By Kelly Kingman
Walking up to the new New Museum’s entrance is a surprise on this gritty stretch of the Bowery. The cantilevered building the first museum in the city to be built from the ground up below Houston stands out like a luminous white prism amidst a line of restaurant supply shops. The location signals a shift east for the arts community, anchoring a growing number of galleries on the Lower East Side.
Marcia Tucker founded the New Museum in 1977, just 24 hours after finding herself out of work as a Whitney curator, where she had organized exhibitions of artists like Lee Krasner and Richard Tuttle. From a small office and exhibition space at the New School for Social Research, Tucker’s New Museum mounted retrospectives of artists such as John Baldessari and Keith Haring in its first five years, before moving to a donated 23,000-square-foot space in Soho. Instead of collecting and preserving, Tucker was always focused on work of the moment. She said of the institution in a 1998 lecture, “We try to look critically at museum practice, especially our own, questioning our own premises and methods regularly.”
Sadly, Tucker passed away last year, before the completion of this latest incarnation of her paradoxical institution was finished a fluid space that unites the establishment and antiestablishment. Its sleek façade is designed to incorporate periodic installations, currently the whimsical, rainbowed affirmation “Hell, Yes!” by New York-based Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone which will remain until November of 2008. The cleverly transparent ground floor gallery in the rear draws the visitor immediately from the street. It currently showcases a seven-channel audiovisual installation by Seoul-based Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. The glass-enclosure turns the textual images into a backdrop for café-goers. Consisting of seven floors and a lower level, exhibition galleries take up three floors, with ceilings of varying heights, and are complemented by a café and shop, a theater and education center. Programs in Chinese bring in a sense of the neighborhood.
The industrial-looking clutter of restaurant supply row is an appropriate preamble to the New Museum’s austere beauty as well as its inaugural sculpture exhibit, “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” a survey of sculpture by 30 artists and a nod to the New Museum’s 30th anniversary this year. This first show is one of four parts in what will become a multi-sensory experience. The second phase, “Collage: The Unmonumental Picture,” will be added around the sculptures in mid-January. In February, commissioned sound pieces will be juxtaposed with the sculpture and collages, and an online component at will be launched at Rhizome.org.
The mission of “Unmonumental,” like that of the New Museum itself, is to challenge, even mock, cultural traditions. The experience can range from gently ironic to violent. The fluorescent-lit galleries hold three floors of objects whose collective mission is to dissolve art history into a collection of assumptions. The found element is omnipresent, and many artists transform cultural detritus into ephemeral monuments. Marc André Robinson turns cast-off chairs into a sort of crashing wave in “Myth Monolith (Liberation Movement)” while Shinique Smith turns bundles of clothing and stuffed animals into solid forms in “Bale Variant Number 001.”
Other artists truncate the classical monument, deconstructing the decorative. “Lion,” a plaster and wood sculpture by Kristin Morgin, undoes the physical structure of the ornament, revealing its construction and layering it with her personal markings, personalizing it. The classical references abound a torso here, a foot there. The Greeks are being dismembered even by today’s artists, no more poetically than in Elliot Hundley’s “Proscenium”, where it seems a Styrofoam column has been overtaken by a lichen of fabric flower petals, bamboo and sequins.
The sculpture is just a seed of the overall project that will make up “Unmonumental,” like the first movement in a symphony. Object will be layered with images, then sound and virtual space. Similarly, the galleries, though the heart of the New Museum building, offer just one part of what it represents. The fifth floor Education Center houses a project called Museum as Hub. Conceived as a “cultural laboratory” that will host screenings, symposia and various other experiences, the New Museum has invited participation from contemporary art institutions in Seoul, the Netherlands, Mexico City and Cairo. One such event is an artist commission in the form of a free, temporary school by Anton Vidokle called Night School, which will offer 25 applicants (to be selected) complimentary membership to the museum, monthly seminars, lectures and screenings that address progressive cultural practices.
A museum that questions and resists all notions of what art and art institutions should be, the New Museum successfully, even elegantly, embraces its innate contradiction. It has worked for thirty years to enshrine, if only briefly, the most critical art discourse of the current moment. The museum’s own moment has arrived, and it is here to stay.