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The Whitney Museum is going back to basics, or at least that’s what you might think with their new brand identity redesign that was unveiled today. Created by Amsterdam-based Experimental Jetset, the new logo is an acute replacement to the rectilinear typeface rolled out 13 years ago and designed by Abbott Miller of New York-based Pentagram.
Is this better? Not really, but the thinking behind the zigzag, or what they call the “responsive W” is thoroughly considered and intriguing:
But even more than the letter W, we think the line also represents a pulse, a beat – the heartbeat of New York, of the USA. It shows the Whitney as an institute that is breathing (in and out), an institute that is open and closed at the same time. An institute that goes back and forth between the past and the future, moving from one opposite to the other (history and present, the ‘Old World’ and the ‘New World’, between the industrial and the sublime, etc.), while still moving forward.
The museum’s name is set in Neue Haas Grotesk, while accompanying text will also appear in the same typeface. The most unusual and nonsensical aspect of the logo essay is the studio’s strange emphasis on the Whitney’s special European relationship (emphasis mine):
There’s something about this typeface that reminds us of the Whitney. As we already wrote in some of our earlier presentations, we feel that an interesting theme within the history of the Whitney seems to be the relationship between America and Europe. While it is true that, initially, the Whitney focused exclusively on presenting American artists, it did so in sharp reaction to a specific pro-European context: a historical situation in which European art was valued above American art. It was this context that gave the Whitney its (emancipatory) right to exist. And despite (or maybe because of) its historical focus on American art, the Whitney continues to encapsulate this dialectic between the ‘Old World’ and the ‘New World’. The fact that the ‘old’ building and the ‘new’ building of the Whitney are both designed by European architects (Marcel Breuer was Hungarian, Renzo Piano is Italian) only emphasizes that.
As we already pointed out, it might be exactly this dialogue with the European ‘other’ that enables the Whitney to continuously define and re-define its American identity. We believe that, within the redrawn version of Neue Haas Grotesk, one can find a somewhat similar tension between the ‘Old’ and the ‘New World’: an European typeface, reinterpreted by a young American designer, originally commissioned by an English client.
In the 21st century, this special Euro-American relationship seems more past tense than future. I would venture to guess that if the designers weren’t European, no one would explore this relationship, which doesn’t even exist from my point of view since it is a vastly simplified telling of that history that excludes the real “others” in the history. And what are we supposed to think of the European “other”? Well, first, it is Eurocentric hogwash, considering that the heritage and identity of 21st century America is much broader and inclusive (Latin America, Asia, Africa, Native America … ) and the “other” has never been European in a very very very long time in this country.
But back to the actual logo. The no-frills brand identity, like their new website, feels like a clean, concise solution but from years ago — there’s already a dated feel to the design, the Whitney bus shelter advertisement is underwhelming and strangely evokes American Apparel ads. The peaks and valleys read as a line on a stock chart, which in this art market obsessed world may suggest the values of this particular museum and its priorities.
Looking at the branding guidelines, I don’t see the visual pleasure of a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, or the perceptual fancy of Op Art, even the solidity of Abbott Miller’s logo, what is here is a bare decontextualized line, on a white field, with no soul, just a continuous wave, like the stock market, which gives us the illusion of progress and movement but doesn’t really go anywhere.