“The Whitney Museum / was still on 8th Street”: Kenneth Koch and ever-changing New York


There’s been a lot of discussion and praise for the opening of the Whitney Museum in its new home today in the Meatpacking District, in a building designed by the architect Renzo Piano.  (Apparently even the Empire State Building is getting in on the act:”From 8 p.m. to 2 a.m., the Empire State Building’s LED tower lights will reinterpret 12 works from the museum’s collection. They include works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and others”).

This is not the first time the Whitney has relocated, of course. In fact, it’s bounced around Manhattan a number of times — from its first home on West 8th St., to West 54th St. near MoMA, where it moved in 1954, to its most recent home on 75th St. where it remained until this year.

The news of the Whitney’s move — and my nostalgia for the home it left behind — reminded me of a line in Kenneth Koch’s poem “The Circus” from the 1970s, a poem which looks back at a time in the 1950s when he wrote an earlier poem called “The Circus.”  It opens with the lines:

I remember when I wrote The Circus
I was living in Paris, or rather we were living in Paris
Janice, Frank was alive, the Whitney Museum
Was still on 8th Street, or was it still something else?

A moving meditation on memory and loss, time and nostalgia, Koch’s poem evokes the ever-changing landscape of New York, where nothing ever stays still for long.  Those of us who have spent decades enjoying the Whitney on 75th St. will now have to think of that building as the old Whitney.  Who knows where the next incarnation will be?

But New York teaches us not to get too attached to any one place or building, doesn’t it? Here’s how James Schuyler thinks about it in his great New York poem “Dining Out with Doug and Frank“:

It would
have been so nice after dinner
to take the ferry boat with Frank
across the Hudson (or West River,
if you prefer). To be on
the water in the dark and
the wonder of electricity –
the real beauty of Manhattan.
Oh well. When they tore down
the Singer Building,
and when I saw the Bogardus building
rusty and coming unstitched in
a battlefield of rubble I deliberately
withdrew my emotional investments
in loving old New York. Except
you can’t.

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