Solange Knowles. Photo Billy Farrell/BFA.

April 24, 2015 @ Whitney Museum of American Art

The Whitney Museum of American Art opens its new Renzo Piano-designed building in New York's Meatpacking District to the public on May 1. To inaugurate the $422 million edifice, the museum has given over its entire exhibition space (50,000 square feet indoors, with an additional 13,000 square feet on its terraces) to a show of more than 600 works from the collection. The surprising and scholarly presentation organized by chief curator Donna De Salvo and her team mixes well-known pieces with the more obscure. It takes the poetic title "America Is Hard to See." During an opening party on Apr. 24, however, it wasn't hard to see a consensus of rave reviews forming about the building and exhibition.

The event, sponsored by Max Mara, drew a crowd of nearly 3,000 to the self-described "artists' museum." Appropriately, many artists were spotted among the early arrivals, including Iranian-born Shirin Neshat and Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu, who walked in together. Neshat attended an artists preview earlier that day and gushed about the installation. Composer Philip Glass and artists K8 Hardy, Mariko Mori, Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham also counted among the early revelers.

Museum professionals mingled and offered their congratulations to the Whitney staff, including ICA Boston's newly minted chief curator Eva Respini and New Museum director Lisa Phillips, who worked at the Whitney for more than two decades before assuming her current post. Phillips sported sunglasses to combat the lobby's sunset glare—one of the consequences of Piano's light-drenched design.

Organized chronologically in 23 thematic chapters, "America Is Hard to See" begins on the eighth floor with highlights from the early 20th century and continues to the fifth, with contemporary art. Stepping off the elevator on the top floor, I bumped into the Whitney's associate curator Christopher Y. Lew with artist Josh Kline, whose eerie 3-D-printed installation of disembodied heads, cleaning and packing materials is among the most recent works on view in the exhibition.

Artist Elaine Reichek strolled with MoMA's David Frankel among the floor's offerings of works by the likes of Georgia O'Keeffe, Florine Stettheimer, Charles Sheeler and Man Ray. In the packed eighth-story bar, British painter Cecily Brown chatted with Whitney director Adam Weinberg. Brown, who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, said the exhibition gave her "an optimistic feeling for American culture," noting its "strong voice throughout," especially its inclusion of works by fellow female painters. "If I'd only seen that when I was 16!" she said of an enormous Lee Krasner canvas of swirling greens and pinks on the museum's seventh floor, in a section entitled "New York, N.Y. 1955."

Next to that Krasner on the floor below, I spied James Fuentes. The hip gallerist praised the museum's unexpected juxtapositions of objects by well-recognized artists with those of more historically marginalized figures. He singled out a pairing on the eighth floor of works by the self-taught African-American artist Bill Traylor with the modernist Marsden Hartley.

In an adjacent gallery, musician and fashion icon Solange Knowles was instantly recognizable in a yolk yellow fur coat and skinny trousers. But Knowles wasn't just there to make a style statement. Like her sister Beyoncé and brother-in-law Jay-Z, Solange appreciates and collects art. She huddled with a group contemplating a sobering salon-style hang of graphic anti-lynching posters from the 1930s in the chapter titled "Fighting with All Our Might." When I asked her if she had any other works she was excited to see, she answered, "The Rose," by the late California artist Jay DeFeo. The long-overlooked relief painting (1958-66) featured prominently in DeFeo's 2013 retrospective in the Whitney's former Breuer building home. In this installation, it neighbors mid-century sculptures by Louise Nevelson and Lee Bontecou.

On the sixth floor the masked feminist crusaders Guerrilla Girls, who celebrate their 30th birthday next month, posed for pictures near an acid-hued anti-Vietnam War painting by Peter Saul. That night, they said they were at the museum celebrating, though they are always campaigning for gender equality. The show, for the record, includes about 30% women. "We're all pretty satisfied by that number, but should we be?" mused the member who goes by the alias Zubeida Agha. Their posters announcing gender disparity in museum and gallery representation were notably absent from the inaugural show, though the fifth floor includes a handful of artists who engaged the politics of identity in the 1980s and '90s, like Barbara Kruger, Donald Moffett and David Wojnarowicz.

That final exhibition floor also features work by the politically motivated Chicano collective Asco, active in the 1970s in Los Angeles. Asco member Sean Carrillo attended the soiree with his partner Bibbe Hansen—a legendary figure who is the daughter of Fluxus artist Al Hansen, mother of musician Beck, and a former Warhol factory regular. Carrillo dubbed the exhibition's chapter structure "rhythmic, like jazz." He admired how the show starts at the top with artists like realist painter George Bellows, and ends in the lobby gallery with an homage to the Whitney Studio Club. Founded in 1918 by the artist, socialite and patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the Studio Club's mission to support artists made it a precursor to the Whitney Museum, established in 1931. "It goes back to the museum's roots," he said, "and its commitment to artists."