Jan 31, 2008

The New New Museum

In the last decades of the 19th century, after decades of revivals in European art and design, an avant-garde emerged that was committed to artistic originality – imitations or interpretations of the past were out, and, for artists and designers associated with Art Nouveau and early modernisms, the new was in. Fast forward to the last decades of the 20th century in New York, and Downtown art, music and literature engendered a similar shift in American culture. While the Downtown aesthetic was eclectic – from Richard Prince and Sherry Levine’s appropriations, to the critical performances and posters of the Guerilla Girls – Downtown art, music and literature presented a formidable critical challenge to both the formalist modernism of the uptown commercial cultural scene and the serious tradition presented at larger cultural institutions such as the Met.

Founded in 1977, the New Museum was a key player in the Downtown scene. It was a museum dedicated to contemporary art – back when contemporary was the new new with the modern now associated with the thoroughly institutionalized modernism of MoMA. Under the directorship of Marcia Tucker, the New Museum opened in a cast-iron building in Soho and remained an important center for artistic production in the bourgeoning 1980s Downtown scene. More than just a venue for exhibiting paintings, the New was a critical laboratory for the production of non-commercial art: raw, collaborative, politically-charged and cross-disciplinary, its irreverent program consciously rejected the previous generation’s polished minimalism and aloof abstraction. Importantly, the New was a crucial venue in the development and dissemination of postmodernism, both as an artistic and as a critical practice (the New’s Documentary Sources in Contemporary Art publication series, for example, produced such classic anthologies as Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation and Blasted Allegories: Writings by Contemporary Artists).

Finally, last December, the new New Museum opened in the Lower East Side with the accompanying publicity promising either a transformation or a revitalization of the New. However, the vitality of New York’s Downtown scene which gave birth to the original New is now all but gone – the artists and art galleries of 1980s Soho have long gone in favour of fashion boutiques, upscale apartments and designer furniture stores. Even the Lower East Side has recently gentrified – both CBGBs and Tonic, two key Downtown music venues formerly located near the new New, have closed in the past two years, while
starchitect-designed luxury condos are rapidly sprouting like mushrooms in the fertile downtown ground. While the original New was located in the midst of the Downtown scene, the new New’s neighbours will no doubt soon be Wall Street financiers seeking a “bohemian” lifestyle while the artists have long since moved out to more affordable neighborhoods in Brooklyn or Queens. At the same time, the major figures of the Downtown scene of the 70s and 80s have (for the most part) been canonized and safely institutionalized. Three brief recent examples will suffice: “The Downtown Show: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984” exhibition at NYU’s Grey Gallery in 2006; a companion book on the Downtown literary scene, Up Is Up But So Is Down (NYU Press, 2006) edited by Brandon Stosuy; and Richard Prince’s 2007 retrospective at the Guggenheim. If the New helped nurture the cultural ferment and political radicalism of New York’s Downtown scene in the 1970s and 1980s, what can it mean in the 21st century? Is the kind of critical engagement and institutional critique engendered by the New thirty years ago still possible?

Brand New

Designed by the Tokyo-based firm Sanaa, the new New Museum is located on the Bowery amongst restaurant-supply stores, small businesses and run-down tenement buildings. The building comprises six rectangular shapes, stacked in a haphazard pile and covered in a silvery steel mesh. With its distinctive form and materials, the new New delivers the most important post-Bilbao demand expected of a new cultural institution: it is an instant icon. The distinctive shape not only sets the building apart from its local context, but importantly provides a memorable silhouette for reproduction on promotional material – from advertising posters to tote bags – the New’s jagged stack of blocks is a readymade logo.

The ground floor street facade is comprised entirely of glass, which makes the New feel open and accessible from the street. Besides the ticket desk and coat check, the obligatory book/gift store and cafe are located on the ground floor, and both are accessible without buying a ticket to the museum – consumption is prominently sited within the 21st century New. The galleries in the floors above are accessed via either a large central elevator or a concrete stairwell. The classic white walls, high ceilings, exposed beams and banks of fluorescent tubes are complemented by polished concrete floors, with few windows to distract from the art.

Experimental? Radical? New? Certainly the exterior could just as easily be a luxury fashion house headquarters, while the interior could be a fashion retail store, an upscale bar or a designer furniture outlet. The style is what I referred to in an earlier post on the Meatpacking District as “retro-fitted industrial chic” – except here it’s not retro but apparently, well, new. While the interior has been publicized as a (polished) attempt at the “raw” Downtown aesthetic, a few eccentric details make the building itself almost worth the hype, particularly the long, narrow and unexpected back stairs between floors three and four, which feature a framed view of the Lower East Side halfway up, and an odd little exhibition space further down. Framed vignettes of the LES appear through odd windows on the upper floors, indicating both a careful attention to detail on the part of the architects, as well as some sensitivity to the location.

Rather than choose an established starchitect to design their new New Museum, the board opted for Sanaa (principles Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa), a firm largely unknown in the US. Importantly, Sanaa has designed several cultural institutions in the last few years, including a New Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, as well as a building for Christian Dior in Tokyo and for Prada in Hong Kong. These last two examples highlight the easy fluidity between the world of high fashion and new museums of contemporary art – whether for high fashion or contemporary art, the container is essentially the same.

As well as a new building, the New’s newness is further highlighted by a new identity program, analysed briefly in a recent article by Joe Marianek. The New’s new identity program was overseen by global brand consultants Wolff Olins – they of the successful (RED) campaign , Tate gallery franchise identity (note similarities to New Museum’s?), and the not-so-popular London 2012 Olympics logo. Marianek also includes excellent images of recent posters and publicity material, all featuring the building’s distinctive silhouette. Together, the building and graphic program comprise a polished contemporary identity for a new global cultural institution with little connection to its local context or critical beginnings.

In contrast to the slick identity, the art exhibited in the New’s first exhibition was an attempt to display their continuing experimental program. The show, entitled Unmonumental, was as the title suggested. The first part of the three-part exhibition featured “unpolished” sculptures such as John Bock’s series of small works comprised of old bottles, yoghurt containers, milk boxes, and assorted kitchen trash patched together roughly. Radical and un-monumental in 1977 perhaps, but in 2007, an exhibition featuring junk-piles of found objects all seemed like déjà-vu. Which makes me think the context in which such work appears is crucial – the new New is a familiar and predictable institutional space for a certain cosmopolitan “cultural” class to safely consume contemporary art rather than a space which might challenge their expectations or raise critical issues about contemporary life.

New for Whom?

Beyond the vague “downtown” references, the new New’s building and identity program fit comfortably into 21st century Manhattan’s spectacle culture. For some local residents, the new New represents a final step in the ongoing process of the Lower East Side’s gentrification and sanitization. Given the proximity to cultural producers is now gone, the new New Museum has less to do with engaging with a vital, living culture, and more to do with real estate and tourism – on the one hand, the “avant-garde” prepares the ground for further escalation of downtown rental prices, and on the other, provides entertaining “culture” for consumption by tourists and middle class residents. The thoroughly establishment New is part of the global spectacle of cultural institutions featured in glossy architecture journals and airline travel magazines – it could be located just about anywhere. After taking in the Met and MoMA, tourists will marvel at the building’s unusual form, wonder at the “trash” that passes for contemporary art (“my three-year-old could do that”), and consume a cappuccino and a few catalogues on the way out. The new New? New for whom?

Photo by D.J. Huppatz

Good interior photos of the new New building at The Gothamist while this Arcspace review includes both interior photos and plans.