When you went to see a show at the old Whitney Museum of American Art, housed in the 1966 brutalist building by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue, it was clear what you were supposed to do there: look at art. There were hardly any windows on this slate-gray apparition on the Upper East Side that looked like an upside-down ziggurat dropped from the sky. A small side gallery served as an auditorium for talks and performances, and there was a basement for a bar and restaurant, but the space, dark and cool and forbidding, really had only one purpose. It was a museum, its form determined by the contents inside.
It’s gone now. Sotheby’s has bought the building for a reported $100 million, bringing an end to the conjecture surrounding the Breuer’s fate ever since the Whitney moved to the Meatpacking District in 2015. Charles Stewart, the chief executive of Sotheby’s, called the deal “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we couldn’t pass up” and said the building would remain open to the public, which could come see the works of art for sale before they disappeared into the private collections of the one percent. “The use of the building will be consistent with the reason it was built,” he told the New York Times. “There is a continuum.”
But this isn’t really the case. It is an auction house now, which will both alter the character of the Breuer and turn it into a symbol of how the art world has changed since the building went up.
To be honest, it wasn’t the best place to see art. The permanent collection never had much room, and the new Whitney building by Renzo Piano gives it more light and more space to breathe. Still, legendary shows were staged there—the 1993 Biennial, Kara Walker’s killer 2007 retrospective, Glenn Ligon’s survey in 2011. The artists sometimes literally remade the interior: In 1987, Julian Schnabel stripped out all the rugs, and the museum rightfully left it that way.
I am very sympathetic to the Whitney’s decision to discard the building. It’s miraculous how far the museum has come in the eight short years in its new digs, and there’s no need to look back. Some say the Whitney should have run two museums. That idea is not only wildly uneconomical but deeply confused. The Cloisters notwithstanding, it makes no sense to operate two buildings in two different parts of the city. It would only spread the museum thin, diluting both the budget and the experience. Outgoing director Adam Weinberg wisely commented that “it did not really make sense to have a divided Whitney.” He added, “Also, we don’t want to be landlords.” Amen to that.
At least the Breuer won’t be a department store or high-end office building. But that’s not to say it will remotely resemble the Whitney or its successor tenants, the Met and the Frick. Stewart told the Times, “The location couldn’t be more ideal for our client base.” I’ll say.
Seeing art in a museum and seeing it in an auction house are diametrically opposed. In a museum, the commerce of art is backgrounded; in an auction house, monetary value is almost all there is. Museums are great memory machines. They add to art history, they build on themselves. Auction houses discourage the contemplation of time’s passage. They want you to think only about here, now, how much. One set of things goes up and then, boom, it is gone.
Auction houses are where art loses its identity and its dignity. A disconnect forms between what a work of art is and what it does since its purpose is not to enlighten or entertain but to be sacrificed on the altar of commerce. An auction house is where art is turned into a commodity, bought, sold, speculated on, and bought and sold again.
Auction houses say they mount important exhibitions. In fact, they maintain showrooms. Theirs are spaces where art is installed cheek by jowl with labels touting “prices on request.” Great works do move through them. Occasionally, we see things we might not have seen. But they are shown for a few days before transferring, for the most part, to private hands, and we never see them again. So really, when we see art in auction houses, we are essentially saying, “Good-bye.”
Auctions will be around no matter who owns the Breuer, of course. Still, the sale strikes me as incredibly sad, a loss, some sort of surrender to the inevitable. When you were inside that brooding presence, it really did feel like a temple. On Instagram, Glenn Ligon posted an image of the Times article about the sale with the caption “Matthew 21: 12-13.” This passage of the Bible reads, “My House will be called a house of prayers, but you are making it a den of robbers.”