The Whitney Museum of American Art was established in 1930 by the sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whose own acquisitions of modern art seeded its founding collection. Since that time, the museum has focused exclusively on collecting and exhibiting work by American artists. In 2015 the Whitney moved to a new Renzo Piano–designed building at 99 Gansevoort Street, where it recently installed “The Whitney’s Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965,” a long-term exhibition of the museum’s permanent holdings. Formerly senior editor of Artforum, Scott Rothkopf joined the Whitney in 2006; he has been chief curator there since 2015.
Scott Rothkopf: In many ways, our mission hasn’t changed since the museum’s founding. Unlike other major art institutions in New York, we weren’t established by a collector but by an artist, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who opened the museum as a way to support other artists, pretty much without an aesthetic ideology or dogma. So, our holdings have been extremely diverse from the beginning. Works that are now icons of our collection, like those of Edward Hopper and the George Bellows painting Dempsey and Firpo, were purchased by Mrs. Whitney early on and weren’t considered masterpieces by the mainstream art establishment at the time.
I think we have more iconic artists than works: Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Alexander Calder. Maybe you could say Calder’s Circus or Jasper Johns’s Three Flags or Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning, but I don’t think we have that many visitors who are coming to see a specific painting the way they might go to MoMA to see Starry Night, or to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. For example, at any given time there’s usually Hopper on view, but it’s not always the same painting.
We have 3,500 artists represented in our collection, of which 51 percent are living, and that percentage was even higher at the time of the museum’s opening. So, for me, a typical work owned by the Whitney would be almost any piece made by a living American artist and purchased near the time of its making. That was the museum’s founding mission and one that we still try to honor. Look at the large number of works we are trying to acquire out of this year’s Whitney biennial, and how many we acquired from the last one.
Then again, we are constantly filling in. For example, an important recent acquisition currently hanging next to a Franz Kline in our “Selections from 1900 to1965,” is the Norman Lewis painting American Totem, from 1960. We should always have had a Lewis painting in our collection, and I look at this one and marvel at the way the way it combines formal invention with social content. It is an extraordinary painting, but at the time it was made, as the work of an African American artist, it was not given its proper due by the Whitney.
Some of the work we try to accomplish, then, is to correct such omissions, which we do with great precision. We are constantly going through the collection and saying, OK, what’s the best painting we can find still in private hands by this artist or that artist, so someone like Lewis is accorded the same level of respect as de Kooning, even if that didn’t happen at the time.
The museum itself created these gaps, and I think that is an important thing to remember. The things people see as omissions today are not things that anyone saw as omissions sixty years, or even just five years, ago. It’s an ongoing process, in which any given moment might reveal a new gap to be addressed.
Nothing on that floor dates after 1965 except one piece you’ll find if you go around the corner. It’s a Nick Mauss work created for his 2018 solo exhibition and reinstalled here. Even though it’s out of the time period of the main exhibition, it works because of Nick’s interest in the history of modernist ballet and because the piece incorporates objects and archival material from our collection. So the show ends with a work that came into our collection recently, and which is by a living artist in dialogue with the Whitney’s past. It’s a kind of grace note to the show reminding people that this is a museum founded to support artists, not only by purchasing and exhibiting their work, but as a source of information and inspiration.