Short Features

Curating, In the Gallery

David Whitney, Artist’s Curator

Andy Warhol, David Whitney, 1980. Silkscreen ink on synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 40 1/8 x 40 x 1 ¼ in. (101.9 x 101.6 x 3.2 cm). The Menil Collection, Houston, Bequest of David Whitney. © Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

An “artist’s curator,” David Whitney recognized the drawing as an act necessary to creative thought. Among the many roles Whitney assumed in his life—distinguished and prescient art collector, as well as curator of major retrospectives for, among others, Michael Heizer, Jasper Johns, and Cy Twombly—above all he was a champion of art and artists. His dedication to works on paper exemplifies a commitment to artists that will continue at the Menil Drawing Institute—a new venue for the exhibition, study, and conservation of modern and contemporary drawings.

As guests arrived at Calluna Farms, Whitney’s Connecticut home, they were met by a small drawing of a rectangle, roughly drafted and annotated. This drawing by Cy Twombly hung above a pine entry table, topped with ceramics. Twombly gave Whitney the untitled work of 1968 in the year it was made, and it remained in Whitney’s collection until his death in 2005.

Like much of Twombly’s work that includes his inimitable script and scribbles, this drawing retains the quality of a sketch in its multiplied lines and jotted notations. The number 72 and the dimension 2 ½’ are written at the sides of the rectangle, but they do not correspond whatsoever to the proportions of the drawn shape. It is a work that exploits the lexicon of measurement and reason only to reveal itself as made by instinct alone.

We think of drawings as intimate in nature and linked to the artist’s hand. They speak of both fits and starts as well as the enduring vision that constitutes an artist’s lifelong practice. It is telling that a drawing was among the first works one encountered in Whitney’s home, and that a significant part of his personal collection consisted of works on paper. Drawings tend to be smaller and are vulnerable to high levels of light, attributes unconducive to bold interior design and sun-filled rooms. What drawings afford, however, is a close connection to the artist’s hand. As such, it is an art form often exchanged between artists as both currency and in camaraderie. Twombly’s drawing, a token of affection between friends, echoes Whitney’s approach to collecting and curating—a work of keen intention, but executed with an impetuosity that lays bare the joys of a life dedicated to art.

David Whitney was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1939. He attended the Rhode Island School of Art and Design and began working as a designer at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, shortly thereafter. Whitney was soon a fixture on the city’s art scene, working in numerous commercial art galleries before founding his own eponymous sales gallery, and even participating in a Claes Oldenburg performance in 1965. Through his friendships with artists, he would become one their strongest advocates and most insightful curators. Though in Whitney’s own delightfully acerbic words he was little more than a “show doctor,” who moved art a little to the left or to the right, those who knew and worked with him would agree that his skilled eye produced extraordinary results. This is true of the exhibitions he curated and the publications he edited, but it is particularly evident in his decades-long work at the Glass House. On this estate, which he shared with architect Philip Johnson, Whitney’s inventive style melded art, architecture, and landscape. In addition to his incorporation of vernacular buildings and antique furniture, his love of drawing can be found all over the grounds, from a succulent garden he designed based on a Kasimir Malevich drawing in his own collection to a drawing he commissioned from Michael Heizer that is etched directly into a window of his house.

The Menil Collection is one of many places that benefitted from Whitney’s touch during his lifetime. He began as a guest curator for the exhibitions Ken Price, in 1992, and Franz Kline: Black and White 1950–1961, in 1994. He joined the board of trustees in 1997 and served until 2004. Almost a decade later, the Menil would be the honored recipient of a bequest from Whitney’s estate that included 17 important drawings by Jasper Johns, substantial holdings of Pop art from Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol, and nearly 1,000 books on modernist art. This gift was celebrated by the Menil Collection in 2007 with the exhibition The David Whitney Bequest.

Select pieces from the Whitney bequest are on view in the exhibition The Beginning of Everything: Drawings from the Janie C. Lee, Louise Stude Sarofim, and David Whitney Collections (February 24–June 18, 2017). Among them are Vija Celmins’s Untitled (Medium Desert), 1974–75, a meticulous and luscious rendering of sand and rock; Claes Oldenberg’s Late Submission to the Chicago Tribune Architectural Competition of 1922—Clothespin, Version One, 1967, a playful ode to built environments; and three Robert Rauschenberg transfer drawings, Refrains, 1958, Spinner + Game, 1958, and Open Season, 1961, all which used the inventive technique of solvent transfer to rub commercially printed images onto paper. Whitney’s collection is at turns elegant, incisive, and exuberant—just like the man himself.

In anticipation of the opening of the Menil Drawing Institute, The Beginning of Everything honors the generosity and stewardship of three trustees and patrons by presenting works from their collections, Whitney’s bequest alongside promised gifts made by Lee and Sarofim in a thoughtful response to his collection. Their gifts will increase the drawing collection in exciting and scholarly ways, and evidence a dedication to the Menil and the city of Houston. Drawings from the same three collections will also form the inaugural exhibition of the Drawing Institute’s new building, The Condition of Being Here: Drawings by Jasper Johns, alongside select loans from the artist.

Related exhibitions

Feb 24 – Jun 18, 2017
Main Building
The Beginning of Everything: Drawings from the Janie C. Lee, Louisa Stude Sarofim, and David Whitney Collections