If their experience was anything like mine, they probably felt they were walking on air. At the opening celebrations I attended, including the ceremonial ribbon-cutting on Thursday with Michelle Obama and Mayor Bill de Blasio present and Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, presiding, the atmosphere was euphoric, unlike anything I’d experienced in over four decades in the New York art world. Now we know how it feels, I kept thinking, when a museum emerges bigger but better from the excruciating process of building a new home. Now we know what can happen when an architect — in this case Renzo Piano — and trustees, a director and curators are on the same page and keeping their priority straight. Namely, to accommodate art and people with equal finesse.
When a structure like this opens, a sensation of transformation occurs in real time. The Whitney and its collection are shifting shape — growing and deepening before our eyes.
At Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, the city’s cultural metabolism seemed to quicken noticeably as successive speakers affirmed art’s importance to society. That’s because the new Whitney forces a decisive yet organic realignment of the balance of power among New York’s main museums that is good for all concerned. With its enlarged galleries and the reveal of its collection, the Whitney, and to some extent American art, should begin getting the full respect both deserve.
One sign of this realignment: Last Friday, the Museum of Modern Art congratulated the Whitney in a quarter-page ad in The New York Times. It seemed magnanimous but weird. “Welcome to the top tier,” it seemed to say. And yet, except for the white lettering, the entire page was black, like a death announcement.
In my years in New York, I’ve seen a lot of disappointing architectural activity among the city’s museums: expansions and new structures that displayed glaring flaws from the outset that either got worse or became, at best, bearable. The most prominent include two expansions at the Museum of Modern Art, one at the Guggenheim, two at the Brooklyn Museum, two at the Morgan Library & Museum, a new building for the New Museum and the coming — and going — of the American Folk Art Museum.
The Whitney is palpably a different order of achievement. Art looks better here, to my eyes, than it did in the old Whitney, and it is amazingly comfortable to be in. I didn’t understand this fully until last Friday night, my third time inside the building.
Up to that point, I’d seen Mr. Piano’s eight-floor structure empty, looking big and fabulous inside but somewhat anonymous. I’d visited again when the first show, of roughly 600 works by some 400 artists, was nearly installed, which was thrilling. For a permanent collection display spanning more than a century of art, the opening show has an unusually high (for the Whitney) percentage of works by women (nearly one-third) and a strong representation of African-American and Asian-American artists, if too few works by Hispanic artists. But this isn’t just a matter of numbers; diversity is broadcast by the art itself, throughout the show and in numerous outstanding works and telling juxtapositions.
To cite but a few: Among the works unfamiliar to me were I. Rice Pereira’s “Boat Composite,” a large, vivid yet grisaille canvas from 1932 that dominates a gallery of Precisionist paintings and photographs with its bold scale and paint handling, learning from Fernand Léger while presaging the great late works of Stuart Davis and Philip Guston. And old standbys suddenly became new knockouts: Lee Krasner’s “The Seasons” from 1957 commandeers the Abstract Expressionist gallery, which is further enlivened by excellent lesser-known works by Norman Lewis, Alfonso Ossorio, Hedda Sterne and Eldzier Cortor. In a gallery centered on the use of non-art materials, assemblages by Raphael Montañez Ortiz and Noah Purifoy hold their own against a Rauschenberg combine, and Jim Dine’s “The Black Rainbow” from 1959-60 shows him at his rough-edged best.
But to see the new Whitney in active use is to understand its success as a place for visitors. It instantly became the most physically welcoming art space in New York outside of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And it accomplished its new level of comfort without carving a huge event space out of its center, as many museums have done. For better or for worse, the Whitney is in something of an event space, the meatpacking district, but it also has a series of events spaces at its margins: a flexible auditorium and four large terraces, three of which are linked by an outdoor staircase.
The Whitney may be too hospitable for its own good, but only time will tell. It has timed tickets that are designed to control crowding, but people may linger longer than expected. After art they can retire to the eighth-floor cafe, the terraces or the lines of comfy leather couches facing glass walls overlooking the Hudson and Greenwich Village at either end of the fifth floor (an unmitigated luxury for denizens of New York museums).
The outdoor staircase epitomizes the operative and symbolic logic of Mr. Piano’s design. The meaning and function of a wide switchback three-level affair in steel grating will be parsed for years to come. It is the most aggressive part of the multiple components that make the building a kind of architectural assemblage. From the street, the switchback juts out over the building’s east face like a fire escape on steroids or a fragment of an aircraft carrier. From the galleries, it is a people magnet but also a people mover, integrating the indoor galleries and the outdoor terraces and eliminating dead ends in a way that rarely happens in buildings of any kind. It affords a third way to move among three (if not four) of the museum’s main display floors. It is something like the Whitney’s very own High Line, except that it works for its living.
Mr. Piano has built more than his share of disappointing museums, including his expansion of the Morgan Library. But the new Whitney reaffirms why museums began turning to him in the first place. Moreover, it shows that despite Manhattan’s treacherous real estate market, the borough can still accommodate a gracious museum that is equally receptive to art and the viewing of art. It proves that these conditions are mutually dependent. You can’t have one without the other.