Portrait of a Curator as a Young Man

A New England native, David Whitney was born in Worcester, Massachusetts on March 29, 1939.  He attended The Loomis Institute (now Loomis Chaffee School) in Windsor, Connecticut and the Woodstock Country School in South Woodstock, Vermont before enrolling in the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence for Interior Architecture.  During his junior year in 1960, he attended a lecture at Brown University given by Philip Johnson.  Following the lecture, he approached Johnson with questions about his art collection, requested an invitation to the Glass House, and visited Johnson in New Canaan the following weekend.1   In an article in W Magazine in 2002, “The Golden Boys” by James Reginato, Whitney shared, “He [Philip Johnson] was gorgeous, he was bright, he was glamorous—what’s not to like?”  Whitney continued, “I always get what I want….  I was just legal,” to which Philip Johnson humorously added, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Upon graduation, Whitney moved to New York and held a series of jobs as a Department Assistant in the Department of Exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (1963); a Gallery Assistant at Green Gallery (1964-65) and Leo Castelli Gallery (1965-66); and a studio assistant for Jasper Johns (1965-66).  His next and last documented staff position was as an Adjunct Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1984-85), although he pursued independent projects as a guest curator, editor, and publisher from 1966 until his untimely and unexpected death on June 12, 2005 at age 66.  Regarding his career, Whitney said, “I always did what came up if it interested me.  I never worried whether I had a job or not.”2
Through his book and exhibition projects, Whitney showcased contemporary art of his time, contributing to the career development and public recognition of numerous artists and designers.  His first independent project as a curator and editor was Leo Castelli: Ten Years, a group show of works by Richard Artschwager, Lee Bontecou, John Chamberlain, Nassos Daphnis, Edward Higgins, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Morris, Larry Poons, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Salvatore Scarpitta, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol in 1967.  In addition to Castelli’s anniversary project, Whitney organized a special exhibition, commissioned by Nelson A. Rockefeller for his wife Happy’s birthday.  Only exhibited for one-week, the exhibition included 35 artworks by artists Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Claes Oldenburg, and Frank Stella.  Following the exhibition, Rockefeller bought many of the pieces.3
In 1967, Whitney also published Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn) for Factory Additions, printed by Aetna Silkscreen Products, New York.  This was the first of four print portfolios that he would produce consecutively of Andy Warhol’s artwork.  Each portfolio contained ten prints, signed by the artist.  The other portfolios were Campbell’s Soup I (1968) and Campbell’s Soup II (1969), both printed by Salvatore Silkscreen Company, New York.  He next published Flowers (1970), printed by Aetna Silkscreen Products.4
After acquiring Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten Inch Intervals (1966) from Richard Bellamy in 1967, Whitney organized Bruce Nauman’s first solo exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery and authored the notes for the exhibition catalog, launching the artist’s long international exhibition history at major museums.  In a review by Grace Glueck, Nauman said of his work, “I guess my work has to do with the way a lot of people are thinking…. What I turn out has everything to do with the way art is made — what the artist does in his studio.… On the West Coast, no one buys art.  You get out of school and you have a studio and you sit around and drink coffee. So you have to sort of inquire what it is you’re doing – what, as an artist, you’re really about.”5   Neon Templates was exhibited in this show and remains a part of the Philip Johnson Glass House Collection.

From 1969 to 1971, Whitney operated his own gallery, located at 53 East 19th Street, a short block-and-half walk to the legendary artist hangout, Max’s Kansas City6 on Park Avenue South and three-and-half blocks from Andy Warhol’s Factory7  on Union Square West.  Whitney’s primary interest was the creative process:  the artist’s thinking and making.  To this extent, early in his career, he participated as a performer biting balloons while naked in a pool for Washes, a performance piece by Claes Oldenburg at Al Roon’s Health Club, New York City on May 22, 1965.8, 9, 10  Regarding his gallery, he said to The New York Times, “I came downtown because it was the only space I could afford.  And also I wanted to get away from the money scene.  I’d like to encourage people to look at pictures again.”11
The David Whitney Gallery specialized in “lyrical abstraction.”12, 13, 14  Artists represented by his gallery included Neil Jenney,15, 16 Jasper Johns,17, 18 Ronnie Landfield,19, 20 Ken Price,21 Ken Showell,22, 23 Lawrence Stafford,24 Lewis Stein,25, 26, 27, 28 Gary Stephan,29  John Tweddle,30 and Philip Wofford.31, 32, 33  Ken Price reflected, “[In] the early '70's, [David] had a beautiful show of my work.  That is when we became good friends.  I often over the years would turn to him for advice because I trusted what he thought and said.  He loved my work, we were very closely connected.”34


"David was a perceptive, generous person with a good sense of humor, fun to be with. I shall always be grateful to him for his participation in the performance Washes in 1965. The performance took place in the swimming pool at Al Roon's. David's roles in parts 1 and 9 is marked in the attached script.”
-    Claes Oldenburg, April 29, 2011

Click here for Chapter 2: A Prolific Career
1Randy Kennedy
2James Reginato
3James R. Mellow, “Rocky as a Collector,” The New York Times, May 18, 1969
4Email from Claudia Defendi, Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board to Author, April 27, 2011
5Grace Glueck “A Form (Or Two) Is Born,” The New York Times, February 18, 1968
6Max’s Kansas City, 213 Park Avenue South, New York
7Andy Warhol’s studio, Factory, 33 Union Square West, 6th Floor, New York
8Al Hansen, A Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art, Something Else Press, 1965 (p31,32)
9Email from Claes Oldenburg and Oldenburg van Bruggen Studio to Author, April 29, 2011
10Al Roon’s, Mens Health Club at Riverside Plaza Hotel, 253 West 73rd Street, New York (Womens Health Club, Ansonia Hotel, 2109 Broadway, New York)
11Grace Glueck, “Looking Up With the Arts,” The New York Times, October 5, 1969
12David Bourdon, “The First Family of Avant-Garde Art: What’s Up in Art? Follow the Clan,” Life magazine, vol. 68, no.16, May 1, 1970
13David L. Shirey, “Downtown Scene: Lyrical Abstraction,” The New York Times, April 8, 1971
14Peter Schjeldahl, “The New Painting: Return to the Sublime?” The New York Times, April 18, 1971
15“What’s New in Art: Saturday: Neil Jenney. Sculpture.  To Dec. 7,” The New York Times, November 8, 1970
16Grace Glueck, “A Downtown Scene,” The New York Times, November 28, 1970
17Advertisement, “Jasper Johns: Lithographs and Etchings, Opening May 3-27,” The New York Times, April 27, 1969
18Advertisement, “Jasper Johns: Lithographs and Etchings, Opening May 3-27,”The New York Times, May 3, 1969
19“The Art Week: Recent Openings: David Whitney Gallery. R. Landfield, K. Showell, L. Stafford, L. Stein, and P. Wofford, To Oct. 14,” The New York Times, September 28, 1969
20“What’s New in Art: Recent Openings: Ronnie Landfield. To Nov. 11,” The New York Times, October 26, 1969
21“What New in Art: Recent Openings: Kenneth Price.  Sculpture. Through February 2, 1971,” The New York Times, January 24, 1971
22“The Art Week: Recent Openings” The New York Times, September 28, 1969
23“What’s New in Art:  Saturday: Ken Showell. Paintings. To Dec. 9,” The New York Times, November 9, 1969
24“The Art Week: Recent Openings” The New York Times, September 28, 1969
26“What’s New in Art: Recent Openings: Lewis Stein. Paintings. To Jan. 6,” The New York Times, December 14, 1969
27“What’s New in Art: Recent Openings: Lewis Stein. Recent paintings. To Jan. 5,” The New York Times, December 13, 1970
28“What New in Art: Recent Openings: Lewis Stein.To October 12,” The New York Times, September 26, 1971
29“What’s New in Art: Recent Openings: Gary Stephan: To December 7,” The New York Times, November 14, 1971
30David L. Shirey, “Downtown Scene: Force in Aluminum,” The New York Times, February 13, 1971
31“The Art Week: Recent Openings,” The New York Times, September 28, 1969
32Peter Schjeldahl “The New Painting: Return to the Sublime?,“ The New York Times, April 18, 1971
33David L. Shirey, “Downtown Scene: Lyrical Abstraction,” The New York Times, April 8, 1971
34Email from Ken Price to Author, April 26, 2011

my not ready for prime time stuff here