The Whitney Museum’s new, location just off the High Line is apparently a great place for controversial and challenging art INSIDE, but not outside. Calvin Tomkins criticized the institution in his latest New Yorker profile on the artist Charles Ray. A sculpture commissioned for the plaza outside the museum was rejected on the grounds that the Meatpacking District’s crowd might find it too naked.
The nine-foot-tall sculpture, called Huck and Jim, was commissioned in 2009. The Whitney is dedicated to American art and this inspired Ray to consider Mark Twain‘s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He showed the preliminary designs to director Adam Weinberg and chief curator Donna De Salvo, but the article reveals that the concerns came later, and stemmed from notions that a sculpture of a nude African-American man next to a nude white youth would be too challenging for those who would pass by the public space without understanding the context. This might turn them off from entering the museum. Five years ago, Weinberg reportedly told Ray he would be happy to install the sculpture somewhere else on the museum’s property, but that it couldn’t be placed in the public-facing plaza.
But Ray rejected this relocation;
“I don’t want whatever becomes of it to be less than the original idea, and the original idea was for it to be there. Listen, I’m not naïve to the controversies this would generate—I told them that controversies would be a forest we had to navigate through.”
He continued working on it, and it’s now part of his retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. But the disclaimer trend of recent years is implemented on their website saying;
“Some works in this exhibition may not be suitable for younger viewers.”
As Ray told Tomkins,
“I’m over the fact that Huck and Jim is not going to be at the Whitney, and I understand the reasons.”
I understand the reasons too. In the finger-pointing world we live in today, a Tweet can turn into a firestorm, so this rejection was a preemptive strike to not offend tourists. But seeing the crowds and the bustling area now that the museum is open to the public, as much as there might be a bit of controversy, I think it might have been at home in there on the plaza. A nice little plaque with an explanation, and maybe turned with its back to the High Line, and it would have been lost in the shuffle. Twitter might have bitched at first, but Instagram would have LOVED it in the long run.