Ruins in Reverse
The Old Tool & Die Building (2004)
The Whitney is not a building, it’s an idea.
Donna De Salvo, chief curator1
In May of 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art relocated to 99 Gansevoort Street, its new home at the base of the High Line. The inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See, presented some 600 artworks by 400 artists in a sweeping view of American art from 1900 through today. Named after Robert Frost’s 1951 poem critiquing colonialism and the legacy of Christopher Columbus, the exhibition was framed through those inherent complexities and contradictions that compose, if not define, America. Even the museum’s $422 million dollar building—designed by Renzo Piano, a fellow Genoese to Columbus—conjured this innate ambivalence; critics found the decidedly nautical oddity at once bulky and airy, obtrusive and nimble,2 as it balanced its twenty-eight tons ten feet above sea level. Hovering between Manhattan’s worst flood zones and richest neighborhoods, this new Whitney provided a lofty position from which to not only survey American art, but America itself.
Of the exhibition’s twenty-three chronological chapters, I felt “America” most keenly in its concluding section, “Course of Empire.” Named after the Ed Ruscha’s series partly on display, this gallery also referenced Ruscha’s original inspiration, Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire (1833 – 1836)—a monumental series housed just uptown at the New York Historical Society. Set against a landscape reminiscent of the Hudson River, Cole’s sequence of five paintings illustrates the march of an avaricious city towards final ruin: from pastoral harmony to The Consummation of Empire (a decadent scene conjuring the height of ancient Rome); from an empire at war (Destruction) to eventual Desolation. In its ultimate state of ruin, Cole’s landscape is returned to nature.
Standing over the Hudson River, Cole’s series felt as much a prophecy as a warning, knocking the entirety of America is Hard to See into sharp relief. Within the Whitney’s “Course,” I found familiar landscapes of destruction, such as Keith Mayerson’s 9-11 (2007), as well as desolation—Zoe Leonard’s Clothing Palace (1999). But it was on the other side of a wall partition that I came upon the cornerstone of this gallery, The Old Tool & Die Building (2004)—the understated Ed Ruscha painting culled from his own Course of Empire series. Juxtaposed against a cheeky Carroll Dunham (Large Bather (quicksand), 2006 – 12) and largely overlooked by museumgoers, this painting renewed Cole’s prescient vision of the American landscape.
I don’t know, really, what I’m saying, but maybe it’s something about the folly of human nature.
Born just after the Dust Bowl era and raised in the emptier parts of the United States, Ed Ruscha’s interest in America is its nothingness, those voids both physical and spiritual. Like Robert Smithson, he’s drawn to places full of holes, landscapes with “no past—just what passes for a future.” Indeed, the subjects of Ruscha’s Course of Empire, forgettable and austere in their uniformity, could pass for any derelict highway building in the United States. As the full color update of an earlier black-and-white series (Blue Collar Tires, 1992), Ruscha’s Course documents the radical transformation (or destruction) of five ordinary buildings in Los Angeles, including The Old Tool & Die Building. Unlike Cole’s sweeping vistas, however, we’re only afforded the top third of the factory, where a line of invented Asiatic characters—veritable Greeking—replaces the earlier “TOOL & DIE” signage. At its center, a corporate logo lingers between a “yin-yang sign and the logo on a bottle of Pepsi,”4 while graffiti—the emblematic sign of abandonment—marks a sidewall with nonsense and Nazi signs. A long window front just crests the canvas’s edge below, refusing to follow the building’s vanishing point that, notably, is not realized in any horizon.
He might be suspended in the mist, floating over an absent ground.
-Hito Steyerl, “In Free Fall”
For all the dashing angles that propel Ruscha’s paintings, the close cropping of his subjects often leave us groundless. As Hito Steyerl famously theorized, the rapid acceleration of contemporary society has dramatically shifted our perspective from linear to the vertical—a disorientation she likens to freefalling, even “floating.” Steyerl locates an early example of this in Turner’s horizonless The Slave Ship (1840), a seminal work painted just after Cole’s series. Under Turner’s hand, horizons increasingly dissolved so that by 1856, Ruskin was bemoaning landscape painting’s hazy atmosphere, its murkiness echoing an industrialized skyline. Today, Ruscha’s glowing landscapes continue to render our thickening air—his most characteristic leitmotif is the Venetian (Beach) sky, a gradation of sherbet smog ascending into the sfumato heavens.
Now eighty-years-old, Ruscha still leans towards unseen horizons, speculating into empty space. In a recent interview around the exhibition of his Course of Empire at London’s National Gallery, he reflected on Cole’s series in light of the Trump era. “It’s a knock on the door, isn’t it? It’s a tender reminder that we might be at the end of our Rome.”5 Ruling between his neo-classical headquarters and a gilded penthouse, our demagogic president does provoke a rather derivative analogy, albeit one we likely deserve. In only a handful of centuries, rampant capitalism greed has dramatically transformed not only the American landscape, but also the balance of our entire planet—destroying lives, cities, and ecosystems. Teetering between decadence and Destruction, Hollywood and holocausts, this empire of ours is difficult to arrange around one point.
That zero panorama seemed to contain ruins in reverse, that is—all the new construction that would eventually be built . . . buildings don’t fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise as ruin before they are built.
-Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passiac, New Jersey” 6
Standing, or floating, in you will, on the top floor of the Whitney, America is hard to see—much less understand. The horizon is largely obliterated by luxury, a labyrinth of apartments, condos and hotels define a cityscape that, below, is threatened by one of the city’s most vulnerable flood zones. The Whitney learned this early on when Hurricane Sandy poured five million gallons of water into its construction site. In response, they built an impressive flood-mitigation system—a 15,500-pound door with water-tight, submarine latches designed by naval engineers, making it quite literally seaworthy. Other buildings around town have followed suit, flood proofing and installing back-up generators. Though the Trump administration continues to deny our influence on climate change, the world’s best architects and engineers are beginning to fortify New York City—at least the wealthiest parts of it—against it.
Our seafaring Whitney is a captivating balance of ideal and reality, of American exceptionalism and invisible floodwalls. After that long afternoon among its treasures, I was left wondering: where are we now along our Course? At the edge of decadence, slipping towards destruction, or perhaps further? More recently in my home state of North Carolina, and further south in Florida, we’ve seen glimpses of Desolation as warming water produces increasingly violent weather. This seems to be the new normal. In early October, just after the administration further crippled the EPA, the UN’s scientific panel on climate change found that the atmosphere will warm as much as 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2040, intensifying droughts, flooding and poverty well beyond original estimates. But for most Americans, 2040 is far away and hard to see—even in our progressive city. Just outside my window, ten luxury apartment towers are being erected in Brooklyn’s worst flood zone, obliterating the view.
A Utopia minus a bottom.
In Greek, the word “apocalypse” means an unveiling or revelation. Since the Whitney’s opening exhibition in 2015, we’ve witnessed a number of them—politically, environmentally, even ethically—and yet civilization somehow moves along (or up) at a fast clip, none the wiser. As the wealthy move into higher apartments, put their generators on the roof and wait for the worst, our government tells the rest of the country, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”7 This America, as myopic as it is visionary, as destructive as it is boundlessly creative, leaves us in freefall. I may love our expensive new Whitney and its watertight riches, yet can’t help but wonder at that larger “folly of human nature” alongside Ruscha. His vacant empire, all irradiant smog and groundless space, imparts a melancholic dissonance, Cole’s beautiful ruin. America is emptying—spiritually, physically—even as it crowds us. When the future is built above, what’s left below?
- Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” http://pdf-objects.com/files/Essay_Robert-Smithson-A-Tour-of-the-Monuments-of-Passaic.pdf The quote “A Utopia minus a bottom” is also from this text.