2017-09-18 17:23:02
As ‘Diller Island’ Sinks, Whitney Plans Major Artwork on Hudson

The Whitney has been watching.

As Barry Diller’s proposed floating park in the Hudson River encountered hurdle after hurdle, until Mr. Diller finally scrapped the idea last week, the Whitney Museum of American Art was closely monitoring each twist and turn to learn from his experience. The museum, it turns out, had its own river project in the works near its meatpacking district home, and not far from so-called “Diller Island”: a permanent art installation on land and water by the prominent artist David Hammons.

The Whitney hadn’t wanted word to get out yet; the project is scheduled to be presented to the local community board on Oct. 4. But the fallout from the island scuttling included the surprise news, for Mr. Diller and others, that the Whitney also had plans for the Hudson that could have affected his park.

Adam Weinberg, the Whitney’s director, confirmed the Hammons project but said “it’s only a possibility” at this point.

“David Hammons’s concept for a public art installation at the edge of Gansevoort Peninsula is something that we’re very excited about,” Mr. Weinberg said, referring to the area for the Whitney project. “Our proposal is only in its earliest stages and for us it’s really important to start with our community board.

“We’re extremely mindful of environmental and community sensitivity,” Mr. Weinberg added. “We followed everything that happened to Pier 55,” the Hudson River site of Mr. Diller’s park.

Mr. Hammons’s Gansevoort installation is expected to feature a ghostlike image of the original Pier 52 building on that site, according to those who have been briefed on the project — an open minimalist framework of what had originally been there, like a pencil line drawing in space.

The project would rest on 12 pilings — five of them on the peninsula, with a sixth out at the end of it and another six in the water to the south.

Mindful that a judge had objected to the Diller park’s proposed use of concrete to fill in some of Pier 55’s 550 pilings, the Whitney’s installation involves the construction of no solid surfaces like a floor, walls or platforms.

The importance of communicating with neighborhood groups and potential opponents was one of the lessons that Whitney officials learned from Diller Island’s cautionary tale. Opponents of the Diller project — chiefly, a civic group backed by Douglas Durst of the New York real estate family — had criticized the secrecy surrounding the island and its potential danger to a protected Hudson estuary.

Mr. Diller, the chairman of IAC/InterActive Corporation, and his wife, the fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, had agreed to underwrite the undulating island park and cultural hub at the foot of West 13th Street. The cost had mushroomed to more than $250 million from $35 million over six years because of the complexity of the plans — by the British designer Thomas Heatherwick — and the delays caused by legal battles over issues like Pier 55’s placement.

The Diller and Whitney projects might seem unrelated at first. But in fact, both were being overseen by the Hudson River Park Trust, and both were located in waters that became the subject of environmental concerns in lawsuits. Richard Emery, a lawyer for the opponents of the Diller project, said his clients would have had to sign off on the Whitney project as part of a larger legal settlement over the island park. Specifically, the opponents of the park were negotiating with the Hudson River Park Trust on protections for the estuary area that would have included both the island and the art installation.

Mr. Diller said in an interview that he had only just learned about the extent of the Whitney project, but that neither the art installation itself nor the lack of information about it affected his decision to pull the plug on his island.

Mr. Hammons, the famously elusive African-American artist whose work is coveted by institutions the world over, had some time ago proposed to the Whitney a sculpture that would recall Pier 52’s shipping history.

The artist, whom the Times critic Holland Cotter recently described as “a star, known for his formal and conceptual brilliance and his unpredictable ways,” is difficult to pin down for museum shows as well as interviews. (His spokeswoman referred calls to the Whitney.) His work, which deals with issues of race and beauty, ranges from bejeweled basketball hoops to defaced fur coats to a sweatshirt’s hood, pinned to a wall. The pier project is likely to be Mr. Hammons’s first large-scale permanent outdoor work; the Whitney would have to raise funds to cover its undisclosed cost.

The artwork would have to be approved by the trust, which has been initially receptive.

“The Whitney approached the trust with an idea for a highly site-specific project that would reflect the southern edge of Gansevoort’s physical and artistic history and role in the working waterfront,” Madelyn Wils, president of the Hudson River Park Trust, said in a statement. “We think it’s an inspiring idea and look forward to hearing the community’s thoughts before pursuing it further.”

The Whitney has been careful to try to enlist potential opponents early on, like Deborah J. Glick, the Democratic assemblywoman whose district includes the pier, and who had very publicly complained that the trust had not been open about the island’s private funding.

Ms. Glick said she had breakfast several months ago with Mr. Weinberg, who laid out the Whitney’s proposal for the installation but did not leave her with a rendering or description, saying that the Whitney did not want word to get out about the project before it had been approved by the museum’s board.

“My impression was, it was a rather skeletal, tubular, very open form that would be a reminder of the historic piers that once lined the waterfront,” Ms. Glick said of the artwork.

“It didn’t seem to be something with the same physical impact” as the Diller project, she added. “In my mind, it wouldn’t interfere with plans for the area.”