The New Museum of Contemporary Art debuts its new home

Strong building, weak show: "Unmonumental"

It's a pretty dramatic sight: A stack of seven metal boxes rising some 174 feet above the Bowery's rough-and-tumble spread of squat apartment buildings, restaurant-supply stores, and SROs, the recently inaugurated New Museum of Contemporary Art stands alone as a brilliant example of stunning yet practical museum architecture in New York. The first art museum ever built from scratch in downtown Manhattan, its design is dazzling and accessible, handsome and modest, brassily assertive and yet—like a cagey New Yorker—respectful of the quirks of its streetwise neighbors.

An instant landmark, the New Museum is downtown's answer to MOMA's inflated 110-foot atrium, and a 21st- century rejoinder to Thomas Krens's steroidal ambitions for a Guggenheim mall near Wall Street. Built on a shoestring budget of $50 million (MOMA, by comparison, came in at prostate-swelling $858 million) and sited within what the building's architects—the Japanese firm SANAA—have called "a tight zoning envelope" (the footprint is 71 feet wide and 112 feet deep, not much bigger than the surrounding buildings), the New Museum updates that short list of international structures that meld rather than shoehorn the competing agendas of advanced art and architecture. The difference—if it still needs pointing out—is like that between marrying for love and an arranged wedding.

Expect this new building to be on people's lips for some time to come—it's that good. Simply put, SANAA's New Museum design reclaims a significant amount of sanity for American museum architecture. Its interior is largely a no-frills space; its layout is straightforward and user-friendly; the building's use of relatively inexpensive materials is comfortable, accommodating, and—above all—unpretentious. Things in the museum-design world could change after this. Goodbye, vein-free marble and glitch-free modernism; hello, aluminum scrim and cracked concrete floors. The overall effect is that of finally being able to cough after a painful visit to the opera.

A droopy slacker vibe: Rachel Harrison's This Is Not an Artwork (foreground) and Martin Boyce's Our Love Is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours (background). More photos from the New Museum opening here.
Mollye Chudacoff
A droopy slacker vibe: Rachel Harrison's This Is Not an Artwork (foreground) and Martin Boyce's Our Love Is Like the Flowers, the Rain, the Sea and the Hours (background).
More photos from the New Museum opening here.

Fittingly, the first piece of art on view at the New Museum is not in the building but on it. Pinned onto the shimmering silver exterior like an "I [heart] NY" button on the lapel of a Prada jacket is Ugo Rondinone's HELL, YES!, a huge, rainbow-hued, neon-lit gewgaw that radiates equal parts optimism and ironical knowingness—a pitch-perfect message for a stretch of pavement that witnessed the birth of punk rock. A bracing statement of impurity, the placement of this gigantic bauble on the museum's façade intentionally deflates any pretensions to Frank Gehry–like authority. One feels a hinge might have turned. If art, in this case, doesn't actually subordinate architecture for a change, then at least it strikes a more favorable balance.

Inside the museum—past an open exterior of glass frontage that coolly exposes both the lobby and the loading dock—things get more complicated. The contrast between the museum's outside and its contents could hardly be starker. What awaits the visitor dazzled by the New Museum's architecture is one of the most consciously polemical, narrowly focused, visually boring museum exhibitions of contemporary art to have hit New York in a long, long time.

Appropriately titled "Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century," the New Museum's central exhibition distributes the work of 30 artists throughout the museum's three main gallery floors. A display of sculpture as assemblage, the show accurately describes a significant trend in collage-based work that, unlike a movement, lacks a critical center and may in fact be at least partly a reaction to super-slick phenomena like Damien Hirst's stupid jewel skull and the preening of certain auction-house gavelers.

Existing largely in a sort of alternate universe that, were the exhibition a schlock film, might be titled The Revenge of the Curators, "Unmonumental" posits a wishfully nostalgic scenario which, in full-bore Bolshevik vein, argues for the contextual inevitability of assemblage-inspired art as "the work most emblematic of the zeitgeist." A theoretical end-run around the booming art market, "Unmonumental" waves Occam's razor at the spreading weeds choking art's conceptual purity. As with many such forced eradications, the logic marshaled by the exhibition's curators predictably wipes out the lilies as well as the kudzu.

Animated by an updated, 21st-century anti-aesthetic that looks back less to Robert Rauschenberg's Combines than to Germano Celant's Arte Povera and Piero Manzoni's Merda d'Artista, the organizers of "Unmonumental"—chief curator Richard Flood, senior curator Laura Hoptman, and director of special exhibitions Massimiliano Gioni—have issued a first salvo in what they pointedly identify as the next set of wrangles surrounding contemporary art and taste. Theirs could well be the shot heard around the art world; more likely, the exhibition is just a dull pop from a cap gun.

As an exhibition, "Unmonumental" suffers from a flat, monotonous organization, as it neither identifies nor encourages—like most good exhibitions and all good stories—a beginning, middle, or an end. Uniform to a fault, it arrays a lot of work that is alike and some that is not around the museum in a way that makes the entire show appear to be the work of a single artist collective. A sort of Back to the Future scenario that conjures up a grab-bag of influences—from Duchamp and Cornell to David Hammons and Louise Lawler—the exhibition embraces the ugly, the commonplace, and the recycled, only to fritter away a good deal of credibility on a species of hip formlessness that is neither new nor especially artful in parsing the personal, the art-historical, or the political. The claims made for this show—delivered with old-timey either/or authority—can't help but consequently seem ridiculous.

Some of the usual suspects flesh out this exhibition's droopy slacker vibe. There is Urs Fischer—fresh off his literal excavation of Gavin Brown's Enterprise—who tenders one of the few figurative works in "Unmonumental": a wax-and-wick sculpture of a nude woman melting away like a candle. There are the tabletop sculptures of John Bock, mysterious nothings made from, among other materials, plastic bottles, eggshells, colored string, and magazine clippings, pieces whose proliferating arrangements look astoundingly interchangeable. There are Gabriel Kuri's aluminum flags made from foil emergency blankets, mute gestures reaching for ready-made self-expression. And several faux sculptures by Rachel Harrison: These works by the doyenne of ugly sculptural riddles provide the precise puling note of self-congratulation that makes this exhibition so tiresome, and also such a swinging, clubby, curatorially correct scene.

Relief from this dull, trying show is found in only a few merciful instances. These come in two packages, the expected unexpected and the outright surprises. Among the former are Sarah Lucas and Jim Lambie, artists whose declarative brashness and sheer joyousness, respectively, genuinely transform other people's idea of garbage into spectacular art. For the latter, there are the sculptures of Shinique Smith and Marc André Robinson, two lesser-known assemblagists whose works engage visuality as much as the social and cultural implications of their found materials.

The words of the English philosopher J.L. Austen come to mind when considering a show like "Unmonumental": "Aesthetics should abjure the beautiful for a generation and concentrate on the dainty and the dumpy." Let it be noted that Austen never said anything about art being anywhere near this dull.

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