Bones’ Beat: MAD at the museum of arts and design


This week Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, goes traditional at the frustratingly named museum of arts and design. What was wrong with ‘American Crafts Museum’ again?

I tried, while riding the M5 bus to the brand-new museum of arts and design [sic, unfortunately] at Columbus Circle, to pin down the nebulous stigma that surrounds ‘craft’ in relation to ‘art’ today. No one’s ever properly explained to me why the California College of Arts and Crafts in San Francisco (excellent school) decided to change its name to California College of the Arts in 2003. And though the place I was en route to visit this morning had been born with a name, the American Crafts Museum, that presumably failed to inspire a lot of foot traffic, its newly-rebranded craft-free identity demands lower case letters and a spunky abbreviation in ‘MAD’ that will undoubtedly get less amusing with each use. It’s crazy, wonky, contrary, it doesn’t obey any rules: It’s MAD, folks!

Minutes later and fifteen dollars poorer, a lucid chunk of wall text explained craft without reaching for a euphemism or a tarty outfit. The American studio craft movement, apparently, started in the late nineteenth century and continues today. It employs techniques, skills, and materials considered traditional. That was it as far as the in-house definition went, and I didn’t have any issue with it, so it was time to enjoy the art.

The second and third floors house works from the permanent collection, and there’s an abundance of glass things, furry things, and shiny things. Humility of presence is a common thread, and works by names few have ever heard of periodically invite comparisons that corroborate or undermine one’s estimation of prominent contemporary artists. A refined wooden cabinet with a clock built-in on top and an equally precise handmade crate by Garry Knox Bennett offers happy echoes and solidarity with the still massively underrated sculptor H.C. Westermann. Sherry Markowitz’s 1984 Florida Doe is an intricately beaded dear head whose color shimmer and ornate dangle emphatically knock back the pop-tribal costuming of the overrated young artist Nick Cave. Otto Künzli’s Thumbtack Pin, in 22-carat gold, shares the close-read tweaked reality of Tom Friedman, and expands on it by being luxe, and wearable. I was having a blast.

The fourth and fifth floors house a temporary exhibition, and possibly I shouldn’t have gone up there. It’s called Second Lives. . .sorry, second lives: remixing the ordinary, and MAD’s idea of a remix mostly means repeating the same thing over and over again. So we have a chandelier made out of hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses, a love seat covered with hundreds of heels, a bench covered with hundreds of bashed nails, a jacket covered with hundreds of dog tags, a dress covered with hundreds of inside-out plastic gloves, coral-looking stalagmites made out of hundreds of buttons, and a 5-foot-tall Hokusai-type wave made out of melted vinyl records. That particular piece is called Sound Wave.

There are 51 artists in the show, and many pieces to relish for more reasons than just trancelike seriality. But the inherent banality of what Mark E. Smith called “the 3 R’s”—repetition, repetition, repetition—has a leveling effect when repeated from piece to piece. Eventually everything seems exactly as dumb, unfortunately, as the dumbest piece. The work crowds the space awfully and starts to blare; though the curatorial thesis is perfectly neat and worthy, the show starts to feel very defensive.

Back on the lower floors, I decided that it’s the ‘traditional’ that carries the threat in craft’s definition. Traditional means domestic, simple, established, and precious. Tradition exists to guide and comfort, to set agreed-upon parameters. Contemporary art hates parameters, for they stand in the way of revolution and discovery, intellectualism and agitation.

On display in the permanent collection at MAD there’s a porcelain still life by George Segal—a jug, a bottle, a small artist’s anatomical mold, and an orange. Segal is an artist who you’d recognize from his abject ’60s sculptures made of plaster-wrapped molds of people—uniquely anemic and often pretty melancholic work. His still life here has an unglazed biscuit finish that’s visually similar to the plaster of paris he used his entire career, but it glows and twinkles like nothing else: It’s incredibly satisfying. I think it satisfied Segal too, because a series of soft daubs of paint later the orange fruit was not bloodless and white but orange-colored, flushed and bright, alive. I saw craft—simple sensual satisfaction given form—activate the artist, drive a decision, and make him happy. Craft is a concept that is designed to erase doubt and fear, so there’s no need to doubt and fear it. Ditto this MAD place.-Bones

The museum of art and design is located at 2 Columbus Circle, is open Wednesday through Sunday and late Thursday evenings, when you should pay what you can afford. second lives: remixing the ordinary will be up until February 15th, 2009. Unfortunately, photography, as well as phone conversations, mysteriously, are prohibited in the museum. A ninth-floor restaurant, whose views will be as wonderful as its prices expensive, will be opening in the spring. For now, bring a muffin.

Next week, Bones visits Gagosian Gallery to see Richard Prince’s Canal Zone. The artist’s unusual sense of humor and characteristic visual style was thrust into mainstream consciousness thanks to a blockbuster Guggenheim retrospective last year. Prince promptly defected from Barbara Gladstone, the dealer who’d made him, to Gagosian, who commands the highest prices for art in the world. It’s not clear what he was thinking, but I think money has something to do with it. Where do his affections lie now, and where ours with him, in his Gagosian debut?