There’s something about the Whitney that makes it my favorite museum in New York City. Maybe I should credit the curators. Every time I go there I see something I can’t forget. I have some wonderful Whitney memories. Maybe it’s that the size is just right and the organization is so clear. I always take the stairs at the Whitney because I’m in love with the stairwell. It’s heavily textured concrete that looks like it’s a product of rough week during the Ice Age. That texture is combined with areas of smooth worn slate . There is bronze colored metalwork , and a warm mahogany handrail. The lighting is low and emphasizes the textures. On at least one landing there’s a bench where you can rest that looks vaguely oriental.
Once past the stairwell on this visit, I found three floors of shows that fascinated me. First flight up: Edward Hopper. I am old enough to remember when parts of America still looked like that. Like my own paintings, Hopper’s are sparsely populated, if at all. I like the loneliness of them, and the long shadows that wrap around forms. I like that his paintings tell the story of a long love affair with his wife. The work seems of a piece with the life he lived.
The second flight up was a show by Charles LeDray called workworkworkworkwork. I can relate to that title. Our family is riddled with people who love to work. Especially the kind of hands-on crafted work this show evidenced. It was a series of installations which included miniaturized clothing in miniaturized displays, as in a store, or miniature clothes used to make statements about identity. A favorite was a blue collar workman’s jacket, with the name stitched on a label–” Charles”– the artist’s name, and inside dozens of tiny garments hanging from it by a thread.
There were vitrines of hundreds of tiny turned vessels. I found myself absorbed by the infinite variety of them. One vitrine had all white vessels, another all black and a third had vases in every color.
The most fascinating miniature work was made from bone. The carving was stunning, even when some parts were the size of a human hair. There was a tiny door with hinges, lying on its face, not much bigger than a playing card. The bone had a beautiful warmth and grain, and the carving was masterful.
Next floor up, the mystical work of Paul Thek. The Whitney has organized the first retrospective of Thek’s work in the United States. Thek was not easily pigeonholed into the movements of his time . Interestingly, he was a master draftsman, and I enjoyed his sketchbooks immensely. He is important for his influence on the artists who came after him– most obviously Damien Hirst. Thek created visceral pieces of meat from wax and paint, and placed them in plexiglass boxes. He also created casts of his own body, and body parts, in wax and other materials which became musings on our physicality. I was drawn especially to a hand, eerie in its verisimilitude, but decoratively bearing an abstract painting over much of its surface. Hand as canvas.
The show was titled “Diver, A Retrospective”, referencing an image Thek painted of a nude male figure diving into water. It was one of many paintings done with ephemeral materials like newspaper and tempera. The diver seems to represent all of us as we screw up our courage to dive into the unknown stuff of life, and art. This painting’s image was further explored in a cast figure created from Thek’s own body, around which fabric fish seemed to swim– their trajectory matching the diving figure’s.
In the Whitney, winding through the rooms, I would occasionally run across one of my sons, lost in their own thoughts. We would blurt out to one another what we’d discovered, or go back to look at something the other recommended. Maybe that’s why I love the Whitney. It’s loaded not only with extraordinary art, but with great memories of shared experience.