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.
None of this art is helped by being crowded into the three boxy, awkwardly proportioned floors of open exhibition space it has been given in the building designed by hip Tokyo-based architects Kazuo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, whose commissions have included a number of museums in Japan and abroad, not to mention what we are told is a "tall, ethereal building in Tokyo for Dior." From the outside the building is very striking, looking like a set of pure white blocks that have been tossed down with childlike carelessness (but not so much of it that zoning regulations on setbacks are violated, thank goodness). It's unmonumental indeed, and refreshingly so, making more of its not-very-generous footprint--about equivalent to a pair of 1890s tenements, I'd say--than it probably has any right to, even considering how much taller it is than anything around it.
The New Museum clearly hopes its new quarters will become an icon whose shape is as instantly recognizable as the Guggenheim's--they've even been giving journalists a press kit in the form of a memory stick whose shape mimics the building's silhouette. Just as with the Guggenheim, what looks great on the outside is not so good for the art on the inside, but for different reasons. Unlike the Guggenheim's calculatedly eccentric spiraling ramp, which plays havoc with the spatial perception of most painting and sculpture, the New Museum's spaces make a point out of ostentatiously accepting the idea of the featureless white cube as a utopia for artworks--accepting it so ostentatiously, in fact, that instead of making the architecture disappear (which is what Yoshio Taniguchi promised his patrons at MoMA he could do with its expansion), Sejima and Nishizawa have ensured that the viewer is at every moment confronted with the awareness of the surrounding walls, corners and ceilings, a constant reminder--even an oppressive one--that here on the Bowery one could just as easily be in any Kunsthalle or ICA anywhere in the world.
The New Museum's curators--Flood, Hoptman and Massimiliano Gioni, some of the savviest around, no matter the limitations of this inaugural exhibition--will have to find a way to work with this unaccommodating space. May they draw inspiration from the wonderful bookshop on the ground floor, where I think I spent as much time as in the exhibition, so full was it of fascinating and unexpected items, not all of them art books. Having noticed a new book on Walter Benjamin's archive--filled with photographs of his postcard collection, manuscripts and other ephemera--I asked an employee standing nearby if there were any more copies in stock; I wanted to pick up a few for some friends. When he replied, "Unfortunately only two copies came in. I set aside the first one myself and you're holding the other one," I knew I'd found a man after my own heart. He turned out to be Hubert Pfostl, the shop's buyer, and he was soon delightedly showing me through the gems on his shelves. While I walked back out onto the Bowery with just one copy of Walter Benjamin's Archive (Verso), I did have a small pile of other finds, of which I'll only mention the beautifully printed paperback Of Walking on Ice (Free Association), a translation of the journal kept by Werner Herzog when he walked from Munich to Paris in three weeks in 1974, having heard that the great film critic Lotte Eisner was near death, "in full faith, believing she would stay alive if I came on foot"--rightly, it seems, since she survived until 1983. The tale is so heavy with rain that after reading it on the subway I was shocked by the sunlight when I emerged. So keep an eye on the new New Museum, not only to see how its architecture and art are managing to get along but to discover what surprises Pfostl has on his shelves.