Beauty+Logic: “In Favor of Brutalism”

by Brian Bowman, Creative Director

The Whitney had a new home. I was excited to see it and thankful that Trollbäck+Company had purchased tickets for our whole studio to attend the opening exhibition. The new building fit in well with its industrial Meatpacking surroundings and popular High Line elevated greenway. The entire area had been refurbished for retail, posh restaurants, and an Apple Store. Change in cities is good (mostly); especially when neighborhoods at risk of becoming vacant and dilapidated are able to be transformed into something vibrant again. Change is the litmus of life in the city and I’d rather see continuous change than stagnation due to vacancy or overzealous preservation.

The new Whitney tries to rectify some of the problems it endured in its claustrophobic former home on East 75th Street: an impenetrable concrete fortress designed by Marcel Breuer. They’ve created meandering paths through the galleries; at one point you are inside, suddenly to find yourself outside on balconies and exterior staircases. The pathway through the building feels airy, with art and views of the city and the Hudson River conflating into a singular experience. It was a lovely journey on a warm autumn day and one we all reflected on at a beer garden later.

But as open and pleasant as the new space is, I can’t help but feel that certain experiences have been lost.

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When I first saw the Rothko canvases, it was at the Brutalist Whitney. The way-finding through the galleries always seemed to put you on a collision course with someone else. The ceilings were too low and there was hardly any natural light. Yet, the giant Rothko paintings filled those spaces. They became the windows, the landscape, the colorful ether to lose your mind in (and your heart).

There was no choice, but to question why you had come to this place on that day. There was no choice but to contemplate color and imagine what Rothko must have been thinking as he painted, so giant in scale and as passionate as a love affair that takes over your life. These paintings, this architecture, was going to take over your day. You could not escape. The cast-in-place concrete doorways, and stairwells molded into the monolithic structure, had you. They would not let you go until you had given in; until you realized you must question your existence. Like a cathedral, this space was alien to our common experience.

Since it moved, the Met has taken over the old Breuer space. I hope their newly acquired vault will keep their modern treasures safe, and continue to challenge those brave enough to discover them.