The Whitney's Buried Treasures: 10 Rarely Seen Masterworks Making Their Debut in the New Building, Karen Rosenberg, Artspace

April 17, 2015

Karen Kilimnik's The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers (1989). Fabric, photocopies, candelabra, toy swords, mirror, gilded frames, costume jewelry, boot, fake cobwebs, silver tankard, audio media player, and dried pea. 

“America Is Hard to See,” the title of the new downtown Whitney Museum’s inaugural exhibition, refers to a poem by Robert Frost and, in a looser sense, to the melting-pot concept of American identity. But it just as easily describes the former state of the museum’s permanent collection, very little of which was visible at any one time in the space-starved Marcel Breuer building on the Upper East Side.

 

That will change when the new Whitney opens on May 1 with a triumphant 600-piece collection showcase that fills every single one of the capacious new galleries. Many objects are coming up for air after decades in storage; quite a few are being exhibited for the first time in the museum’s history. Meanwhile, some new acquisitions—including at least one work so fresh from the studio that you can smell the paint, as well as a lacuna-filling photograph by Asco, a Los Angeles Chicano artist collective from the '70s and '80s (above) —are making their own high-profile debuts. The Whitney’s curators are weaving these hitherto hidden works in alongside old favorites to refresh, expand, and diversify the story of American art. (Ellsworth Kelly, meet Carmen Herrera; Andy Warhol, may we introduce Malcolm Bailey?)

 

Below is our guide, informed by conversations with the Whitney’s chief curator Donna De Salvo and assistant curator Jane Panetta, to some of the works that are just now emerging into view.

 

 

Karen Kilimnik's The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers (1989). Fabric, photocopies, candelabra, toy swords, mirror, gilded frames, costume jewelry, boot, fake cobwebs, silver tankard, audio media player, and dried pea.

 

One of the few big installations in “America Is Hard to See,” this signature work by the “scatter artist” Karen Kilimnik was acquired just last year from the collector Peter Brant at the urging of curator Scott Rothkopf. Inspired by the 1960s British television show The Avengers, it combines apparently slapdash, let-the-pieces-fall-where-they-may construction with fangirl obsession. “That gallery has two ideas playing out,” says Panetta. “One is connected to identity politics and the body as the site for image-making and commentary. The other side is a place for work that’s less explicitly political. The Kilimnik, as much as it’s of that moment, feels very personal.”