Magazine article Artforum International

Return to Form: Julian Rose on the Met Breuer

Magazine article Artforum International

Return to Form: Julian Rose on the Met Breuer

Article excerpt

IN THE FALL OF 1963, presenting his vision for a new Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Marcel Breuer described a structure that would play the role of mediator--actively shepherding the visitor through the transition from a frenetic urban context into the spaces of contemplation that awaited within: "It should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art." More than half a century later, Breuer's conception of art can sound quaint; the last show the Whitney held in his galleries before moving on to more expansive accommodations downtown was a staggering Jeff Koons retrospective, where at least one of those qualities was conspicuously lacking from the art.

But it is Breuer's very notion of the museum as a space apart that seems most out of place in today's pumped-up art world. The vitality of the street has been welcomed inside, particularly as both urban public life and cultural tourism have been reduced to the common denominators of entertainment and consumption. While the Whitney's new home, designed by Renzo Piano, is almost 400 percent larger (220,000 square feet to Breuer's 85,000), it includes only about 50 percent more gallery space (50,000 square feet to Breuer's 33,000). The increased area introduces an impressive range of amenities, from an education center and theater to a state-of-the-art conservation lab and a black-box performance and screening room, as well as a street-level retail shop that the Whitney, in a strikingly direct inversion of Breuer's description of his building, says "contributes to the busy street life of the area." Indeed, while Breuer's iconic inverted ziggurat offers a seductively ambiguous gesture perfectly in keeping with his idea of a transformative architecture--opening a wide gulf between sidewalk and museum interior even as it simultaneously draws visitors across and into the shelter of its welcoming overhang--Piano's sprawling structure embraces its environment at every turn, not just physically interpenetrating the High Line but also framing views of the Meatpacking District and Hudson River through the vast spans of glass that bookend each of the main gallery floors. If Breuer's structure still looks a bit out of place among the staid facades of its flanking brownstones, the crowds fluidly circulating between Piano's building and its surroundings show that the new structure is already as much a part of the neighborhood as the High Line itself.

All this makes sense given the brave new world museums now inhabit, and the Whitney is hardly unusual in its radical transformation. What is unique, however, is that it moved on so completely, abandoning a masterpiece for ground-up construction. As the nature of the art museum has evolved, modernist icons around the country have sprouted appendages: Edward Larrabee Barnes's Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (1971) was significantly expanded by Herzog & de Meuron in 2005, and Piano's extension of Louis Kahn's 1972 Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth opened in 2013, to name just two examples. The Whitney had repeated brushes with a similar fate, including a long string of proposed additions: several in the '80s and early '90s by Michael Graves, one by Rem Koolhaas in 2001, and a nine-story tower by Piano in 2004, before his plan for the new site downtown. In a welcome but utterly absurd irony of the arcane workings of architectural preservation, Breuer's building was saved not by any recognition of its own value as a discrete work, but by its nondescript brownstone neighbors, which happen to be land-marked. The fact that they are zoned for protection, combined with good old-fashioned Upper East Side NIMBYISM (the Carlyle hotel was one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to stop Piano's addition), effectively rendered the expansion of Breuer's building impossible and necessitated the Whitney's move.

In 2011, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just a few blocks northwest, announced that it would be stepping in to lease the old Whitney to display its collection of modern and contemporary art. …

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