David Whitney was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1939. He attended the Rhode Island School of Art and Design and began working as a designer at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, shortly thereafter. Whitney was soon a fixture on the city’s art scene, working in numerous commercial art galleries before founding his own eponymous sales gallery, and even participating in a Claes Oldenburg performance in 1965. Through his friendships with artists, he would become one their strongest advocates and most insightful curators. Though in Whitney’s own delightfully acerbic words he was little more than a “show doctor,” who moved art a little to the left or to the right, those who knew and worked with him would agree that his skilled eye produced extraordinary results. This is true of the exhibitions he curated and the publications he edited, but it is particularly evident in his decades-long work at the Glass House. On this estate, which he shared with architect Philip Johnson, Whitney’s inventive style melded art, architecture, and landscape. In addition to his incorporation of vernacular buildings and antique furniture, his love of drawing can be found all over the grounds, from a succulent garden he designed based on a Kasimir Malevich drawing in his own collection to a drawing he commissioned from Michael Heizer that is etched directly into a window of his house.
The Menil Collection is one of many places that benefitted from Whitney’s touch during his lifetime. He began as a guest curator for the exhibitions Ken Price, in 1992, and Franz Kline: Black and White 1950–1961, in 1994. He joined the board of trustees in 1997 and served until 2004. Almost a decade later, the Menil would be the honored recipient of a bequest from Whitney’s estate that included 17 important drawings by Jasper Johns, substantial holdings of Pop art from Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol, and nearly 1,000 books on modernist art. This gift was celebrated by the Menil Collection in 2007 with the exhibition The David Whitney Bequest.