Mary Heilmann’s project for the new Whitney Museum

Mary Heilmann isn’t afraid of colors. This is not only apparent from her abstract paintings inspired by Minimalism and Californian surfer culture, but also evidenced by the installation she developed expressly for the giant terrace of the reopened Whitney Museum, the building’s largest outdoor gallery. Deutsche Bank has long been a partner of the New York museum and sponsored Heilmann’s project.

The title of the inaugural exhibition is America is Hard to See, taken from a Robert Frost poem. It consists exclusively of works from the collection of the Whitney – the only large New York museum focusing completely on U.S. art. In 23 chapters and featuring over 600 works, the show reflects core aspects of American art since 1900. Naturally, it includes classics such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Willem de Kooning. But what makes the exhibition so exciting are the many works that were last shown decades ago or are being shown for the very first time.

Heilmann also belongs to the canon of contemporary U.S. art. She has virtually cult status, thanks not only to her painting, which develops a completely distinctive, abstract formal idiom, but also due to her close ties with the New York art scene. Since the late 1960s, she has developed numerous friendships, with world-famous artists and repeatedly with newcomers whom she supports. She has experienced changes in the art world as well as in the city. This is reflected by her installation Sunset. On the museum’s terrace there are more than 40 colorful chair sculptures in bright red, lemon yellow, and grass green. The vast terrace is just one of the architectural highlights of Renzo Piano’s Cubistically interlaced building, reminiscent of an ocean steamer, which has around twice as much space as the Whitney’s former seat on Madison Avenue. Heilmann installed a mural on the outer wall of the building – radiant pink forms reminiscent of stairs for which the artist greatly enlarged two photographed details from one of her paintings. The work not only reacts to the building, but to the entire surroundings visible from up here – an area steeped in history, as documented by the video Swan Song accompanying the installation.  

Heilmann shot the video in 1982 with the performance artist Kembra Pfahler. It documents the razing of vacant warehouses and the West Side Highway, as well as the incipient gentrification of Chelsea and the Meatpacking District. Once a refuge for artists and gay subculture, today only the super rich can afford to live around the new Whitney. Heilmann’s installation is a cheerful, colorful swan song, a last, beautiful tune sung before this alternative culture disappears completely. In Heilmann’s chairs, one can also think about a past chapter of New York City’s history – or, later in the evening, enjoy the fantastic view of the sunset over the Hudson River.

Thus, the work fits wonderfully with the concept of America is hard to see. The aim of the exhibition is to shed light on the “the inconvenient complexity of American Art,” explains the chief curator Donna De Salvo. A good idea for a building that never viewed itself solely as a museum, but also as a laboratory for U.S. art. This is documented by the Whitney Biennials, which Deutsche Bank has sponsored since 2006. Shrouded in controversy on a regular basis, they attempt to take stock of the current U.S. art scene. The 78th edition will take place in 2017. And one thing is already clear now: the new building will offer the artists even more room for experimentation.

Mary Heilmann: Sunset / America Is Hard to See
05/01/2015 – 09/27/2015
Whitney Museum, New York