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America Is Hard to See
May 1–Sept 27, 2015

Running People at 2,616,216 (1978–79) by Jonathan Borofsky installed on the West Ambulatory, 5th floor, the inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See (May 1–September 27, 2015). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph © Nic Lehoux

Running People at 2,616,216 (1978–79) by Jonathan Borofsky installed on the West Ambulatory, 5th floor, the inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See (May 1–September 27, 2015). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph © Nic Lehoux

Drawn entirely from the Whitney Museum of American Art’s collection, America Is Hard to See takes the inauguration of the Museum’s new building as an opportunity to reexamine the history of art in the United States from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. Comprising more than six hundred works, the exhibition elaborates the themes, ideas, beliefs, and passions that have galvanized American artists in their struggle to work within and against established conventions, often directly engaging their political and social contexts. Numerous pieces that have rarely, if ever, been shown appear alongside beloved icons in a conscious effort to unsettle assumptions about the American art canon.

The title, America Is Hard to See, comes from a poem by Robert Frost and a political documentary by Emile de Antonio. Metaphorically, the title seeks to celebrate the ever-changing perspectives of artists and their capacity to develop visual forms that respond to the culture of the United States. It also underscores the difficulty of neatly defining the country’s ethos and inhabitants, a challenge that lies at the heart of the Museum’s commitment to and continually evolving understanding of American art.

Organized chronologically, the exhibition’s narrative is divided into twenty- three thematic “chapters” installed throughout the building. These sections revisit and revise established tropes while forging new categories and even expanding the definition of who counts as an American artist. Indeed, each chapter takes its name not from a movement or style but from the title of a work that evokes the section’s animating impulse. Works of art across all mediums are displayed together, acknowledging the ways in which artists have engaged various modes of production and broken the boundaries between them.

America Is Hard to See reflects the Whitney’s distinct record of acquisitions and exhibitions, which constitutes a kind of collective memory—one that represents a range of individual, sometimes conflicting, attitudes toward what American art might be or mean or do at any given moment. By simultaneously mining and questioning our past, we do not arrive at a comprehensive survey or tidy summation, but rather at a critical new beginning: the first of many stories still to tell.

America Is Hard to See is organized by a team of Whitney curators, led by Donna De Salvo, Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs, including Carter E. Foster, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing; Dana Miller, Curator of the Permanent Collection; and Scott Rothkopf, Nancy and Steve Crown Family Curator and Associate Director of Programs; with Jane Panetta, Assistant Curator; Catherine Taft, Assistant Curator; and Mia Curran, Curatorial Assistant. 

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Please note: Chapters on Floor 8—Forms Abstracted; Machine Ornament; and Music, Pink and Blue—are no longer on view.

Explore the Exhibition
Select a Chapter

Eight West Eighth

The Whitney Museum of American Art was established as a place for artists, a legacy it has cherished since its earliest incarnation as the Whitney Studio—an exhibition space opened by the artist and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1914 in a townhouse at Eight West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. With the energetic support of her assistant, Juliana Force, in 1918 she transformed the Studio into the Whitney Studio Club, which was a home for American artists then disdained by the conservative establishment. Over the next decade, the Studio Club expanded into the neighboring townhouses that together served as a social and creative hub for its artist-members. Force regularly organized exhibitions, lectures, and classes and provided American artists financial support (and food and drink) with the backing of Mrs. Whitney.

The works on view in this chapter evoke the diverse activities of the Studio Club, as well as the broad tastes of these two remarkable women. Paintings by Robert Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, and George Luks are evidence of Mrs. Whitney’s adventurous early advocacy of a group of mavericks known as “The Eight,” proponents of the so-called Ashcan School who favored gritty urban realism. Photographs by Charles Sheeler and Berenice Abbott capture the townhouses’ interiors and the exhibitions held therein, while humorous drawings by Guy Pène du Bois chronicle the characters on the scene. A group of Edward Hopper’s figure studies from life-drawing class there affirm that the Studio Club was a site not just for exhibiting art but for making it. When the Whitney Museum of American Art was founded in 1931, with a collection donated by Mrs. Whitney and with Juliana Force as its first director, the institution’s identity and mission as the artist’s museum were already firmly in place.

Below is a selection of works from this chapter.

From left to right: Guy Pène Du Bois, (Title Page), 1921 (2014.74.1); Indigenous Workers, 1921 (2014.74.7); The Entertainer,  1921 (2014.74.14); The Three Hour Portrait, 1921 (2014.74.17); The Author, 1921 (2014.74.16); The Creation of a Veteran, 1921 (2014.74.6); The Social Lion, 1921 (2014.74.5); Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Head for Titanic Memorial, 1922 (31.81); Robert Henri, Laughing Child,  1907 (31.240). Photography by Ronald Amstutz.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942), Head for Titanic Memorial, 1922. Seravezza marble head: 12 3/4 × 8 1/8 × 9 5/8 in. (32.4 × 20.6 × 24.4 cm); with base: 19 × 8 1/8 × 9 5/8 in. (48.3 × 20.6 × 24.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the artist 31.81
Charles Sheeler (1883–1965), Off ice Interior, Whitney Studio Club, 10 West 8 Street, c. 1928. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 × 9 1/4in. (19.1 × 23.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 93.24.2
John Sloan (1871-1951), Backyards, Greenwich Village, 1914. Oil on canvas, 26 × 31 15/16 in. (66 × 81.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 36.153.   © 2015 Delaware Art Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Audio
Cecil Beaton (1904-1980), Portrait of Juliana Force, c. 1931. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/4 × 9 1/4 in. (18.4 × 23.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney  93.25. © Permission from the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s
Stuart Davis (1892-1964), Early American Landscape, 1925. Oil on canvas, 19 3/16 × 22 3/16 in. (48.7 × 56.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Juliana Force 31.171 Art© Estate of Stuart Davis, Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Guy Pène Du Bois (1884-1958), (Title page), 1921. Watercolor, pen and ink and graphite pencil on paper: image, 11 3/4 × 14 in. (29.8 × 35.6 cm); mat board, 19 × 24 in. (48.3 × 61 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Flora Miller Biddle  2014.74.1   © artist’s estate
Mabel Dwight (1876-1955), Life Class, 1931. Lithograph: sheet, 13 11/16 × 18 1/16 in. (34.8 × 45.9 cm); image: 9 13/16 × 13 9/16 in. (24.9 × 34.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 33.90
Duncan Ferguson (1901-1974), Squirrel, c. 1930. Mahogany, 16 3/4 × 8 3/4 × 7 7/8 in. (42.5 x  22.2 × 20 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney 31.17   © artist’s estate
Robert Henri (1865-1929), Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916. Oil on canvas, 49 15/16 × 72 in. (126.8 × 182.9 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Flora Whitney Miller 86.70.3.
Audio
Edward Hopper (1882-1967), (Standing Female Nude, Rear View), 1920-25. Fabricated chalk on paper, 16 1/2 × 10 5/8 in. (41.9 × 27 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper bequest 70.414 © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art
Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953), Child, 1923. Oil on linen, 30 1/8 × 24 3/16 in. (76.5 × 61.4 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Mrs. Edith Gregor Halpert 55.1. © Estate of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
George Luks (1867–1933), Armistice Night, 1918. Oil on canvas, 37 × 68 3/8in. (94 × 173.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of an anonymous donor 54.58

Screenings

Mary Ellen Bute (1906-1983), still from Synchromy No. 4: Escape, 1937-38. 16mm film, color, sound; 4 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Film, Video, and New Media Committee  2014.101 © Estate of Mary Ellen Bute; courtesy Arsenal – Institut für Film und Videokunst, Berlin
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
2–3:30 PM
David Haxton (b. 1943), still from Cube and Room Drawings, 1976-77. 16mm film, color, silent; 15 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the artist  2013.47 © David Haxton 1976-1977
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
11 AM–12:15 PM
Luis Recoder (b. 1971), Linea, 2002. 16mm film double projection, black-and-white, silent, 18 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Film and Video Committee  2005.23. Installation view: Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston, 2003 © Luis Recoder; courtesy Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, Houston
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
7–10 PM
Matt Saunders (b. 1975), still from Century Rolls, 2012. Video, color; 10:45 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Film, Video, and New Media Committee 2013.81 © 2015 Matt Saunders
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
5–6 PM
Mike Kelley (1954-2012), still from Day Is Done, 2005-2006. Video, color, sound; 169 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Randy Slifka  2009.128 © Estate of Mike Kelley; Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
1–3:50 PM
Liz Magic Laser (b. 1981), still from I Feel Your Pain, 2011. Video, color, sound; 180 min., with poster. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo and The Dorothea L. Leonhardt Foundation, Inc. in honor of Ron Clark, Director, Independent Study Program  2013.14 © Liz Magic Laser 2011. Performa Commission. Featuring actors Lynn Berg, Audrey Crabtree, Ray Field, Annie Fox, Kathryn Grody, Rafael Jordan, Liz Micek, and Ryan Shams. Video made with Producer David Guinan of Polemic Media. Photo: Yola Monakhov
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
6–9 PM
Andrea Fraser (b. 1965), still from Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989. Video, color, sound; 29:28 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Wilfred P. and Rose J. Cohen Purchase Fund © 1989 Andrea Fraser
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
3–3:30 PM
David Bienstock, (1943-1973), film strip from Nothing Happened This Morning, 1965. 16mm film transferred to video, black-and-white and color, sound; 21 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Film, Video, and New Media Committee  T.2014.377 © 1965, David Bienstock; image courtesy the New American Cinema Group, Inc/The Film-Makers’ Cooperative
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
11 AM–12:25 PM
Nayland Blake (b. 1960), still from Negative Bunny, 1994. Video, color, sound, 30 min. looped. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Lin Lougheed  2014.268 © Nayland Blake 1994; image courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
4–5:45 PM
Maya Deren (1917-1961), still from At Land, 1944. 16mm film, black-and-white, silent, 15 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Film, Video, and New Media Committee  2015.45 © Estate of Maya Deren; image courtesy Anthology Film Archives
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
2–3:40 PM
Yvonne Rainer (b. 1934), still from Five Easy Pieces, 1966-69. 8mm and 16mm film transferred to video, black-and-white, silent; 48 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Joanne Leonhardt Cassullo in honor of Ron Clark and The Independent Study Program  2011.91 © Yvonne Rainer; courtesy Video Data Bank, www.vdb.org
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
11 AM–1:45 PM
Walter De Maria (1935-2013), still from Hardcore, 1969. 16mm film installation, 28 min. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Virginia Dwan  94.79 © Walter De Maria 1969
America Is Hard to See: Film & Video Screenings
7–8:30 PM
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Inaugural Exhibition Artists

In the News

“2015 was the Year of the Whitney…the cross-disciplinary approach taken by America Is Hard to See and Collected by Thea Westreich Wagner and Ethan Wagner, is becoming the model for a new generation of curators.”
Hyperallergic

“2015 belonged to the Whitney…both my museum—and my show—of the year.”
—Adrian Searle in The Guardian

"Best of 2015: Our Top 20 NYC Art Shows"
Hyperallergic

"The museum’s inaugural show in its new building, America Is Hard to See, tells a different story of modern and contemporary American art than the lily-white version we’re used to"
The New Yorker

Interview: Curator Scott Rothkopf speaks about America Is Hard to See on Slate's Culture Gabfest
Slate

"New Whitney Museum Signifies a Changing New York Art Scene"
The New York Times

"With its abundantly sumptuous holdings, the museum tells us how we got where we are, offering a teeming lineage of the art of this country"
Hyperallergic

"The Whitney Opens With a Winner"
Artnews

"Review: New Whitney Museum’s First Show, America Is Hard to See"
The New York Times

"Curators at the Whitney Museum of American Art discuss their largest exhibition to date at their new downtown location, designed by architect Renzo Piano"
The Wall Street Journal

"The exhibition will include plenty of crowd-pleasers—Hopper, O’Keeffe, Calder’s “Circus”—but, with the Whitney’s brilliant chief curator, Donna De Salvo, at the helm, expect major twists in the conventional art-historical plot."
The New Yorker

"The Whitney Museum, Soon to Open Its New Home, Searches for American Identity"
The New York Times

"One of this year's most anticipated art world events" 
Huffington Post