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The Whitney Explores New Narratives through a Multi-Year Series of Collection Exhibitions
Max Weber, Chinese Restaurant, 1915. Oil on canvas, 40 x 48 in. (101.6 x 121.9 cm) Whitney Museum of American Art; purchase 31.382.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- This spring, the Whitney Museum of American Art inaugurates a multi-year exhibition initiative aimed at reassessing the Museum’s collection and, by extension, the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century American art. As we approach groundbreaking for our downtown building project, the Whitney’s curatorial team has devised a series of collection installations that will serve as a laboratory for possible approaches to displaying the Museum’s holdings in its new building. From late April 2011, through the end of 2013, each of six consecutive exhibitions on the second floor of the Whitney’s Breuer building will present a focused look at roughly one to two decades of American art seen through a novel, sometimes revisionist lens. These exhibitions, unfolding in chronological order as part of a larger “exhibition in time,” collectively offer a panorama of a century of art in the United States.

Rather than proceeding according to the best known “isms” that have come to define American art, this group of exhibitions will expand on the scholarly and popular conception of this nation’s art history by exploring more unsung or overlooked developments or by reconsidering iconic figures and masterworks in a new frame or context. As Chief Curator and Deputy Director Donna De Salvo remarks, “Each exhibition will dig deep into the Museum’s holdings in order to unearth new discoveries and create intellectual frameworks beyond the established canon. Proceeding from the assumption that history is subjective and fluid, we want to consider it as an open, rather than closed inquiry.”

The series begins with Breaking Ground: The Whitney’s Founding Collection, which takes a fresh perspective on the origins of the Museum’s collection and on a rich moment in the history of American art. Breaking Ground revisits the Museum’s early approach to installation and its democratic and inclusive collecting philosophy, which aimed to convey the breadth and diversity of American art, from conservative portraiture to modernist abstraction.

Opening April 28, 2011, Breaking Ground features a selection of approximately one hundred objects drawn from the Whitney’s founding collection, including renowned works by artists such as Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Max Weber, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O’Keeffe. In addition, the show examines works by lesser-known artists such as Leon Kroll, Karl Free, Lucille Blanch, Arthur Lee, Clarence Carter, Robert Laurent, and Eugene Speicher, many of whom were widely celebrated in their day. The exhibition is co-curated by Whitney curator Barbara Haskell and senior curatorial assistant Sasha Nicholas.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, an heiress and sculptor born to one of America’s most famous families, began to assemble a rich and diverse collection of modern American art. A great champion of the American artists of her time, she opened, in 1914 and 1918 respectively, the Whitney Studio and the Whitney Studio Club, precursors to the current Museum. In the autumn of 1929, weeks before the stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, Mrs. Whitney announced the founding of the Whitney Museum. Soon thereafter, she and Juliana Force, who would serve as the Museum’s first director, began a concerted effort to bolster the collection that Mrs. Whitney had amassed during the previous two decades. Two hundred works were purchased before the Museum opened in November 1931; an equal number followed in the Museum’s first few years. These works, approximately 1,000 in total, comprised the founding collection, which Mrs. Whitney deeded to the Museum in 1935.

In creating a museum, Mrs. Whitney sought to retain the intimacy and informality of the Whitney Studio and Club, as well as its egalitarian spirit. She and Juliana Force painted the galleries in soft pastels and embellished them with plush draperies and streamlined Moderne furniture; hallways featured patriotic stars-and-stripes wallpaper. The labyrinthine layout of the galleries—the result of having joined together four residential brownstones—predisposed visitors to meander, rather than follow a preordained trajectory. Breaking Ground will evoke certain aspects of this design.
The second exhibition in the series, Real/Surreal, opening in the fall of 2011, will also be drawn entirely from the holdings of the Whitney’s permanent collection. It focuses on the tension and overlap between realism and surrealism in American art of the 1930s and '40s and features more than one hundred works in painting, drawing, photography, and printmaking.

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