WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART | JUNE 21 – SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
For instant gratification, few pleasures are more rewarding than a well-aimed flipoff. I’m not very good at it myself, which may explain why, when some angry soul lobs a good one my way, I can’t help but partake in its delicious offense. Architecture has no shortage of offensive buildings, although most are unintentionally so. A bright exception is Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum. In its aggressive massing and generally menacing appearance, the Whitney is openly defiant. Even after a quarter-century you can still visit the museum and actually watch as the Upper East Side continues to work hard at ignoring it. It is a delightful scene.
Yet after seeing the Museum’s current exhibit, Mies In America, I realized that the Whitney is a harmless schoolboy prank when compared to the shrill intensity of Mies’s later work. Which is surprising because of the two architects, Mies is the one that comes off as polite, at least at first. The simple massing and diagrammatic facades that characterize Mies’s work, particularly the later work seen at the Whitney, could easily be thought the product of a well-behaved designer working within the limits of propriety. In contrast, there is Marcel Breuer, the man who gave us the Cyclops of Madison Avenue, appearing to be nothing more than a good poke in the eye. But the truth is more complex. Breuer, with all his posturing, really wants to be accepted. Mies, on the other hand, couldn’t give a whit. Somewhere along the line he left this profane world for a higher plane and in the process the work took on a bleakness that ultimately detracts from his triumph.
To illustrate my point I want to talk about the New National Gallery in Berlin, Mies’s final work. I do this because I take for granted that this building is the most direct and developed expression of his architectural ideas. Officially the building is an art gallery. Pity the art: the museum is its own, and only, exhibit. Still, having actually visited the building I can speak from experience that its presence is awesome. It is also defiant, exposing all yet giving away nothing. Like nature, it is; it exists without betraying its creation. Through the drawings, models, and photographs exhibited at the Whitney, a visitor can easily sense the building’s mastery. However the video of the large interior can only begin to convey the experience of being inside. As actors move in choreographed trajectories sped up by time lapse photography, the film does capture the self-consciousness that dogged my visit to the real thing. Once you get inside, what are you supposed to do in there? Persistent lookers might gather some tidbits; maybe there are a few table scraps for hungry students. But for the most part investigation goes unrewarded because there is only one secret to be revealed: you are not meant to go in at all. The museum wasn’t meant for you to actually enter, to penetrate like some ordinary building. It is not even a building as much as it is the image of building. Sure, stairs may beckon the visitor to climb to plinth level, but their presence is more compositional than inviting. And if you insist, there is art, but it is primarily relegated to the basement. Which is just as well since that is the only part of the building that has any sympathy for displaying anything besides itself. It doesn’t take long to realize that the museum’s human needs were an avoidable nuisance intelligently but grudgingly accommodated.
In fact, Mies insisted that the doors be locked at all times!
Actually, that is not true. But if it sounds that I am overstating things here a little it is in order to make this point: the reason that Mies’s New National Gallery is such a devastating flipoff is because the building is not meant for you. You ain’t the target of the flipoff anymore. You are no longer important enough to merit consideration. If anything, the Museum exists in spite of you.
Doesn’t the Whitney look positively cloying by comparison?
Mies’ architecture didn’t start this way, although it always (for lack of a better word) quality to it. In his early mature work, the work that we all recognize today as “modern,” there was a vitality that came from a play of rich materials, shifting symmetries and formal invention. It was obvious that Mies wanted people to enjoy, in a visceral way, the experience of his architecture. Despite the universality implied in his direct allusion to the potential of mass production, Mies cared enough to counter its latent inhumanity with a particularity that recognized the individual. Increasingly Mies’s attention shifts away from the specific programmatic requirements of the client towards the universal image of architecture as symbol.
This change in spirit more than any other factor accounts for vast difference in feel between the two concurrent Mies exhibits (Mies in Berlin, the show on his early work, is on display at the Museum of Modern Art). Mies in Berlin is an exhilarating exhibit of struggle and surprise, and is one of the few shows that I have seen that left me feeling more energetic at end than at the beginning. Mies in America is quite different. It is intelligent but not smart. It reminds me of those really old joggers in Central Park. All muscle and bone and tendon. No fat, translucent skin. Every determined stride bespeaks the inevitability of a choice between life and death. My problem is that being relatively young, it is hard for me to imagine that life on those terms is worth prolonging. My problem with Mies is that he died before he stopped working.