The Whitney’s Hidden Gems: 10 Masterworks Not to Miss in the New Building
Don't miss Ed Ruscha, Mary Heilmann, and Nam June Paik at the new Whitney.
Much has been made of the broad range of art on view new Whitney Museum of American Art in the inaugural exhibition “America Is Hard to See” (see Whitney Museum’s Inaugural Show in New Home Spans John Sloan to Yayoi Kusama and Jeff Koons), which features an astonishing 407 artists (see Whitney Announces the 407 Artists Included in Inaugural Permanent Collection Hang), with everyone from Thomas Hart Benton to Wayne Thiebaud getting in on the action.
But we have a feeling that when the new museum finally opens to the public on May 1, many visitors will head straight to the contemporary section, especially the fifth floor. artnet News offers our picks of the best contemporary art on view. (See Brian Boucher’s 10 Reasons To Be Excited About The New Whitney Museum.)
1. Candy Jernigan, THE NEW YORK COLLECTIONS, Found Dope: Part II (1986)
This delicate work catches the eye with its tiny bursts of bright color, which, when you get up close, are revealed to be the plastic caps of 308 crack vials, collected by the artist near her home in New York’s East Village. Jernigan’s carefully drawn map of the neighborhood casts a simultaneously pretty and stark light on the 1980s crack epidemic. Married to minimalist composer Philip Glass, Jernigan died of liver cancer in 1991 at age 39.
2. Ed Ruscha, The Old Tool & Die Building (2004)
Ruscha is featured among both the contemporary and more historical portions of “America Is Hard to See,” with his showstopping, monumental Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights, a 1962 masterpiece featuring the 20th Century Fox logo, prominently located in front of the elevator bank on one of the upper floors. Equally large but less readily identifiable is The Old Tool & Die Building, part of his “Course of Empire” series. Named after the works chronicling the rise and fall of civilizations by Hudson River Valley School painter Thomas Cole, Ruscha’s paintings serve as a send-off to the US’s fading industrial landscape.
3. Mike Kelley, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin (1987)
Kelley’s assorted stuffed animals may initially come off as cheerful and nostalgic, but the piece’s title hints at darker dimensions. How did these once-beloved children’s toys end up on display here? Kelley explores the parent/child bond, questioning whether toys become a means for parents to buy their children’s love. The work is paired with a shrine-like end table covered in partially-melted candles, meant to serve as an altar to adolescence passing into adulthood.
4. Nam June Paik, V-yramid (1982)
This mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic display, created by the artist for his 1982 retrospective at the Whitney, contains no fewer than 40 television screens, arranged in quartets stacked like an ancient ziggurat. Paik’s appropriation of the ancient religious architectural form seems to implicate our modern-day worship of media technology, and the indecipherable sequence of flashing images points to a vacuousness in the easily digestible offerings of pop culture that presages the increasingly plugged-in nature of life today.
5. Mark Bradford, Bread and Circuses (2007)
Visually striking both for its enormous size and its use of shiny metal foil, Bread and Circuses is a multi-layered collage of advertisements, posters, and other papers that Bradford collects across his neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. The dense tangle of ephemera, peeking out from behind the silvery foil, serves as an unconventional urban map, documenting the commercial activity that keeps the community afloat.
6. Carroll Dunham, Large Bather (quicksand), 2006–12
Dunham’s wife Laurie Simmons (whose work is also included in “America Is Hard to See”) and daughter Lena may get all the media attention these days (see Laurie Simmons Casts Daughter Lena Dunham in New Film and Lena Dunham Reluctantly Decides to Pay Book Tour Perfomers), but it’s Dunham’s Large Bather (quicksand) that catches the eye at the Whitney. With its cartoonishly erotic depiction of a woman bathing in the woods, the work simultaneously evokes art historical tradition and contemporary pop culture.
7. Aleksandra Mir, Osama (2007)
Mir based these giant Osama bin Laden newspaper drawings, with their threatening “Terror Chief Warns U.S. Worst Is Yet to Come” and “The War Has Just Started” headlines, on tabloid cover stories from 1998. The chilling work renders the disposable tabloid suddenly prophetic, and demonstrates how chronologically interchangeable news stories can become.
8. Nicole Eisenman, Achilles Heel (2014)
One of the museum’s most recent acquisitions, Achilles Heel depicts Eisenman’s favorite bar, in her neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Despite being set in a social situation, the painting is gloomy and unsettling, with none of the figures making eye contact or appearing to engage with one another—one stares at his hand, perhaps engrossed in a smart phone.
9. Cory Arcangel, Super Mario Clouds (2002)
Even though Arcangel has hacked his cartridge of classic Super Nintendo Super Mario Brothers, the remaining graphics, a group of cheerfully floating clouds, are still instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up playing the 1985 game. Recreating this nostalgia-infused art piece at home is easy—for a computer programmer, anyway—thanks to instructions on the artist’s website.
10. Mary Heilmann, Monochromatic Chairs (2015)
The new Whitney has been designed to play upon the museum’s connection to the city, and embrace the urban environment. There’s even one piece, Glenn Ligon‘s neon and aluminum Warm Broad Glow II (2002), for which the best viewing point is definitely from the adjacent High Line elevated park. Nowhere is this attitude more in evidence than in Mary Heilmann’s outdoor art installation, which scatters colorful chairs across a roof deck. The inviting seats encourage visitors to congregate, to relax, and to enjoy the views of the city and the river from different angles, and imbue the setting with a childlike sense of wonder and whimsy.
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