The Whitney's Collection: Selections from 1900 to 1965

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“I think that’s what our collection aims to be—to really ground people in the work of the particular moment, but also to show how historical work can have new resonance in our contemporary moment.”
—David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection

Hear from a range of artists, curators, and scholars speaking about works on view.

Henry Koerner, Mirror of Life, 1946

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Narrator: On the right-hand side of Henry Koerner’s Mirror of Life, a nude man peers out a window at the spectacle of the world. Joseph Leo Koerner, the artist’s son and a professor of art history at Harvard University, describes the role of the man. 

Joseph Leo Koerner: His leaning gesture—which I know my father spent a lot of time getting right—is there to sort of combine the interior scene of everyday life and of the erotic life of a person with the exterior world in which everything that can go on in life is encapsulated, from eating and buying clothes to leisure pursuits, like dancing. 

In the far distance in the scene of a man killing another man—probably Cain killing Abel—one is given a sense that whatever one sees is not just everyday life but it's sort of everyday life raised to a slightly higher magnitude. 

In the middle ground you see people picking up bits from a treeless forest. And that's a little abbreviated version of the Vienna woods.  

But at the same time, there are obviously references to the cityscape of New York in the style of buildings, the South of the United States in the scene of the old man and woman sitting on the porch. 

Narrator: The references to New York and Vienna—as well as the sense of anxiety that pervades the painting—have their roots in Koerner’s own life. 

Man leaning out window to view various scenes of life

Narrator: On the right-hand side of Henry Koerner’s Mirror of Life, a nude man peers out a window at the spectacle of the world. Joseph Leo Koerner, the artist’s son and a professor of art history at Harvard University, describes the role of the man. 

Joseph Leo Koerner: His leaning gesture—which I know my father spent a lot of time getting right—is there to sort of combine the interior scene of everyday life and of the erotic life of a person with the exterior world in which everything that can go on in life is encapsulated, from eating and buying clothes to leisure pursuits, like dancing. 

In the far distance in the scene of a man killing another man—probably Cain killing Abel—one is given a sense that whatever one sees is not just everyday life but it's sort of everyday life raised to a slightly higher magnitude. 

In the middle ground you see people picking up bits from a treeless forest. And that's a little abbreviated version of the Vienna woods.  

But at the same time, there are obviously references to the cityscape of New York in the style of buildings, the South of the United States in the scene of the old man and woman sitting on the porch. 

Narrator: The references to New York and Vienna—as well as the sense of anxiety that pervades the painting—have their roots in Koerner’s own life. 


Henry Koerner, Mirror of Life, 1946. Oil on composition board, 36 × 42 in. (91.4 × 106.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art; purchase 48.2