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Photo courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art

The new Whitney Museum of American Art considers elevators part of its permanent collection.

When the City of New York and The Whitney Museum of American Art came together in May 2011 to break ground for the preeminent museum’s new building, relocating it from its longtime uptown Madison Avenue home to downtown Manhattan’s Meatpacking District along the city’s popular High Line park and overlooking the Hudson River, it was considered a revelation, a bold and surprising move. When the museum then commissioned renowned contemporary artist and longtime Whitney-favorite Richard Artschwager to design art for its four main elevator cabs, it was considered a fitting testament to the museum’s history, as well as its hopes for the future.

On May 1, 2015, the doors to the new and much larger Whitney Museum opened to the public, on schedule and with much fanfare. The building’s contemporary design, the work of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano, allows for light and open spaces consistent with the location. “The design for the new museum emerges equally from a close study of The Whitney’s needs and from a response to this remarkable site,” said Piano.

The Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director Adam D. Weinberg said the new building would create “an aspirational space where contemporary artists can realize their visions and audiences can connect deeply with art.” It was important that connection begin upon patrons entering the building. According to Weinberg:

“The Whitney has a long history of using stairwells, lobby spaces, hallways and other places in buildings as opportunities for art. The Whitney wanted works of art to be one of the first things that the public encountered in the new building. Since elevators are integral to a building’s design, the museum wanted to take something that is usually a fairly nondescript space and turn it into artwork.”

With a total of 220,000 sq. ft., the new nine-story Whitney Museum features 50,000 sq. ft. of indoor gallery space, 13,000 sq. ft. of outdoor exhibition space and an 8,500-sq.-ft. outdoor plaza, among other spaces. But, it’s Artschwager’s four elevators, his last commissioned work before his death in 2013, that take visitors to most of those places. According to Weinberg, the hope is:

“. . . the Artschwager elevators will become a uniquely memorable and unexpected part of the experience of coming to The Whitney. They will be a reminder of the centrality of our relationships with artists and, in particular, of our longstanding history with Richard Artschwager. . . .  These elevators are a way of putting the art first and foremost and an invitation to the visitor to experience art even before ascending to the special exhibition and permanent collection galleries.”

Six in Four, the title Artschwager gave to The Whitney elevators, is the culmination of a body of work based on six themes that occupied Artschwager’s imagination since the mid 1970s: door, window, table, basket, mirror and rug. These themes became the subject of hundreds of drawings and numerous sculptures the artist made throughout his career. Each elevator is designed as an immersive installation featuring one or more of these themes. According to The Whitney, visitors entering an elevator will have the extraordinary and somewhat disorienting experience of standing under a table, being on a rug in front of a mirror, finding oneself opposite an unexpected door and next to a window, or contained in a giant floating woven basket.  

Throughout the day, the four elevators are used by museum visitors. The largest elevator, nearly 15-ft.-wide, is also used to transport art. After museum hours, all four elevators are “parked” in the lobby, doors open and lit from within – presenting the entire installation each night in full view of anyone passing by the glass-enclosed ground floor of The Whitney.

Artschwager was commissioned for this project not only because he was a major figure in 20th-century American art, but also because of his history with The Whitney. That relationship began in 1966 when The Whitney included Artschwager’s work in two major shows and acquired his sculpture Description of a Table. In 1988 and 2012, The Whitney organized comprehensive surveys of his work. Today, it holds more of Artschwager’s art than any other museum. 

The commissioned Whitney elevator art was not Artschwager’s first foray into working with elevators. In 1981, he created Janus III, his first large-scale interactive sculptural installation. The nonfunctioning chrome and Formica elevator cab, which is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany, features interior lighting and allows viewers to enter and press buttons that activate a chorus of sounds and recreates the feeling of ascending and descending.

When it came time to make Artschwager’s Six in Four a reality, it was the New York City-based Otis team that got the job. According to Brian Mabee, Otis New York general manager, “The museum hired Turner Construction as the construction manager for its new building. Like [with] any project, Turner Construction issued a Request for Proposal. Otis was thrilled to have the opportunity to work on this project and was eventually awarded the work.”

The Otis contract with Turner Construction called for three smaller geared passenger elevators, a large geared traction elevator for transporting artwork along with passengers, and a hydraulic elevator for service use. Being that these elevators were custom designed, the project presented some unique challenges. Mabee said:

“These four passenger units were works of art – literally – and the custom design build meant the pieces were designed and installed simultaneously. The narrow space of three of the cab interiors made it challenging to allow the artist’s ideas to come to life, as well as ensuring their preservation and functionality.”

Materials used included plastic laminate, glass, rubber and etched stainless steel. Adding to the complexity of the project was the need for customized rail brackets and glass-bottomed hoistways.

Otis, no stranger to custom design work, has a strict process for the manufacture and installation of its equipment. The New York-based team worked closely with its cab and entrance vendor, along with sub-tier suppliers, to ensure quality was held to the highest standards, Mabee said.

“The design build took more than two years to complete with the help of 10 Otis team members. All those working on the project took great pride in being part of something that is visited by thousands of people every day,” Mabee said. “This was an important win for Otis to demonstrate the level of custom work we can do.”

 “I’ve worked on hundreds of elevators, but I’ve never seen anything like these elevators at The Whitney,” said Otis Foreman Chris Cordoza. “They were like a puzzle to put together. They truly are works of art.”

THE WHITNEY THEN AND NOW

Founded in 1930 by sculptor and arts patron Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, The Whitney Museum of American Art has been devoted to 20th-century and contemporary art of the U.S., with a special focus on works by living artists, since its inception. Today, that mission continues with a collection comprising more than 19,000 works by over 2,800 artists. The Whitney exhibits the most promising and influential American artists, the likes of which include Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns and Claes Oldenburg.

Located initially in Greenwich Village on West 8th Street, the museum moved to Madison Avenue in 1966, where it stayed until 2015. Its new location is situated at the corner of Gansevoort and Washington streets, at the southern entrance of the High Line.

The new US$422-million Whitney Museum offers greatly increased exhibition and programming space, including state-of-the-art facilities for performance, film, video and enhanced educational programs. Other spaces include a study center, conservation lab, library, reading room, street-level restaurant and eighth-floor café.

For more information about The Whitney’s hours, prices and exhibits, visit www.whitney.org.

ELEVATOR SPECIFICATIONS

Cars PE 1 – 3

  • Capacity: 4500 lb.
  • Speed: 350 fpm
  • Machine: Hollister-Whitney 64 Overhead Ropes: Brugg Wire Rope
  • Guide rails: Monteferro
  • Fixtures: Otis signal fixtures Controller: Otis 411

Art Car or AE – 1

  • Capacity: 20,000 lb.
  • Speed: 100 fpm
  • Machine: Hollister-Whitney 74 Overhead Ropes: Brugg Wire Rope
  • Guide rails: Monteferro – Jumbo Safety: FS Payne B40 
  • Fixtures: Otis signal fixtures
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