from the roaring ‘20s to repurposed commodity sculptures from the consumerist ‘80s, affirms that the diverse selection is “hard to see” as a fixed classification.

The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers. By Karen Kilimnik. 1989. Mixed Media.

The American identity perhaps serves as the strongest thread to stitch arguably disparate pieces into a coherent idea–for instance, Max Weber’s French-inspired Cubist fragmentations which comprise Chinese Restaurant, a 1915 painting, with Karen Kilimnik‘s black boot, strewn sheets, and cracked mirror shards that represent an episode of the ‘60s-era British show, Avengers, a 1989 installation.

Whitney staff members’ remarks at last week’s press preview complemented the upcoming exhibit’s open-endedness. Chief Curator Donna De Salvo acknowledged that American Is Hard to See was neither “a comprehensive survey” nor a “tidy summation.” Alice Pratt Brown Director Adam D. Weinberg described the nation as a “very complex, layered place.”

When Italian architect Renzo Piano took the stage, he alluded to the aspect of American “freedom” in context of his European perspective as he spoke coolly and confidently of his 28,000-ton structural accomplishment of column-free galleries and ample (13,000 square feet) outdoor spaces.

I later sat in the downstairs cafe for a group interview with Piano. The architect reaffirmed his identity as European, his mentality inspired by “memory and culture.”

“But in the same time I grew up with the desire of freedom,” he explained to us. “For me, this building, and this collection, is about freedom; it’s about being what you want and what you are.”

Renzo Piano talking with reporters.

He then explained that architecture works as a “long-time” phenomenon that, “like a river, like a forest–it needs time to be.”

When a reporter inquired about the difference in working in either continent, Piano eventually came to the point that the facade of the museum was created in Germany, then mentioned a part of the pine wood floor was imported. Can the new Whitney building be seen as American, ultimately?

At least Piano’s designing allows the surrounding vastness of American cityscape to be easy to see.

The site-specific installation, Mary Heilmann: Sunset, on the fifth-floor terrace.

All photos by Tanya Silverman.

The Whitney Museum of Art will open to the public May 1; ‘America Is Hard to See’ will be on display through Sep 27, 2015.