With the May 1st grand opening to the public of its new building in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, the Whitney Museum launches a new era not only in the New York City art scene, but also, possibly, in the very world of museums. Thanks to a Renzo Piano-designed new building built, as Whitney Director Adam D. Weinberg put it, “from the inside out” to serve the interests of the art and the patrons first, the new Whitney and its classic collection of American art stretching back to 1900 has drawn excited raves and exasperated rants from critics. Their inaugural exhibition, America Is Hard to See, gathers together long-loved classic works with rarely seen newcomers to create a paradox of old and new to mirror the many paradoxes of the American history the art embodies and critiques by turns. This shock of the new (and old) is the must-see art event of the year.

The range of critical opinions over the past few weeks tried to pass final judgment before the doors even opened. No sooner did the Whitney release the list of 400 artists who created the 600-plus works in America Is Hard to See than people began to crunch the demographics numbers and condemn them for gender and racial bias.  The LA Times’ art critic Christopher Knight huffed and puffed over what he perceived as the NYC-centric, “shrouded in parochialism” nature of the show. “Not that I expected much more,” Knight wrote in prejudgment. “America is a big country. Naturally, vast swaths of its often marvelous art history have always been missing in action in New York.” (Funny enough, Knight’s colleague Carolina A. Miranda, aside from some minor quibbles, sees a “significant Southern California representation.”)

Conversely, Hyperallergic’s Benjamin Sutton raved over everything from the exhibition, to the comfy couches (as shown above), to the open-air terrace galleries, to even the all-gender bathrooms. Sutton also hoped that the museum’s placing of conservation facilities and office space adjacent to galleries, whose “proximity to and visibility from the gallery spaces contribute to a pervasive sense of transparency ... will become the new norm in museum design.” Like Sutton, many other commentators took the museum’s attempt at forward thinking as a promise of things to come in the museum world, for good or ill. Thus, the Whitney as experiment era begins.

But to all these somethings new, the Whitney marries the something old — their core collection of American art’s heavy hitters — Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, and the other usual suspects. What makes the new Whitney and America Is Hard to See so fascinating is how they are able to hold the paradoxes of old and new art set physically together in visual dialogue while at the same time telling the schizophrenic story of America — a land of the free founded on slavery, a land of opportunity split by breathtaking economic inequality, a post-racial place led by an African-American president yet beset by racial violence. Such multitasking storytelling fulfills the original mission of the Whitney while updating the tale for a contemporary audience.

“The title America Is Hard to See points to the impossibility of offering a tidy picture of this country, its culture, and, by extension, its art,” curator Donna De Salvo explains. “The exhibition takes up this challenge through the lens of the Whitney’s collection, re-examining well-known art historical tropes, proposing new narratives, and even expanding the definition of who counts as an American artist. We did not conceive of this exhibition as a comprehensive survey, but rather as a sequence of provocative thematic chapters that taken together reflect on American art history from the vantage point of today.” Those (such as Knight) looking for comprehensiveness need to look elsewhere. Those looking for an honest representation of the messily uncomfortable history of America and its art need look no further.

Several of these 23 “chapters” stand out for their interesting paradoxes of old and new, good and bad in American art and culture. “Forms Abstracted,” which takes its title from Marsden Hartley’s 1913 Forms Extracted, examines the American art debt to European modernism that resulted in such happy collisions as James Daugherty’s 1914 Three Base Hit, where American baseball meets Italian Futurism. “Breaking the Prairie” may take its name from the well-known Grant Wood’s work, but it breaks new canonical ground by including “outsider” artists James Castle and Bill Traylor inside the big tent. Similarly, Fighting with All Our Might alludes specifically to Hugo Gellert’s 1943 prints about America in World War II, but ripples out beautifully to all the social conflicts of the 1930s and 1940s involving labor and class (epitomized by Ben Shahn’s 1931 The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti) and racism (epitomized by Harry Sternberg’s harrowing 1935 anti-lynching print Southern Holiday).

If those combinations of well- and-lesser known names intrigue you, the choice of Hedda Sterne and her New York, N.Y., 1955 to highlight the Abstract Expressionist gallery seems an unusual choice until, as Jerry Saltz pointed out, Sterne’s use of spray paint makes her seem more contemporary than any of the AbEx boys’ club. The curators’ choice to literally dwarf Pollock’s Number 27 with his wife Lee Krasner’s mammoth The Seasons visually flips the standard art history narrative on its head and serves notice that America Is Hard to See isn’t like what you’ve seen before.

It’s a shame that many looked at the list of artists and drew preliminary conclusions about the exhibition. The chapter “Racing Thoughts” may come from Johns, but it focuses more on Johns-esque critiques from minority and female artists such as Nam June Paik, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Sherrie Levine, and Barbara Kruger. The chapter “Guarded View” (after a work by Fred Wilson) focuses entirely on identity, race, and gender. Critics can argue that the numbers haven’t changed, but, given the choice and the realities of most museum collections, I’ll take this qualitative shift over a quantitative one. The final chapter, titled after Ed Ruscha’s “Course of Empire,” delves fearlessly into the problems and paradoxes of the post-9/11 world with works by Mark Bradford, Glenn Ligon, Aleksandra Mir, and others. When I read that the new Whitney had already been the subject of a protest by Occupy Museums and Occupy the Pipeline over a natural gas pipeline connected to the controversial fracking procedure, I thought of no better christening.

Of all the distinctive, engaging, user-friendly touches of the new Whitney, one of the most interesting and indicative are the four Artschwager Elevators, which each contain immersive art interiors created by the late Richard Artschwager. Even before you see the galleries, you’re surrounded by the art experience. Saltz hit the issue on the head in bemoaning how most museums today are “at all times intensely in pursuit of new work, new crowds, and new money,” but the new Whitney provides a (perhaps imperfect) template for the new museum model: “Make enough space to show your permanent collections, and make them work with and for new acquisitions (and vice versa).” In other words, make contemporary art look classic and classic art look contemporary by setting up a dialogue for patrons to not just view but actively engage in. Weinstein acknowledges the influence of his time spent at the smaller, more contemporary-focused Walker Arts Center, so maybe the new Whitney is the best of both worlds — a small institution feel but with a big institution collection. That such little things pay off in big ways is just one more powerful paradox of the new Whitney’s shockingly good pairing of new and old.

[Image: Whitney Museum’s 5th floor West Ambulatory adjacent to “Threat and Sanctuary” galleries of America Is Hard to See exhibition. Painting on wall is Jonathan Borofsky’s Running People at 2,616,216 (1978-1979). Photograph © Nic Lehoux.]

[Many thanks to the Whitney Museum for providing me with the image above and other press materials related to their reopening and the exhibition America Is Hard to See, which runs through September 27, 2015.]

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