Bones' Beat: A Journey Through the Underbelly of the Art World

Bones' Beat is a weekly walk around the grounds of the New York art scene. This week, Bones visits a MoMA in transition, and finds a young artist named Lucy McKenzie mixing it up with the Nan Goldin slideshow next door. Things sure feel different around here…

Bones' Beat: A Journey Through the Underbelly of the Art World

The Museum of Modern Art met a torrent of criticism after it reopened in 2006. Plenty of long-held little problems squirmed to the surface, NY grudges and opaque issues that belong in the boardroom, silly, but there was a unanimous verdict that the architecture was cold and antisocial (John Updike likened it to a honeycomb without honey, or a 'bank after hours'), and that the 20 dollar entrance fee was an affront.

I don't have these problems. The museum is, ultimately, a bargain, and it's not hard to find good in the place. The cafe is chrome and dumb, with nowhere proper to sit down: be happy with four-sugar paper cup coffee from a deli afterwards. Yet the sculpture garden is an open, liberating marvel: put your untethered Bertoia chair anywhere and slip off your shoes. Celebrate sweet coexistence in open space with young families and old couples. The restaurant is an exorbitantly ritzy throwback: don't go. Who cares what the MoMA's restaurant is like? The restaurant isn't a gallery, just a place for rich people to eat. In the end you can buy a year's membership to the museum that quickly pays for itself, since you get in easily and for free, can enjoy three excellent movies a day every day in a great theater (be warned if Yvonne Rainer is there, she talked through the beginning of the last feature I saw), and see masterpieces up close and at all times.

Bones' Beat: A Journey Through the Underbelly of the Art World

Last week MoMA announced the appointment of Ann Temkin to the position of Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, often referred to as the most important institutional gig in the world. Temkin is 48, has been working at MoMA for five years, is universally liked and respected as a scholar and human and is, after Alfred Barr and the recently retired John Elderfield, only the third person with the title in the 79-year history of the Museum. She is a brainbox/scholar type, an excellent lubricator of endowments, and a fearless champion of very contemporary art, art made by artists under 50, under 40, under 30.

Bones' Beat: A Journey Through the Underbelly of the Art World

I made a special visit last week to see a two-room special project by Scottish 31-year-old Lucy McKenzie, an artist for whom, according to a corporate-sounding nugget of institutional PR, Ann Temkin has 'prioritized' acquisition. The exhibition is a full interior refit, with printed drapes hanging here and trompe l'oeil wood beams painted there, a lived-in environment for the museum's recently acquired painting and prints both small and large. McKenzie is a technician and polyglot. She is an enthusiast—of Krautrock and new wave music, the Olympics, Gothic Revivalist Augustus Pugin, faux-painting techniques, textile history, Art Nouveau architect Paul Hankar, pornography, the list grows by the year—and an enthusiast in whom the spirit of art school's first year still lives.

Hers is the sort of energy that believes new passion must be carried through all the way. Discover something incredible in class, go to the library, learn everything about it, wake up the next morning and tell your friends about it, think only of it, start making work about it, tell everyone about it. The exuberance and impulsiveness in that moment of discovery drives McKenzie's practice; indeed, she just finished a course of traditional study at the Van Der Kelen Institute for decorative painting in Brussels, a brave, weird, commitment for a young person, in order to master the painting techniques at work in this exhibition. In 2003 she operated a nightclub/speakeasy with the artist Paulina Olowska in Warsaw, Poland: her pioneering spirit stirs the soul.

Bones' Beat: A Journey Through the Underbelly of the Art World

And I was stirred, for sure, but had nothing to take away. McKenzie's spirit puts a viewer in first an empowered then a stupid position, keen and buzzing but no smarter for the experience. The gutsy discoveries driving her narrative cannot be transferred, only admired; narcissism and education are impossible to reconcile with the stance and delivery she has taken: Making seriously felt work seem shallow and cool. This is a terrible message for a museum to promote.

Nan Goldin's 1985 slideshow The Ballad of Sexual Dependency cycles through in the room adjoining McKenzie's project. Snapshots and a musical soundtrack speak of Goldin and Goldin's friends' live as they were being lived against the backdrop of drugs, AIDS, life and death in Manhattan in the 1980s. Every detail of every image confesses how things were and instructs on how things should be, and the lessons apply instantly and last long after you've left the revolving doors. It's a work every New Yorker should see, a masterpiece, and it makes Lucy McKenzie's globetrotting archaeology and can-do spunk seem pointless. I am delighted that it is up at the MoMA. I am very curious to see what Ann Temkin does next with our living museum.-Bones

The Museum of Modern Art is on 11 West 53rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues. Lucy McKenzie's Project 88 is on view until December 10th. Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency is on view as part of Here is Every: Four Decades of Contemporary Art until March 23rd, 2009.

Next week, Bones checks in on Tony Shafrazi in Chelsea. Shafrazi, an icon from the 1980s, hit the headlines for the first time in a while this spring thanks to one of the best-reviewed exhibitions of the year. He's followed it up with a solo show of the glammy and celebrity-obsessed LA photographer David LaChapelle. Was this a good idea?

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