Dear colleagues and friends,
One of many remarkable facets of my new life as director of the Whitney has been the opportunity to experience a 53 Wall Street stripped bare of events, classes, and people as we pack up and prepare to move to our new home in the Humanities Quadrangle (HQ). What would it have been like preparing a move in the thick of a regular semester? It’s hard to imagine. Our remote condition has given me time to explore the rooms behind the auditorium, those repositories of memory—to contemplate the posters on every wall, representing the history of talks at the Whitney since the advent of structuralism, and to stand in the walnut-stained room 208 with its fireplace and ship bas relief. Behind the lectern, flanking that fireplace, are the oil portraits: María Menocal and Jock Whitney to the left, Peter Brooks to the right—two directors and a benefactor.
I’ve noticed for the first time the architectural traces of the former parish house—a light fixture in what must have been a dining hall; a bench along the wall of a basement classroom. I remember teaching Camus and the Algerian Question in that basement classroom and borrowing films for the weekend from the treasure trove Film Study Center. For the people who’ve had their offices here, the Whitney has meant even more.
As I’ve packed and shredded, I’ve time traveled, discovering introductions to lectures; lists of fellows’ lunches; grant proposals over the nearly forty years of the Whitney’s existence. One afternoon I found myself staring at a wall. You’ve all seen it, too: the wall of black and white portraits in room 208, across from the bookcases. At first it made no sense. Then it dawned on me that the portraits, taken together, represent key people in the founding of the Whitney—David Apter from Political Science, Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man and Harold Bloom and Michael Holquist and Ruth Yeazell (the only woman—clearly there were more!) from English and Comparative Literature, Sherwin Nuland from the Medical School, Charles T. Davis from African American Studies, Hans Frei from Religious Studies. Alongside them, from a previous generation: Dean William DeVane, in whose memory the DeVane lectures are given, and an ancient class photo from Yale College—a random bit of memorabilia.
I called my friend and colleague Emily Apter, Silver Professor of French and Comparative Literature at NYU, about her father’s portrait. She’s never forgotten the reading group of faculty and students who gathered regularly in her family’s house in North Haven. Theory was in the air, and they were retooling, debating—inspired by the Frankfurt School, by Marxism, or by post-structuralism. That was the intellectual germ of the Whitney, the energy; what remained to secure was a building and funding.
As we pack and label the last boxes, preparing a new life in a new space, I feel the excitement but also the challenge. The new building will be larger intellectually but smaller in other ways. We’ll be living in close proximity to many departments, no longer the lords of our oddly shaped manor. How will the archeology of knowledge look in the new configuration? Peter Brooks remembers, in the beginning of the Whitney Humanities Center, a group of faculty who wanted to learn from one another, test the limits of their disciplines, and identify their blind spots. These aspirations belong in our baggage.
Neglect has made those picture frames in room 208 tip and tilt. Meanwhile, we don’t really know how much wall space we’ll have in the new building or how we’ll use it. The portraits and the photos will travel with us—but with captions added, so we can claim our history as we move forward.
With all good wishes,
Sterling Professor of French
Director, Whitney Humanities Center
December 4, 2020