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The History of American Art of Last Century is on Show in New York

It’s the "The Whitney’s Collection. Selections from 1900 to 1965," the latest unmissable exhibition from the Whitney Museum

David Breslin -Curator

More than an art show on a singular theme or artist, the exhibition re-shuffles and unearths some gems from the collection that have lain in storage for over 40 years and will now see the light of day, thanks to curator David Breslin and assistant curators Margaret Kross and Roxanne Smith. Museums too it seems, carry out spring cleaning.

Only two months after the opening of the highly awaited Art Biennial, the New York Whitney inaugurated the show “The Whitney’s Collection. Selections from 1900 to 1965”.  

This culture-packed summer has barely begun and the museum of American art is looking for reasons to lure more visitors through its doors (we know the closing of the MoMa for renovations from June to October has left a void).

More than an art show on a singular theme or artist, the exhibition re-shuffles and unearths some gems from the collection that have lain in storage for over 40 years and will now see the light of day thanks to curator David Breslin and assistant curators Margaret Kross and Roxanne Smith. Museums too it seems, carry out spring cleaning.

“The Whitney’s Collection. Selections from 1900 to 1965” shows over 120 works: paintings, photographs, sculptures and videos that tell the story of the founding of the Whitney Museum, established in 1930 by Gertrude Vanderbilt-Whitney. Ms. Vanderbilt-Whitney was a sculptor with a passion for art. The Whitney Museum is the only museum in New York founded by an artist, rather than a collector. She had the courage to sponsor and promote American artists at a time when only Western European art was popular and appreciated.

Gertrude was ahead of her time, she would buy and exhibit pieces by up-and-coming artists on a regular basis. She preferred experimentation over ideology, and this show is based on her values. Created in 1914, the Whitney Studio, was an “art salon” of sorts, a space where artists could gather, and was also the starting point of a movement for the appreciation of American art. It was only in 1930 that Gertrude started to think about creating a real museum, when her collection comprised over 500 pieces and space was starting to get very limited.

“It feels like you are back at the Whitney again,” states the museum director Adam Weinberg, during the press preview. He’s talking to a nostalgic audience who knew and visited the old museum at its Madison Avenue location. This exhibit, the fourth to be arranged by David Breslin, represents an introduction to the museum’s history and beloved works that have not been shown as frequently as others.

Regarding the process of selecting the works for the show, Breslin tells us, “There is no correct or unique way of making art, of being an artist or arranging an exhibition, but if you start by praising the artists and their work, it’s a good start.” The galleries explore different themes: landscapes, fantasy and the Surrealist movement, Abstractionism and Pop Art.

Welcoming visitors on the very packed first wall are the photographs of Gertrude Vanderbilt- Whitney and Juliana Force, the first museum director. The blue walls and the multitude of frames that are hung next to each other create the feeling of being in an art lover’s living room, and recall the atmosphere of the Whitney Studio, whose ‘black and whites’ from 1933 are on the very same wall.

Among the works in the first room we see John Steuart Curry’s “Baptism in Kansas,” the painting from 1928 that shows a baptism taking place in a water tank in a town of the American prairie. The following room is dedicated to “futurism” and “industrialization”.  Here we see Charles Demuth’s and Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs, and Joseph Stella’s “Brooklyn Bridge” from 1939. These are the years of factories turned “cathedrals”, but as visitors know, in 1939 we are only 10 years past the financial crisis that started the Great Depression. The oldest painting in the room –by Florine Stettheimer, and in its original hand-made frame, depicts New York as a growing city with skyscrapers under construction.

In the third room, a small divider separates Georgia O’Keefe’s  desert-skull “Summerdays” and  the popular “Music, Pink and Blue No.2” from another large painting by Edward Hopper, his “Soir Blue,” whose clown dominates the scene in both the painting and the whole room. Many other Hopper paintings are hung there, including “A Woman in the Sun,” but the real treasure is his notebooks with sketches of the paintings he made, and annotations of when and where and to whom they were sold.

Protected by glass, in a small dark room, is Alexander Calder’s “Circus”, a microcosm built from simple materials such as fabrics, cork wood and pieces of wire. 

Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Calder’s Circus, 1926-31. © 2019 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

This installation only shows half of the circus pieces in the Whitney Museum’s possession, over 300 in total. The following room is about Fantasy and Surrealism, at a time when artists were impacted by World War I, and their paintings show alienation and estrangement.

“Mirror of Life” by Henry Koerner is one of the paintings shown here together with the cheerful piece, “Spook Sport” which is an 8 minute video by the artist Mary Ellen Bute, in which a little ghost-like apostrophe moves in an abstract and visionary space.

The “War Series” by Jacob Lawrence has its own gallery. The fourteen paintings that he made in 1946 to recall his experience fighting in the Second World War are unmissable. The gallery dedicated to Abstractionism shows “Number 27” by Pollock, and “Door to the River” by De Kooning. But of special interest is one of the latest museum acquisitions, “American Totem” by Norman Lewis.

Norman Lewis (1909-1979), American Totem, 1960. © Norman Lewis. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York, NY

Lewis, a Harlem native, was one of the Abstract Expressionists who explored the emotional impact of the civil rights movement and the protests of his period.

His “Totem” recalls the shape of a Klansman and is constructed from a mix of masks and skulls. In Lewis’s piece, terror is at once both abstract and represented.

In the last room, a reminder of Pop-Art and the advertising age: Wesselmann’s huge hamburger, the Allan D’arcangelo Madonna/Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe with her bodyguard fleeing from paparazzi.

The show manages to narrate a lot of the history of American art from the past century in only 120 pieces. The installation is open-ended and will be shown for at least the next 18 months.  More info at



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