But not impossible. “Unmonumental,” the inaugural 30-artist exhibition curated by Gioni, Hoptman, and Flood, is rife with signs of good curators working together while struggling against a shortage of space. The three-floor survey is insanely overcrowded, sometimes monotonous, and because so much of the art is cobbled together from knickknacks, it may strike uninitiated viewers as a weird sort of junk shop, particularly in this immaculate space. But “Unmonumental” is peppered with good work. It effectively codifies a trend in contemporary sculpture that involves the history of collage and assemblage, multiple narratives, complex combinations of handmade and found materials, and objects that you can walk around rather than room-filling sculptural installations. There are heavy art-historical doses of Dada, Duchamp, Constructivism, Arte Povera, Rauschenberg, and Cady Noland. Although all of the work in this show uses real-world objects both altered and unaltered, and therefore owes much to minimalism, this art is the opposite of the strong machine-made forms of that movement. The leading minimalist, Donald Judd, believed art should be “seen all at once,” scorning anything fragmentary or dependent on its relationship to other things. All the work in “Unmonumental” involves the “variations of a form,” “connecting parts,” and relationships Judd detested. Nothing in this show can be seen “all at once”; most of it involves amorphous, disorderly, or fragmentary structure and hybridity (“they grow like weeds,” as Gioni writes); little of it is permanent or solid looking; none of it is heroic or monumental. This work is connected to history but also in a kind of schizophrenic conflict with it.
It is also rife with psychology, myth, history, and magic. Think of the art in “Unmonumental,” as Hoptman writes, as the work of a “do-it-yourselfer in a basement with a glue gun. … a D.J. … a search engine.” This art wants to be decoded and read as visual text. These readings can be rich. Just off the third-floor elevator, Urs Fischer throws down an artistic gauntlet to a generation. His scrappy sculpture of a sword in a concrete boulder seems to say that if you can’t remove the sword of originality from the stone of history you can remove the stone itself, thereby creating a new sculptural situation. Nearby, Sarah Lucas simultaneously celebrates and bitch-slaps art history—and also the adage that gender is destiny—in her neo-Dada Fuck Destiny, a found-object sculpture that apes a fluorescent phallus penetrating a vulva of leather couch cushions. In her plinth topped with books from the sixties and seventies, Carol Bove explores personal and collective destinies and makes you grasp just how much this generation is taking in but also expelling the influences of previous generations.
Dada poet Hugo Ball wrote of World War I, “Everything has been shaken to its very foundations.” In 1965, Jasper Johns seemed to want to examine that shakiness when he said he was interested in “an indirect, unanchored way of seeing.” The insightful painter Cheryl Donegan updates Johns’s quote, admiringly calling artists like those in “Unmonumental” “the fucked-up sons and daughters of de Kooning and Warhol.” What she may mean is that this type of work is simultaneously sincere and ironic, acutely self-aware, knowingly shaky, a little snarky, inwardly anxious, and uncertain about the future, but brashly passionate about art without pledging allegiance to any one style. That’s an apt description of “Unmonumental”—and even the New Museum itself.