The New Museum of Contemporary Art December 1, 2007 – March 30, 2008; January 16 – March 30, 2008
The New Museum opened on the Bowery in December, garnering near-universal praise for its ethereal, SANAA-designed building and pitiless abuse over its ghastly inaugural show. That exhibition, Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century, is still with us, but on January 16th it expanded to include Collage: The Unmonumental Picture, the second of a four-part series, with sound art and online montage on the way. At the very least, Collage, which lines the walls surrounding the first installment’s lamentable collection of assemblages, gives you something other than the sculpture to look at. And if not for Nancy Spero, Mark Bradford, and Kim Jones, that’s about all it does.
According to the exhibition’s brochure, Unmonumental is meant to grow and change “like a giant assemblage” into a “dense and overexcited environment in which images, and then sounds, and then an online cache of projects are dramatically interwoven.” On paper, that’s a pretty cool idea. Where did it go wrong? After three visits, one to the first part and two to the second, it seems that the overriding problem resides at the juncture between the curators’ limited ambition and the building’s problematic gallery design.
I realize that my characterization of a crowded, multidisciplinary show as lacking in ambition sounds unwarranted and even somewhat brazen, but the impression it leaves is not of “a landscape in which artworks gravitate towards each other to create frictions and spark sudden affinities” but a hodgepodge of beggarly, discordant objects vying for attention. Their disharmonious materials isolate them in their own patch of floor or wall, curtailing whatever contribution they might have made to the intended conversation.
It seems to me that if your institutional goal is to create “a space where things are taken apart, tried out, and reassembled” instead of a “temple where monuments and idols are preserved,” then you’ve got to possess the ambition to break free of conventional museum practices. There’s no evidence that this show was assembled any differently from the Whitney Biennial or other contemporary surveys, with the curators selecting appropriate work from galleries and studios. This does nothing to shift the paradigm away from our current market-dominated, elitist power structure. Why not allow the artists to create the intended “giant assemblage” themselves? Put out a call for an international, intercultural, multigenerational array of individuals to self-select into three groups, one for each floor, and decide what form of collective expression would best address their most passionate concerns. Wouldn’t this approach be more in keeping with the artists’ “urgent need to start picking up the pieces and rebuilding this world from scratch” that the brochure cites as the reason behind their “violent and derelict” artworks? At bottom, as long as there is a market there can be nothing radical about an exhibition of discrete objects—even if they look like crap—since their status as objects, like the mark of Cain, will signal them as potential commodities.
The curators also miscalculated when they opted to leave the entire exhibition space open, without temporary dividers of any kind. Despite the plaudits that the building’s street presence has been receiving, its first outing as a venue for the contemplation of art, in part because of this unstructured space, fails spectacularly. There is a larger problem, however. Although it offers twelve thousand square feet of floor space, the extreme ceiling heights (eighteen to twenty-four feet) above the comparatively shallow main galleries paradoxically create an awkward sense of compression, especially in the areas flanking the elevators, that diminishes any artwork possessing a less-than-epic scale. It’s a downtown version of the inflexible gigantism that ruined the Museum of Modern Art.
A case in point is Nancy Spero’s glorious “The Hours of the Night II” (2001), a composite work of eleven vertical panels in which motifs from the artist’s career-long investigation of the female image are applied over patterns of deep, jewel-like color. Although not a piker in terms of size (measuring an overall nine by twenty-two feet), it nevertheless has to compete against Wangechi Mutu’s unsightly “Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us” (2008), which stretches across the adjoining 70-foot-long wall. If you manage to block that out of your peripheral vision, you will still have to contend with the overhead fluorescent lights casting multiple reflections in the glass covering Spero’s rich, dark colors, as well as the voice of the artist Sharon Hayes filtering down from a sound installation on a nearby staircase. Hayes’ words are too distant to make out but noticeable enough to get under your skin. In a more controlled environment, with walls to section off thematically related artworks and possibly block out obtrusive light and sound, some of these distractions might have been eliminated. But as it stands, the environment militates against even the slightest communion with the work. Instead it’s tailor-made for an artist like the ever-specious Thomas Hirschhorn, whose conflations of soft-core porn with color photos of bloody corpses, dotted with Che Guevara stickers and other ephemera, require no more than a glance before moving on to the next spectacle.
The shame of it is that Spero’s work, along with Mark Bradford’s “Helter Skelter & Helter Skelter II” (2007), can be considered not merely the finest in the show but quite possibly the best contemporary art on view anywhere in New York. Bradford’s behemoth collages, stretching across another 70-foot wall, with their silver paint over torn-up advertising posters lacerated by networks of fluid, incised lines, are as tough as the street and just as resistant to simple answers or unearned beauty. But you can’t stand back to take a look at them without one junky assemblage or another getting in the way. And then there are the elevators, whose incessant ringing and disgorging of visitors endow all three galleries with the ambiance of an office building’s street-level lobby. This is especially egregious on the second floor, where about twenty artworks, including Kim Jones’ delightfully anarchic painted photographs, are on display in a corridor behind the elevator core. Between the noise and the backroom feeling of the narrow space, this work feels unduly demoted.
Any institution is a mirror of its age, and if we don’t like what we see when we look at the New Museum, it is not entirely the museum’s fault. In a cramped city, we exult in an abundance of space, as if it were an abstract ideal, without thoroughly questioning the best way it could be used. We respond to a lack of critical consensus not with tough choices grounded in a hard-won personal vision, but with a pluralistic free-for-all. And we put our trust in outward signs and superficial symbols to create the illusion of an intelligible culture, even if it’s a fragmentary one, rather than face the truly messy, contradictory and uncontrollable impulses lurking at the fringes of our consciousness. With this first exhibition in its new building on the Bowery, the historic boulevard of unspeakable heartache, the New Museum has set out to demonstrate how “visual art can help define the moment in which we are living.” That it has done, and it’s awfully unpleasant.