Which is the most startling recent addition to the Bowery’s streetscape–the New Museum or Whole Foods? It depends on your point of view, I guess. For those who remember the old Bowery of flophouses and CBGB, then the massive, bright, all-windows health-food store at the corner of Houston Street may look as alien as the museum’s white pile of metal a couple of blocks south near Rivington Street, as featureless as a Masonic temple.
In view of this situation, the New Museum’s inauguration of its $50 million new home on December 1 with an exhibition called “Unmonumental” could not be timelier. If only the show’s more grandiose subtitle, “The Object in the 21st Century,” had made it plainer that it is a survey of recent manifestations of a century-old tradition of assemblage, or what sometimes used to be called “junk art.” “Our time demands the anti-masterpiece,” proclaims the museum’s chief curator, Richard Flood–perhaps unintentionally echoing the famous lines from “Hugh Selwyn Mauberly,” which Ezra Pound published nearly ninety years ago: “The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace.”
Though the edifice that for the moment houses this unmonumental art may not look like anything else on the street, the art itself could easy have been made out of the stuff that was cleared out of the buildings that were torn down to make way for it–only eerily clean and new. This is an art whose forms defy description but whose materials are a cataloguer’s delight (and perhaps a conservator’s despair): Jim Lambie’s Split Endz (wig mix) (2005), is made of a wardrobe, mirror, belts, training shoes and gloss paint; Urs Fischer’s Untitled (2003) consists of steel, concrete, screws, hair, glue, plastic, burlap, wood and chicken wire. Of course, the antimasterpiece or the nonmonument made directly from the stuff of everyday life is hardly new. Dada is the inevitable point of departure; but the combines of Robert Rauschenberg, followed by the assemblages of Californians like Bruce Conner and George Herms, the nouveau réalisme of Jean Tinguely and Daniel Spoerri, the arte povera of Mario Merz and Jannis Kounellis, not to mention the completely sui generis environments and vitrines of Joseph Beuys and the new wave of assemblage–though the name had by now been retired–that emerged in the ’80s, in the work of artists like Jessica Stockholder, Cady Noland and Mike Kelley, are also important precedents.
Much of this history is recapped in the catalog by senior curator Laura Hoptman, but only to make way for a highly unconvincing argument about the radical difference between this new wave of assemblage art and its precursors. Thus, “sculptures of the twenty-first century resemble not a newspaper, but a page out of McSweeney’s magazine”; she seems to suggest that the assemblage of the ’50s and ’60s was entirely based on chance, while the new works are entirely based on clear and forthright designs–assertions borne out neither by history nor the present exhibition. The new work shown here and earlier waves of assemblage simply have much more in common than Hoptman lets on.
Indeed, the fascination as well as the weakness of the show, in a way, comes just from this: That much of the “materially provisional and structurally precarious” work by these thirty artists spanning a couple of generations (from Isa Genzken, born in 1948, to Tobias Buche, born in 1978) and from all over the United States and Europe as well as Mexico and Japan, could easily have been the work of a single maker–a very good artist, mind you, exploiting a wide range of tactics and materials within the loose parameters of her fluid style, but a single artist nonetheless. Perhaps we could name this artist Isa Genzken, since not only is the German sculptor the senior figure here but her name is already attached to a couple of the most ravishing works on view, as unpredictable in their formal twists and material transitions–as seemingly ungraspable, for all their recalcitrant physicality, as a Frank Gehry building. Or maybe she could be called Claire Fontaine, simply because this Parisian artist is already the fictional persona for a collective of artists who otherwise remain anonymous. There are a few misfits, such as Matthew Monahan and Kristen Morgin for their figurative leanings, or Carol Bove for the preternatural precision of her arrangements of books and objects, so different from the willful casualness of most of the other work. But the show makes, if anything, too strong a case that there is a widely encompassing period style in contemporary sculpture. Now that it’s been made so blatant, artists are sure to want to go against its grain.