Breathless at The Whitney
When the Whitney Museum of American Art came into view, the size and shape of it took my breath away. Designed by the world-famous architect Renzo Piano, the museum—all steel and glass, light and air—is a great beauty. With its welcoming plaza and the terraces extending from the fifth and sixth floors overlooking the High Line, the Whitney climbs and soars above a lively neighborhood scene on Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking district. A fitting home for what's widely regarded as an unsurpassed collection of modern and contemporary art. A most handsome addition to the downtown scene.
In many respects, downtown has become the place to be. When some 50 years ago, Robert Moses unveiled plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, plans that would have demolished swaths of downtown New York, Greenwich Village resident Jane Jacobs spearheaded a grassroots effort to defeat the project. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, spoke of the need to keep urban areas vibrant and to keep neighborhoods connected. On Little West 12th as you can see, the street is a lively social scene and not a car in sight.
Renzo Piano said from the outset that he wanted a museum that would create a social life combining technology, poetry, and light—“an immense rich bouillabaisse.” Jane Jacobs must be smiling today. While recognizing the genius of Robert Moses -- where would we be without our parkways and expressways? without Jones Beach and Orchard Beach? -- isn't this a far more pleasant way to spend an hour or two than stuck in traffic on the Lower Manhattan Expressway?
Until this year, the Whitney’s collection had been housed in the Brutalist gem on Madison Avenue designed by Marcel Breuer. Having a ziggurat facade, the museum is set back from the street with what resembles a moat and drawbridge. Towering and fortified, yes, but not exactly welcoming.
When asked what she thought about the Breuer, my friend and neighbor, the late Ada Louise Huxtable, the longtime architectural critic at The New York Times and later at The Wall Street Journal said: "It grows on you." That seems to be the case for rather than selling the Breuer building at Madison and 75th, the Whitney has leased it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to use as a showcase for its burgeoning collection of modern and contemporary art.
Happily enough for New Yorkers, Piano had a more welcoming approach in mind for a museum that hugs the Hudson River to the west and the High Line to the east. In short order, the new Whitney Museum has become a gathering place, a conduit of art and culture, a gateway to lower Manhattan. But let's step inside, shall we, to meet the founder: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, as painted by John Singer Sargent. The lady had style!
There are many so many treasures at the Whitney, it's hard to know where to start. To the left in the gallery below is George Bellows "Dempsey and Firpo" at the center Arshile Gorky's "The Couple," and to the right the fabulous "Poker Night" by Thomas Hart Benton.
By the time we've worked our way from floor to floor, the ground floor restaurant operated by Danny Meyer is packed. Instead of waiting, we cross over to the light and lovely Bagatelle on Little West 12th Street at Ninth Avenue. Should you be having lunch with a friend and don't care to be rushed or want to contend with the crowd, artsy Bagatelle is the place to remember.
And be sure to do what we did and spark your visit with a refreshing glass of a mineral-y Sancerre and a delicious frittata. Then, too, there is the secret pleasures inherent in the the sight of the pristine white tablecloths throughout the dining room and the silky feel of the napkin.
What could be more enjoyable than a day spent with a friend exploring the stunning Whitney Museum and enjoying the ambiance of très chic Bagatelle? Hurry on down. Here's a promise: The Whitney Museum of American Art will take your breath away, and Bagatelle (1 Little West Twelfth Street at 9th Avenue) will give you an hour or two in which to restore yourself.
That's all for today, guys and galls. Hope to see you back next week, when I'll have the coffee ready. Jusque là...