A swan song of sorts is playing at the Whitney Museum of American Art: the last Biennial exhibition before the museum moves downtown and leaves behind the landmark building designed by Marcel Breuer in the 1960s.
The momentousness of that move is not lost on the museum staff, who asked the three guest curators of the Biennial how the Breuer building figured in their thoughts as the show was coming together. Each curator was assigned a floor, second through fourth, and 103 artists or art groups are represented in all, double the number of the 2012 Biennial.
The building has been a distinctive and at times controversial resident of New York, almost from the time Breuer asked the question, “What should a museum look like, a museum in Manhattan?” Built in the Brutalist style, its monolithic granite facade, outward-stepping face and seven quirkily placed trapezoidal windows are at odds with a neighborhood of brick and brownstone. Inside, the 12- and 17-foot high walls and moveable panels are an artist’s dream, providing a neutral backdrop for very large works.
“Breuer’s fantastic volumes are ideal for discrete works of art,” says art professor and critic Michelle Grabner, who curated the fourth floor and took advantage of the space with large canvases.
Film curator Stuart Comer, responsible for the third floor, has been coming to the Whitney since childhood. A fan of Brutalist architecture, he loves the “friction” the building has with the rest of the neighborhood. “I want to use the space in a way that makes people aware of its surfaces and special characteristics,” Comer says. “I’ve always thought of that lobby as a kind of inverted marquee; it gives a sense of something live and dynamic and exciting to come.”
Associate curator and editor Anthony Elms, who worked on the second floor, said the Whitney staff shared Breuer’s notes on how he envisioned the building to be used. “I read them over and over again, and showed them to a couple of artists,” he recalls. “Some said, ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking I want my piece to do.’”
Breuer was a giant of modern design and an architect much in demand in the 1960s and ’70s. Like many architects, he also designed furniture, having gotten his start at a young age in the carpentry shop at the Bauhaus. His works are still being produced three decades after his death in 1981 at age 79.
Breuer buildings are found all over the U.S. and Europe, some in grand surroundings, some in humble. But this Madison Avenue landmark stands out in part because it houses a museum that has always broken new ground, just as the building itself once did.
After the Whitney moves out early next year, The Metropolitan Museum of Art will use the space to display its modern art collection, which is in need of exposure. With the Whitney moniker removed, it’s a good bet the “inverted Babylonian ziggurat,” as one critic dubbed it in the 1960s, will be known simply as the Breuer building. “For at least another generation,” says Comer, “the Breuer building will be a palimpsest of the Whitney, and it will always be part of its cultural memory.”