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Distant Musings on MoMA’s Folk Art Dilemma: What, Who & How It Represents

Since our problem concerns access to poetry, let me begin with a representative demonstration: within our collective archi-heart—if there is one, thriving, striving, surviving—how often has it happened that incorrigible impatience has been set to war with obdurate conviction, while, in adjacent ventricles, riptides of profound apathy mingle with stirring amusement over what, for many citizens of this (too turbulent) world, might rightly seem quite mundane and trivial matters; or, alternatively, mere decadent tangents flourishing in the margins of pedestrian circulation?

Andreas Feininger. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Philip Goodwin and Edward D Stone, Façade, aerial view. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY and Estate of Andreas Feininger.

This metaphorical question not only riffs on an epic complaint to the muses, but closely echoes the opening lines of Herbert Muschamp’s December 14, 2001 review of the (still) new—while at the same time provocatively “archaic”—American Folk Art Museum.

Thirteen years on, nearly all this building’s admirable virtues, those which made it so well suited for musing on craft, have now been declared irreconcilably problematic for the incremental prerogatives of New York City’s ever burgeoning Museum of Modern Art: its compact scale, its technical and programmatic specificity, its vertical skylit circulation, its “alchemical” and “kaleidoscopic” materiality, its quirky resistance to sectional simplification, and (as Michael Kimmelman observed) its felicitous location facing a pedestrian friendly plaza across the street. But is it not also largely the case that the radically complex representational capacities which this little Scarpa-esque museum sophistically embodies are really at stake? Even when void of curatorial content, its pregnant muse-ability, if you will, as gathered in a shadowy majuscule Y, its allusive left hand, its pair of monstrous, half-open Janus-like “doors” of molten bronze, inextricably commingle: figurative with abstract, abstract with concrete, rich with spare, sign with enigma, tactile with visual, rough with smooth, active with passive, new with old, imaginary with real, near with far, birth and death, etc.; in short, the full scope of craft and art. All this the museum attempts, while at the same time asking (and Y not?) historically challenging questions before one even enters. It does so, in part, by physically and symbolically yoking (if I may closely paraphrase Muschamp) “archaic,” “big hearted,” “humanist” schemes of “regeneration” and “persistence” to a modest—but wisely situated—(Yankee) institution; a “compact” museum nevertheless capable of meaningfully and comprehensively connecting myriad arts (all they continue to do, enable, resist, and represent): not just for one another, but within the complexly layered contexts and histories of the surrounding politically, materially, and emotionally charged worlds that refuse to separate people, places, practices, things, and ideas from shared imagination and memory.

Again, is it not a museum’s strategic incorporation of such comprehensive representational philosophy, which remains itself the crux of the matter, then and now, perhaps especially for those who may hold mistaken (iconoclastic and linearly progressive) conceptions of “representation” and “history” in false opposition with symmetrically problematic conceptions of modern art, in particular, and modernity, in general? Is this not why we rightly feel outraged every time an exemplary building is destroyed, whether through short-sighted convenience, bankruptcy, or gain?

Of course, with any architectural project the size, scale, and configuration of circulation matter tremendously—when it comes to accommodating open and flexible narrative programs. But, if the underlying, overarching narratives are to spill effectively beyond the confines of the work itself (which need not be physically large!)—as with a novel, poem, or work of art that seeks to touch diverse participants by crossing potentially hermetic or categorically limiting thresholds—it must in some way open on to other, surrounding contexts, criteria, and narratives, and thus enter into reciprocal, dialogical exchange, not so much with large crowds, per se, but with the complexly contentious surrounding conditions for arts meaningful reception. As was pointedly raised in the public panel discussion, this is a critique which must be rigorously applied not solely to the former Folk entrance/façade and its proposed substitution, but, more importantly, to the distribution of programmed facilities within the museum, and its entire surrounding region, since, as the proposed changes suggest, the effective access to such an institution is not reducible to its physically enclosing real estate property.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro have proposed replacing the Folk (in bulk) with a recessed entry court topped by a hovering luminous vitrine; at best, an open but covered arcade à la Walter Benjamin. If this scheme has the political advantage of minimal and seemly deference, it is at the same time disappointingly non-committal as an architecturally engaging gesture. And I’m not the first to suggest we are likely to find the devil in the caulking details. More to the point, DS+R’s generic computer spawned voids potentially obliterate, save for volumes of difficult-to-ventilate air, all the materially articulate traces not only of the “bighearted” big-handed Folk Museum, but the earlier mansard townhouse which its vertically oriented tilt-top mass has memorably and imaginatively reinterpreted. To be clear: it is a move just as symbolic but much less qualitatively articulate and engaging than what it replaces. What the city receives in this sacrificial exchange is the promise of more quantitatively receptive public entryways and transparently performative spaces. That just might be a really marvelous thing, if the imaginative potential invested in these rooms of glass also manage to memorably incorporate some capabilities commensurate with the full human situation, which wants to perform in diverse ways and at many spatial, corporeal, and temporal scales.

In a March 2001 interview in Architectural Record, Billie Tsien and Tod Williams spoke, among other things, of the shared intention to reveal “a sense of the human hand,” always involved (but not easily visible) in the making of any artifact, of their related focus on the “space-making inside,” and the basic “meaning of the museum” of craft as “vision through hands.”

This is a story not so distinct from that now in the hands of MoMA. While DS+R’s proposed substitution offers a receptive “catalyst” for drawing the life of the city into the museum, it may also be turning a blind eye on the ongoing material and cultural histories of the place, and the institutions which have had a hand in making them.

Note: I wish to acknowledge that I am indebted to my partner, Dr. Lisa Landrum, since much of my thinking in this essay has been informed by her more scholarly writing on architecture’s complex dramatic and civic agency, most specifically her forthcoming interpretation of chōra, to be published soon in the eponymous journal.


Ted Landrum

Ted Landrum is a poet, critic, teacher, and collaborative artist, with diverse architectural and teaching experience in the U.S. and Canada. He and his partner Lisa Landrum (being not afraid of representation) are two-time winners of the Critical Halloween Costume Competition co-sponsored by NYC’s Storefront for Art & Architecture Gallery and Domus Magazine, for “Eyes of the Beholder” (2011) and “Architecture’s Open Hand” (2012). Ted is currently building a collection of “archi-poems” called Midway Radicals.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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