Openings Exhibitions Museums USA

Curators choose their favourite pieces in the Whitney's inaugural exhibition in its new space

Debut exhibition provides an unprecedented overview of the museum's collection of American art

Carol Bove, Adventures in Poetry, 2002. Maccarone, New York and David Zwirner, New York/London

Carol Bove, Adventures in Poetry, 2002

Scott Rothkopf, curator and associate director for programmes

When I arrived at the Whitney in 2009, I dreamed of acquiring our first work by Carol Bove—not just any Bove but Adventures in Poetry, perhaps her most important early sculpture. Unfortunately a private collector already owned the work, and I chased it for what seemed like ages until it ended up in the collection of David and Monica Zwirner, who generously donated it to the Whitney last year for our inaugural show. Through a constellation of books and images, the piece conjures the sexual, political, and aesthetic ideals of the 1960s and 70s. In Bove’s hands that era feels both real and imagined, lovingly, longingly, mysteriously.

Richmond Barthé, African Dancer, 1933

Carter E. Foster, curator of drawings

It was fascinating to come to terms with this statue of a dancing female figure by Richmond Barthé, one of the most celebrated artists of the Harlem Renaissance. At first, the piece seemed somewhat backward-looking and academic in purely formal terms. As I learned more, I realised Barthé, who was fully steeped in and deeply admiring of the traditions of Western sculpture, was using that tradition to create and celebrate a beautiful black female body. He did this partially through the lens of Renaissance art, particularly that of Michelangelo, in which female figures often have male musculature. Barthé’s combination of Africa, Europe, male and female, created a gesture that was, in fact, quite radical and forward-looking: combining genders in a single figure and fusing ideas from multiple cultures, he made a statement about race and beauty.

Eight woodblock prints by Chiura Obata from the “World Landscape” series America, 1928-30

Dana Miller, curator of the permanent collection

I can’t wait to see a stunning suite of woodblock prints by the Japanese-born Chiura Obata on display for the first time. The prints are based on watercolours that Obata painted in 1927 while on a camping trip in California’s Yosemite Valley and High Sierra regions. Obata worked with master craftsmen in Tokyo over an 18-month period and each finished work required more than 100 hand-coloured woodblock impressions; in some cases dozens of woodblocks were carved to recreate a single brushstroke. The works defy all expectations of what a woodblock print should look like and provide a view of the American landscape that uniquely synthesises Eastern and Western traditions and techniques.

Eight woodblock prints by Chiura Obata from the "World Landscape" series, America, 1928-30. Whitney Museum of American Art. elderfield: Patrick McMullan
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