“Mommy, this is amazing!" the little girl said, gazing around an elevator interior that looked like a giant woven basket, one of four designed by artist Richard Artschwanger for the new Whitney Museum of American Art.
"Oh, this is amazing," said a silver-haired woman to her husband as they stepped off that elevator into a vast, light-bathed gallery that afforded what seemed like acres of space for huge canvases by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krassner.
"This view is amazing!" said the young woman on the wide seventh-floor terrace, spinning to snap selfies at every angle to catch the vistas of the Hudson River, the High Line elevated park and the bustling Meatpacking District neighborhood below.
And then there was me, taking a bite of a Meyer lemon tart with huckleberries and braised peaches at the museum's restaurant, Untitled, and murmuring, "Amazing."
That word kept popping up during my recent visit to the Whitney, and it's an apt one.
The nine-story museum opened in May, with more than 60,000 square feet of gallery space. Designed by award-winning architect Renzo Piano and built at a cost of $422 million, the new building is definitely a statement. Its essential purpose, of course, is to house and showcase the museum's collection of more than 18,000 works of American art.
But it is also an attraction in its own right, a sort of giant playground perched on the edge of the Hudson at Gansevoort and Washington streets. Some critics have argued that the building upstages the art, but when I visited in September, during its opening exhibition "America Is Hard to See," art and architecture seemed to me to play together with energy and joy.
The Whitney's former home, from 1966 to 2014, was a massively grim Marcel Breuer edifice on Madison Avenue. Its original home was in Greenwich Village, where it was founded in 1931 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney after the Metropolitan Museum of Art turned down her offer to donate her collection, then about 500 works.
The new Whitney is the polar opposite of the stolid Breuer building. With walls of glass punctuating silver and blue metal and a concrete core, terraced floors and jutting open decks, and sail-like shapes on its upper levels, it looks more like a ship than a museum, ready to steam past the Statue of Liberty just down the river.
Inside, light enters through windows large and small. The galleries, whose size and shape can be changed to suit exhibitions, are painted in varying shades of white and gray that seem to bring the sky indoors even more.
Open terraces and stairs on the top three floors draw many visitors out to take in the views over the rooftops of surrounding buildings and across the Hudson to New Jersey.
The first floor is wonderfully inviting as well, with glass walls on two sides that let passers-by see into the sweeping lobby, with a gift shop at one end and a restaurant at the other, and that bank of gorgeous elevators in the middle.
Untitled is operated by New York star restaurateur Danny Meyer, who runs, among others, one of my other favorite museum dining spots, the Modern at the Museum of Modern Art. (The Whitney also has the Studio Cafe on the eighth floor, with a casual menu and a lovely terrace.)
Untitled's first-floor indoor room is sleek, minimalist and high-ceilinged; its spacious patio offers a view of the streets and the stairs to the High Line, whose southern terminus leads people right to the museum's door.
Service at the restaurant is terrific, and the menu, like the art, emphasizes American ingredients and style. At lunch, I started with a bright salad of jicama, watermelon and husk cherry, followed by an elegant dish of golden tilefish and summer squashes in a curry-scented broth. And oh, that lemon tart.
The Whitney's first floor also boasts a cozy smaller gallery that is always open free to the public. When I visited, the first work visible was Robert Henri's infamous 1916 portrait of museum founder Gertrude Whitney, posing saucily in a pair of turquoise trousers. Those pants so scandalized Gertrude's husband he refused to hang the painting in his house — which led, eventually, to the founding of the museum. The painting's bright colors, vivid forms and fresh approach point to the museum's stellar collection of modern American art.
That collection consists largely of 20th century art, which both embraced and struggled with the nation's shift to an industrial and urban landscape. The new building opens itself to that very landscape, with its vast views of the New York skyline and the busy Hudson. Close up, look over the north edge of one of the terraces and directly down at a working meatpacking business — despite the neighborhood's multibillion-dollar gentrification, trucks still trundle out of its parking lot and the unmistakable smell of raw beef drifts up on the breeze. Turn to the east and you can watch crowds of pedestrians and cyclists passing in and out of the shade of trees on the High Line.
This engagement with its setting runs throughout the Whitney, and it's a refreshing switch from the solemn, hermetic galleries of so many museums that emphatically separate art from the rest of life. Yes, the views outside the museum are so spectacular they might distract from the art, but in a world as overwhelmed with distraction as ours, that's just the situation art finds itself in. Rather than treat artworks as sacred objects, Piano's building thrusts them into the larger world and tells us, "Wait a minute, look. This is amazing!"
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.