A 1966 issue of A.i.A. devoted to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building offers a revealing glimpse of America’s changing cultural establishment.
“I want to be bugged by museums, not tranquilized by them.” So declared Peter Blake in the pages of Art in America in 1966, attempting to justify the jarring form of Marcel Breuer’s newly completed building for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Erected on Madison Avenue, this controversial, upside-down ziggurat had disrupted the scale and traditional architecture of its genteel Upper East Side neighborhood. One critic reported that it had become known as the “Madison Avenue Monster.” She said, “It’s one of the most aggressive, arrogant buildings in New York.”1
In its September-October issue devoted to the building, A.i.A. sought to explain, preempt and assuage criticism of the new Whitney with articles by three authors: Blake, an architect, critic and editor of Architectural Forum, who described the structure and its workings; August Heckscher, a high-profile public servant who discussed the building’s relationship to the city; and the museum’s director, distinguished scholar of American art Lloyd Goodrich, who reflected on the institution’s past, present and future.2
This month the Whitney again unveils a new home when it moves to New York’s Meatpacking District. A.i.A.’s assessment of Breuer’s building from nearly 50 years ago is worth revisiting for what it had to say about architecture and the direction of museums, and also because the articles are fascinating depictions of a cultural establishment in transition. Why did A.i.A. devote so much attention to the new Whitney? The answer is partly that the two institutions shared a common mission: both had been founded in the early 20th century to support the American art community. But by the mid-1960s, the magazine and the museum were uncertain about how to fulfill this task in a rapidly shifting political, social and economic environment that they had difficulty fully acknowledging. A.i.A.’s coverage of the Whitney reveals two institutions at a crossroad, caught between the art of the immediate past—Abstract Expressionism, whose heroic practitioners had so ably embodied American individualism—and the disruptive and varied new art of the ’60s, which both the museum and magazine were attempting to define as it was still in the making.
Modern architecture posed problems for A.i.A.’s editors and contributors as well. The issue’s authors struggled to justify the Whitney’s unusual cantilevered form, pulling off the difficult trick of claiming that it was new and radical while upholding the status quo. They praised it in the same terms they used to praise Abstract Expressionism: as a pure expression of material and artistic subjectivity, and as a bulwark against kitsch and crassness. The new granite-clad Whitney would be a citadel, staunchly defending the arts against the city’s advertising firms headquartered just blocks away in a glass-walled stretch of International Style towers on Madison Avenue—a street whose name had become a negative byword for advertising, its cynicism and “Mad Men” ethics. Consumerism, media and advertising were the real specters here. In his account of how the Breuer building would transform the city around it, Heckscher, a cultural mandarin of the Great Society, described how the structure would create a new identity for the famous street on which it resided: “‘Madison Avenue’ is a term that has heretofore had its share of overtones, not all of them agreeable. Henceforth ‘Madison Avenue’ will mean art in all of its ebullience and variety; henceforth it will mean the Whitney.”
The meaning and mission of the Whitney had also changed over time, as Goodrich explained in his account of how the museum’s previous homes had shaped it in positive, though ultimately limiting ways. The institution, founded in 1914 as the Whitney Studio, was originally housed in a row of cobbled-together Greenwich Village townhouses, their domestic scale reflecting the cozy tone of the organization, which concentrated on showing the work of living American artists in an intimate atmosphere. The Whitney Studio evolved into the Whitney Studio Club, then the Whitney Studio Galleries before finally embracing a more open, public identity as the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. After World War II, the museum continued to professionalize and moved out of the downtown townhouses to 54th Street, adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art. But this turned out to be a mistake; the building proved too small and the Whitney’s neighbor nearly overwhelmed it. In 1963, the trustees decided to erect a new structure on Madison Avenue at 75th Street that would once and for all dispel the institution’s lingering amateurish airs, mark its maturation and give it a strong identity.
The new building’s architect was a bold experimentalist with blue-chip credentials: Marcel Breuer (1902-1981), a Hungarian-born, Bauhaus-trained émigré then at the apex of his career. Like many architects after World War II, from Le Corbusier to Paul Rudolph, Breuer believed that modern architecture needed to reintroduce monumentality and symbolism, age-old characteristics that had been disregarded by modernists earlier in the 20th century. To express these attributes, he masterfully rendered abstract forms in concrete, as exemplified by his Paris headquarters for UNESCO (1953-58) and a series of transcendent churches and monasteries in the American Midwest. Fellow architects acclaimed Breuer, but the inchoate symbolism and massiveness of his buildings often perplexed and dismayed those outside architectural circles.
Breuer believed he was creating new, enduring forms for the 20th century, but critics mixed up his massive abstraction with Brutalism, a term that Breuer never used to describe his work. Nor was it used by his American peers, such as Rudolph, Louis Kahn and I.M. Pei. Postwar Britain’s “New Brutalism” was anti- monumental. Its adherents sought to drag a rough poetry out of everyday life and mass culture, proposing buildings closer to the working-class or industrial vernacular. What became popularly known as Brutalism in the U.S.—meaning grandiose, often institutional architecture in concrete—had little to do with that British definition. A building at the center of a larger set of misunderstandings, Breuer’s monolith for the Whitney had been controversial for its appearance and presence in the streetscape since A.i.A. published its first schemes in 1964.
In his piece for the magazine, Heckscher defended the new building’s monumentality as a necessary quality for democratic institutions—a line of argument developed at length in his 1962 book The Public Happiness. Heckscher was deeply tied to the liberal political culture of the postwar era, having been the first special consultant on the arts to the White House during the Kennedy administration. Delivered with a seriousness that recalled Kennedy’s oratory, but bordered on pomposity, Heckscher’s remarks were sometimes prescient. Explaining how the new Whitney would benefit the city, he claimed, “A museum (as all good museums do) should stand forth boldly on the civic landscape and at best should send forth ripples which influence in widening circles the area around it.” Anticipating how later museums, such as the Centre Pompidou and the Guggenheim Bilbao, would become engines of urban change, he said that the new Whitney would knit the loose collection of Upper East Side galleries into an artistic enclave: “A whole section of the town has been pinned down by this structure; the galleries and small shops around it fall into place and have their meaning drawn out and expressed in its bold form.”
Heckscher answered charges that the Whitney was insensitive to the existing context by explaining that the Breuer building’s distinctive shape and opacity were in fact “a critique of much contemporary urban architecture,” a pointed reference to generic glass-and-steel buildings. That style had quickly gone from being a vanguard movement to one associated with big business, used at first for corporate headquarters and then cheaply knocked off by developers, who critics said were transforming the city’s boulevards into repetitive corridors. Like advertising, the International Style was symptomatic of a deleterious consumerism and numbingly conformist mass culture.
Breuer himself had been adamant that the structure should not resemble an office building, and he felt there was no point in acknowledging the adjacent townhouses because, he wrongly believed, they would soon be replaced by high-rises anyway. He extended a concrete party wall beyond the edge of the building to ensure that a glass curtain wall would not someday butt up against his granite facade. The building’s opacity implied profundity commensurate with that of the art found within it. Trapezoidal windows randomly sprinkled across the elevations suggested surprising, oblique points of view. Such gestures appealed little to critics who thought that the building was inappropriate for the neighborhood. Art News editor Thomas Hess wondered what the gentlemanly Whitney administrators had been thinking when they commissioned this monolith: “What were our dear old friends up to, decreeing a black Crusader Castle among the tearooms and boutiques of Madisonia?”3
In his A.i.A. article, Blake claimed that the Whitney was an inversion of the stepped-back “commercial ziggurats” of Midtown. Blake’s reiteration of Heckscher’s explanations for the Whitney’s form demonstrates the consistency—even repetitiveness—of the arguments made to justify the building. Blake wrote, “The real reason for the Whitney’s shape may be found in the language of symbolism rather than function. . . . The new Whitney will be art’s answer to the huckster: where the ad agencies operate behind flimsy glass walls, the Whitney will be wrapped in concrete faced with granite; where the commercial ziggurats push the pedestrian off the sidewalk, the Whitney will invite him in; and where the right-side-up ziggurats down the avenue now symbolize the huckster’s perversion of art, the Whitney’s upside-down monolith may become a powerful symbol of art ‘sailing against the currents of its time.’” The anti-Establishment ’60s were just hitting their pace, but Blake, like Heckscher, still wrote in the grandiloquent tones of the Kennedy years. The quotation “sailing against the currents of its time” was taken from one of John F. Kennedy’s last speeches, which had celebrated the individuality of the artist, another theme touched upon by each writer.
ANDY WARHOL'S and Pop art’s heyday were though the mid-’60s; the archetypal artist extolled by Heckscher, Blake and Goodrich was still the lone, Abstract Expressionist of the ’50s. The Whitney had been slow to acknowledge Abstract Expressionism, but once its curators discovered this appealingly individualist American art movement, they were equally slow to let it go. In his account of the museum’s history, Goodrich apologized for the Whitney’s tendency to favor the quotidian at the expense of the new and innovative, attributing it to the spirit of the institution’s early days, and promised that the new building would change this. He wrote, “the democratic and egalitarian viewpoint inherited from the Whitney Studio Club did keep us from giving as much weight to certain advanced tendencies as they deserved. Today we hope to achieve both aims: not only to include the good but to concentrate on the more than good.”
Determining what was good and more than good was difficult, as is apparent in a photo of works on exhibit in one of the Whitney’s cavernous new galleries. Canvases by Al Held and Josef Albers are visible, but most of the artists on display have received little subsequent attention. A.i.A. attempted to show the breadth of the Whitney’s holdings by concluding the special feature with a portfolio of works selected from the museum’s permanent collection by Whitney curator John I.H. Baur, among them the paintings by Edward Hopper and John Sloan for which the museum was best known, canvases by Morris Louis and Jasper Johns that showed its attempts to catch up on postwar art, and even some forays into Pop by James Rosenquist and Claes Oldenburg.
Significantly, the Pop artist who was most famous (or notorious) for engaging with consumer culture was nowhere to be seen. The Whitney was only tentatively embracing Warhol, first acquiring a small work on paper in 1965 and then featuring him in a 1967 exhibition. The initial oversight is again symptomatic of the institution’s difficulties keeping up with the art of the decade. A.i.A. was in the midst of a similar struggle. Its reportage of the rapidly changing art world had both remarkable insights and remarkable gaps, as would be expected from a journal that was writing art history as it happened. A.i.A. acknowledged Pop artists like Warhol, though often only in passing and in broader “round-up” style discussions about new tendencies that it tried to define, an approach exemplified at its best by Barbara Rose’s 1965 analysis of the origins of Minimalism, “ABC Art,” which also referenced Warhol.4 The magazine was aware of what was going on, featuring works by Johns, Rauschenberg and Oldenburg, but it still favored artists working in the spirit of Abstract Expressionism, especially sculptors such as David Smith and Anthony Caro, whose assemblages (examined in the same 1966 issue as the Whitney) brought expressive forms off the pedestal and onto the ground. Except for advertisements (fittingly enough!), there were only fleeting references to Pop and Warhol in A.i.A.’s 1966 issues, though that year saw the theatrical release of the artist’s landmark film, Chelsea Girls which received wide discussion even in the nonspecialist press.
In 1966, A.i.A., like the Whitney, still had one foot in the drawing rooms of an earlier American art world. Twelve pages were devoted to Mary and Leigh Block’s impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art, photographed in color in situ in their splendid Chicago apartment. Yet despite the genteel, institutional hush of the issue, there was one dissenting voice, ironic in its tones and insistent that consumerism should be acknowledged as the most important force of the day: British architecture historian and theorist Reyner Banham. His contribution to the special Whitney issue of 1966 was a tongue-in-cheek proposal that the corporate logos found on American race cars constituted a branch of modern heraldry, recalling the coats of arms of medieval knights. Taking aim at an America whose technology he admired but whose attitudes he found square, Banham said that American critics had overlooked such manifestations of pop culture, which only hip foreigners like himself appreciated. One of the definers of New Brutalism, Banham found the misuse of the term distressing—another example of American boneheadedness. An advocate of a purely technology-driven architecture, he disdained buildings like Breuer’s Whitney for their monumentality, which is probably why A.i.A. asked Blake and not Banham to write about it.
Banham’s satirical remarks signaled new shifts in attitude caused by the social, political and economic changes of the ’60s that were soon felt by the contributors to A.i.A.’s Whitney issue. Blake became an outspoken skeptic of postwar modernism, especially the symbolic qualities of buildings, like the Whitney, that by late decade were equated with power and its abuse. Descending from his elite pedestal, Heckscher embraced the populist spirit of the day when he became city parks commissioner and administrator of cultural affairs under mayor John Lindsay in 1967. He famously introduced mass entertainment to Central Park with a 1967 concert by Barbra Streisand attended by 135,000.
The Whitney also changed. The new building established an identity for the institution and helped set it on a path that would determine cultural discourse rather than just follow it. In 1968, the museum’s Independent Study Program was founded by Goodrich’s successor as museum director, Baur. The program’s courses in theory transformed art and scholarship for generations. The Whitney’s reputation would undergo a radical about-face from stodgy to trendy in the 1970s under the leadership of a new director, Thomas N. Armstrong.
By that time, the Whitney had begun to see its own building differently. The idea that the museum was a bulwark against consumerism never took hold. The country was too preoccupied by the setbacks of war, political disenchantment and recession to worry about the harmful effects of advertising. Looking to expand in the 1970s, the Whitney deliberately challenged Breuer’s monumentality with a Pop gesture by one of the originators of postmodernism, the architecture firm of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and John Rauch. They turned the building into a scaffold for Madison Avenue-style advertising in 1976, when they mounted a 28-foot-high photo cutout of Hiram Power’s Greek Slave (1844) atop the Whitney’s entrance canopy for the bicentennial-year exhibition “200 Years of American Sculpture.” Historian K. Michael Hays has noted the action’s significance: “This Vegas-style sign of low-brow, popular culture—which Breuer’s blank-screen façade had tried so hard to rebuff—was a direct challenge to the architect’s attempt at profundity.”5 The museum also notoriously undermined Breuer’s building when it commissioned Michael Graves to add a showboat postmodernist wing to it in 1985. Eventually defeated, the addition scheme and other subsequent proposals only made Breuer’s original building look better. In the 21st century, the “Madison Avenue Monster” is almost beloved.
Heckscher’s prediction that Madison Avenue would become synonymous with the Whitney and art never came true. Instead, the Whitney has followed the art world to the Meatpacking District, a zone where pleasure, fashion, technology and spectacle mingle. Today the area is enlivened by the High Line, a work of architecture that is not a building at all but an intervention that attracts new architecture, as Jonathan Massey discusses in this issue. Unlike Breuer’s Whitney, the new museum by Renzo Piano will probably “bug” few, but it is proof of the institution’s readiness to engage with the world around it. The selection of the site shows that the Whitney now considers art a dialogue between the disparate forces of consumerism and culture that will continuously flow into it from the High Line.
TIMOTHY M. ROHAN is associate professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.