The Whitney Museum of American Art, re-opened in May 2015 in a new building, now holds its own in the U. S. art scene: the famous paintings at the Whitney Museum have never looked so spectacular due to its breath-taking, Renzo Piano buildingOf his 24 art museums – 13 of which are in the United States – none surpasses the Whitney.

Edward Hopper.  Early Sunday Morning.  Oil on canvas, 1930.  35 1/4″ by 60″.

With six floors of light-filled, expansive galleries in its 200,000 square feet, the museum can now exhibit more of its impressive collection of 22,000 items, including 17,000 works on paper.  The building alone merits a long visit.  As ArtNews notes,

The view across the gallery floor at the Whitney, above the spacious entrance lobby, evokes infinity: visitors can see from one end to the other, and glimpse the city beyond.  Rather than distracting from the art – in this case, the Whitney’s top-notch and until-now underserved permanent collection – this openness brings a greater clarity to the experience of it by drawing the visitor more slowly through the space.

Here are ten must-see, famous paintings at the Whitney Museum: 

1. Early Sunday Morning 

One of the best known Edward Hopper paintings, Early Sunday Morning (above, center) formed part of the museum’s founding collection.  Although the artist described this scene as “almost a literal translation of Seventh Avenue”, he took great liberties with his rendition:

  • the doorways are compressed;
  • the windows are spaced irregularly; and
  • the long, early morning shadows are impossible on 7th Avenue, a street running north – south.

Willem de Kooning.  Door to the River.  Oil on linen, 1960. 70 1/8″ by 80 1/8″.

Nonetheless, Edward Hopper has created a scene of eery, uncanny silence and solitude in this masterpiece of ambiguity.

The Whitney owns 3,157 Hopper artworks, the most comprehensive of anyone, anywhere.  Explore his Nighthawks (and note how the building in Early Sunday Morning looms in its background).

2. Door to the River

This massive, nearly abstract work by Willem de Kooning (above, left) is overwhelming in its beauty and painterly confidence – it lacks the frequent reworking and repainting typical of so many de Kooning paintings. The sheer force and speed of his painting is undeniable when inspecting this work up close.

Right: Joan Mitchell. Hemlock. Oil on canvas, 1956. 91″ by 80″.

The wide brushstrokes were made with housepainting brushes. Knowing the work’s title, it is easy to see the view of a brilliant blue river through the thick, broad, vertical brushstrokes forming a door.

Explore other famous paintings by de Kooning, including Woman I and Excavation.

3. Hemlock

Like many Joan Mitchell paintings, Hemlock (above, right) confounds notions of foreground and background: the white here is both behind and layered on top of the predominant blues and greens. Together with Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, Mitchell was one of the first female painters who were successful in Abstract Expressionism.

Although one can imagine the arching horizontal arms of a hemlock tree here, Mitchell titled the work after its creation, referencing a 1916 poem by Wallace Stevens, “Domination of Black”, which contains several references to hemlocks, including:

“Out of the window, / I saw how the planets gathered / Like the leaves themselves / Turning in the wind. / I saw how the night came, / Came striding like the color of the / heavy hemlocks. . .”

4. Flood

Helen Frankenthaler, the pioneer of color field painting, thinned her paint to the consistency of watercolor and poured it directly on to unprimed canvas.  When she tilted the canvas, the paint was absorbed in different concentrations, creating areas of varying density of color.

Helen Frankenthaler.  Flood.  Acrylic on canvas, 1967.  124 1/4″ by 140 1/2″.

But Helen Frankenthaler never completely abandoned representation: in Flood (above, left), she has created an elemental landscape with water, trees, sky and clouds.  She said, “I think of my pictures as explosive landscapes, worlds and distances, held on a flat surface.”

Learn more about color field painting, and one of her most famous paintings, Mountains and Sea — created when she was 23 years old.

5. Dial

Friend and one-time art school classmate of Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston moved into and out of figuration during his career, with Dial representing his time as a commited abstract painter.  Guston commented:

“This picture has a special importance for me as it is a culminating point of a certain period of my painting.”

As with many Guston paintings, the brushwork is both gestural and calculated; here, the widest brushstrokes are at the center of the canvas.  According to Guston, Dial was inspired by the grid paintings of Piet Mondrian.

Philip Guston.  Dial.  Oil on linen, 1956.  72″ by 76 3/8″.

Roughly ten years after Dial, Philip Guston returned to a self-defined figuration with cartoon-like figures dominating his works.

6. Three Flags

Like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns incorporated recognized, commonplace imagery into his works.

In one of the most famous paintings at the Whitney, Johns painted in an old master technique called encaustic, a mixture of pigment suspended in hot wax.  Because encaustic hardens shortly after each stroke is laid down, it creates a sculptural “footprint” of each mark while making a pronounced three dimensional, textured surface. This grouping of flags projects out nearly five inches from the wall.

Jasper Johns.  Three Flags.  Encaustic on canvas, 1958.  30 5/8″ by 45 1/2″ by 4 5/8″.

Jasper Johns paintings often include recognizable objects such as flags, numbers and targets.  According to Johns, these are “things the mind already knows”… granting him “room to work on other levels”.

7. The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

Ben Shahn created a series of 23 paintings about the controversial trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian-American immigrants.  In 1927, the two were sentenced to death for an armed robbery and murder of two employees of a Massachusetts company; after a jury convicted them based upon circumstantial evidence, the Lowell Committee was established to investigate charges of bias but upheld the jury’s verdict.

After Sacco and Vanzetti were sentenced to death by Judge Webster Thayer in 1927, international riots and protests ensued.

The title The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti is an overt reference to the Passion of Christ, and the lilies held by two members of the Lowell Committee are an attibute of the crucifixion of Christ.  Presiding Judge Thayer lurks in the window with his hand upright, as if taking an oath.

Ben Shahn.  The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti.  Tempera and gouache on canvas, 1931-32.  84″ by 48″.

Ben Shahn was a leading proponent of Social Realism, a style born of the political, social and economic conditions of the Great Depression.  His graphic, flat style of painting brings a poignancy and immediacy to a dark chapter in U. S. history – and a story all should know.

8. Music, Pink and Blue No. 2

Like many modern artists, Georgia O’Keeffe was enthralled with how music could be expressive without words or reference to specific imagery.  Pink and blue aren’t the sole colors here, but overall, this work plays cool and warm colors against each other as she explores the relationship of music and abstraction as nonverbal forms of emotional expression.

Georgia O’Keeffe.  Music, Pink and Blue No. 2.  Oil on canvas, 1918.  35″ by 30″.

9. Four Darks in Red

Yet again, Mark Rothko paintings have to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Starting in the late 1940s, Mark Rothko painted horizontal bands and rectangles of varying size, a format he explored for the rest of his career.  He felt he was capturing the “basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom” in these works.

Here, the bands of color simultaneously emerge from and recede into the red ground.  Close inspection reveals that these rectangles consist of layer upon layer of paint of varying consistency, creating a luminosity and incandesence not captured in reproductions.

The scale of Rothko paintings is key, too.  He stated,

“The reason I paint them [large works]… is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.  To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stero-opticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it.  It isn’t something you command.”

A viewer lives color standing in front of Four Darks in Red.

Mark Rothko.  Four Darks in Red.  Oil on canvas, 1958.  101 7/8″ by 116 3/8″.

10. Girl Looking at Landcape

Taught by Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn was a member of the Bay Area Figurative group of painters who flourished in the San Francisco area in the mid 1950s.  This group of painters, who included Nathan Oliveira, Paul Wonner, David Park, and Theophilus Brown, veered away from the prevailing style of Abstract Expressionism and adopted figurative subject matter.

Girl Looking at Landscape is one of a series of Diebenkorn paintings in which figures are placed in architectural settings overlooking expansive landscapes; all convey a sense of detachment, contemplation, and the influence of Matisse and Pierre Bonnard.  Here, the geometric shapes and blocks of color foreshadow his later Ocean Park series, the best known Diebenkorn paintings.

Read the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl’s review of the Whitney, and by all means, buy timed tickets to the Whitney ahead of any visit: the lines will do nothing but grow as word of its rebirth spreads.

Richard Diebenkorn.  Girl Looking at Landscape.  Oil on canvas, 1957.  59″ by 60 1/2″.