Little House on the Bowery

Urs Fischer's Untitled (2003) with Untitled (Kerze) (2001) in the background.Photo: David Rager/Courtesy of the New Museum

I can’t remember there ever being more hope and goodwill toward an art institution than there is right now for the New Museum, as it moves into its new $64 million building on the Bowery. Partly this is because the New Museum, despite having been something of a local mascot over the 30 years since its founding, has never quite hit its stride; it has usually bounced between being audacious and being annoying. Partly it’s because other New York museums have been so uneven about contemporary art. MoMA is adrift, the Guggenheim’s leaders continue to make terrible decisions, and the Brooklyn Museum is a giant wasted opportunity. The general feeling is, this is the New Museum’s last best chance to get it right.

Whether or not it will be able to do this depends on the way three key aspects of the New Museum sync up. The first is about place and is auspicious; the second is about people and is encouraging; the third is about space and is problematic enough that if the first two don’t mesh properly there will be trouble. Their harmony or disharmony will determine if all the time, effort, and money that went into creating this snazzy building were well spent or if a flaw in planning will hold this museum back. If all three combine just right, the New Museum could be a godsend.

From the outside, this silvery column is a symbol of an ambitious desire to reflect and participate in the discourse around contemporary art. No one has mustered the gumption to build an art museum from scratch in New York since the Guggenheim (opened in 1959) and the Whitney (1966) did so in rapid succession. When these plans were announced, I feared the New Museum was using an old model to create a new museum, that rather than constructing a pristine pile of white cubes it should renovate a gigantic old warehouse, say in the far West Forties or Brooklyn. I fretted that Lisa Phillips, the museum’s director since 1999, was re-creating a scaled-down Whitney (she had been a curator there for more than twenty years) and that the new building would be hamstrung by its vertical configuration.

The choice of this neighborhood, at least, now looks extremely prescient. As the Whitney, which has been having an excellent season, is constructing a new 100,000-square-foot structure in the West Village, that neighborhood has gone from being fairly commercial to being frighteningly commercial. The Lower East Side will likely get as creepy—but not only is it already home to more than 30 galleries, more will follow as Chelsea real-estate prices continue to push them out. The New Museum could be the kind of institutional anchor downtown that Dia was in Chelsea before it closed its 22nd Street building four years ago and left for the suburbs. As for the people running it, Ann Philbin, the astute director of the Hammer Museum, describes Phillips as “a samurai, someone who has everything it takes to make this museum relevant and revelatory.” So far, Phillips has done that by picking the site and hiring two of the best curators around: Massimiliano Gioni and Laura Hoptman. She has also brought in the adroit Eungie Joo as director and curator of education and public programs, and the seasoned Richard Flood as chief curator. All these people want the New Museum to shine.

But can they do that in this building? Not to sound like an ingrate or be a buzz-kill, but I believe the museum, cool-looking as it is, is short on exhibition space. The entire building, which in fact echoes the Whitney’s boxy asymmetry, is 58,700 square feet. More than 30 people are squeezed into workstations on the sixth floor, so you can’t accuse the New Museum of having misplaced priorities. Yet there are only 12,000 square feet on three floors (plus an icky, skinny glassed-in lobby gallery that adds 1,100 square feet) devoted to exhibitions. Because of odd configurations, elevator access, and staircases, the usable and disconcertingly antiseptic square footage feels closer to 10,000. By comparison, the very pinched-for-space Whitney has about 23,000 square feet of temporary space on its second, third, and fourth floors; the wonderful but small Studio Museum in Harlem has 5,700 square feet of exhibition space; the way-too-small old New Museum on Broadway had 6,500.

Institutions don’t have to be big to be good. But you’d think that after spending that much money on a new home built from the ground up, you’d net more showing space than that. To be a continuing presence a museum needs room to grow, take chances, fail flamboyantly, and do what it does well. If rumblings are true that the New Museum is going to begin collecting art, then it already needs to secure additional space in the neighborhood. It should do that anyway, if only to create a “project space.” The old game of glitzy museums designed by trophy architects is exhausted. The New Museum, designed by the architects SANAA, was a chance to play by new rules. This building will make creating those rules difficult.

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.

How Well Do ‘Destination Museums’ Work?

New Museum. Through March 23, 2008.


Little House on the Bowery