The Whitney Museum as Department Store: Bring Your Credit Card

The Whitney Museum as Department Store: Bring Your Credit Card

The Whitney Museum of American Art is beginning to seem a bit like a department store. From its sale of T-shirts designed by artists Matthew Brannon, E.V. Day, Ellen Harvey, and Phoebe Washburn, and manufactured by Adam Lippes of ADAM clothing; to the release of its Jenny Holzer-designed Keds sneakers; to the window display of the paintings of three winners of Whitney-director-judged “Keds Works on Canvas Contest” at Bloomingdale’s, it’s hard to know where the art ends and the shopping begins. One almost wants to shout Holzer’s slogan — emblazoned on the $70 sneakers she created — to the wind: “Protect me from what I want!”

But of course, the line between department store and museum has been blurred before — Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg (the last two under the combined pseudonym ‘Matson Jones’) were dressing windows before Holzer could tie her shoelaces. The current onslaught of what the Whitney is calling “wearable art” is notable, however, because it has come about all at once, and is reaching a broader audience than the casual passersby of that tried and true presentation, the window display.

Gilt Groupe, the online designer discount website, hosted a July 1 sale of the T-shirts, which will move into ADAM stores and the Whitney Museum store on the 8th (where they will be offered for $95). E.V. Day’s women’s shirt features a design reminiscent of her G-Force fighter planes — which are actually constructed with fishing twine and thongs. They promise to transform its wearer into what Day calls “an Amazonian archer from the future.” The Washburn top for men, meanwhile, sports a graphic schematic for a 1909 World Series game, exploring what Day sees as the “connection between activities in a sporting event and what happens in an artist’s studio.”

Holzer, whose art addresses the acquisition-lust of art consumption, recently used T-shirts as her artistic medium — distributing 7,000 shirts throughout downtown Johannesburg, bearing such loaded aphorisms as “Remember you always have freedom of choice.” But in this increasingly incestuous world of art institutions and fashion — and the profiting from the union of the two (a percent of the T-shirt proceeds and all of the Keds profits will go to the museum since Keds is the Whitney’s summer season sponsor) — it’s hard to tell to what degree the added artistic component of the commodities is just a way of upping their price.

"It is always a good time for collaborations that support the Whitney, and we are thrilled that artists and fashion designers are interested in working with us on these projects," a spokesperson for the museum said in an email. "The timing of the Keds and ADAM collaborations was purely coincidental, although there was definitely a desire to make the T-shirts and sneakers available for the summer."

The spokesperson also stated that the window display and clothing would encourage people to visit the museum itself. Well, someone at least is on board. The Whitney recently tweeted: “Summer opening tonight! Whitney director Adam Weinberg is rocking some red Pro @keds.”