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Collector David Whitney once said, "You have it or you don't." He was referring to the way he trusted instinct when practicing one of his passions: gardening. But for Whitney (1939-2005), that instinct was more evident in his natural talent for curating and collecting. "The David Whitney Bequest," currently on view at the Menil Collection, is a strange little exhibition of works from Whitney's collection, which were bequeathed to the Menil. The show is curious for its double-sided mission. On one hand, it's a wonderful sampling of works by contemporary art legends like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol — and, in a sense, the world and scene they represented. On the other, it's a window into the mind of a collector: Whitney's championing of, and influence on, modern artists.
In 1960, while studying architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design, Whitney established the partnership that would herald his entry into the East Coast art scene: He met Philip Johnson at one of the famous architect's lectures. Whitney was immediately invited to visit Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. That auspicious meeting was the beginning of the romance that would last throughout the pair's lives. Whitney later told W magazine, "I was just legal," referring to the weekend at Glass House.
Whitney literally made a splash when he performed totally naked in one of artist Claes Oldenburg's "happenings" in 1965 at the Al Roon's Health Club swimming pool in Manhattan. Billy Name, a photographer for Andy Warhol's Factory, described the event (quoted on www.warholstars.org) as "ritzy and glitzy with the hoi polloi of the day...David was at his prime clowning around and showing off. A great memory from a great time." Whitney became a close friend of Warhol's and a well-liked scenester. Art historian Robert Rosenblum described Whitney as a "cheerful, bright gadfly buzzing around."
Whitney reserved perhaps the bulk of his interest for Jasper Johns. The pop artist, who some consider more of a "neo-dadaist," might have influenced Whitney more than any other artist represented in his collection. This exhibit contains 17 works on paper by Johns, spanning the artist's entire career, with works made as recently as 2004. Corpse, a work completed in 1975, greets visitors to the show. The paintstick, pastel and ink drawing is an explosion of primary-colored shards of scribble. The drawing's three panels vibrate in varying degrees of intensity. Johns's stencil motif is on display in many of the drawings, like Periscope, an inky, murky piece, which contains the words "RED, YELLOW, BLUE," stenciled at top, middle and bottom, respectively. It's mostly black-and-white, with an off-center handprint, and it feels angry, like Johns is bitterly dissing Mark Rothko.
Moving topographically clockwise, one encounters Cy Twombly's Untitled (1959), a pencil on paper squigglefest that, at first, looks like it belongs on a proud parent's refrigerator door. Time spent in reflection is always rewarded with Twombly, though, and the work responds by revealing an intricate, well-composed pattern. One gets the feeling Whitney witnessed this piece's creation and cherished it deeply.
Don't miss three of Robert Rauschenberg's early transfer paintings, contemporaneous of Warhol's early silkscreens. Ghostly impressions of baseball players, horses, and other Texas-inspired imagery haunt the hazy, greenish realms of these works,
Not surprisingly, on the opposite wall from the Rauschenbergs, is Warhol's 1980 portrait, David Whitney. An intense black-and-white snapshot of Whitney with his fingers clasped under his chin, it brilliantly anchors the exhibit. Three tones of gray fan elegantly across the painting, the middle one perfectly zoning Whitney's eyes, which seem to say, "Gaze upon my influence and impeccable taste."
There's more proof of that directly to the right. A series of paperbacks with titles like On the Road and Picasso have been fixed to the wall. They're actually made of wood and mixed media, in the trompe l'oeil style by artist Steve Wolfe, and unless you get a really close look, (not recommended lest you attract the attention of a museum guard), you'd swear they were the real thing.
This odd little exhibit is another bang-up job for the Menil, which seems on a mission lately to fire off its big art guns. Down at the other side of the building, the cannonballs are really flying. But we'll save that for later.
"The David Whitney Bequest"