The utilitarian function of the museum as mere container has long been eclipsed by its function as signifying apparatus. On the one hand, the design of the interior is responsible for the terms of encounter with individual works of art. On the other hand, the shape of the exterior mediates and proclaims a role for art within the surrounding architectural landscape, cultural mise-en-scène, and even historical moment. The apprehensive and polemical energies which attend upon the construction of new museums are to some extent those which accompany any large commission, but in addition they reflect the attenuated prospects and heightened stakes of art in a society whose catastrophe is not that it has no use for art, but that it knows exactly and all-too-well how to use it. Such is the burden of the museum as redemptive symbol. The menagerie of outlandish forms which rear their heads here and elsewhere is a sign not of vitality but of desperation. They are the temples built by our lack of faith.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once remarked, “Much can be inferred about a man from his mistress: in her one can behold his weaknesses and his dreams.” Similarly, in the new home of the New Museum – a beautiful SAANA-designed shimmering complex of white boxes – one beholds a building imbued with the hopes and fears of the establishment art world. And nobody has a finger on the pulse of the establishment like the New York Times. The newspaper’s architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, writes that, “New York is in the cultural doldrums. The city is bursting with gorgeous art exhibitions, but where is the raw energy? Where is the new blood, intent on upending the establishment?” In the face of this crisis of the avant-garde, Ouroussoff crowns the new building as “the kind of building that renews your faith in New York as a place where culture is lived, not just bought and sold” (November 30, 2007). Unfortunately, this is a burden no building can bear, and to think otherwise is the hubris of architecture
At some point, the cycle of avant-gardism which held from the 1860s to the 1960s came irreversibly unwound. Like a territory mined of all value, its logic of permanent revolution, historical criticism, imitation of imitating, and self-specialization simply ran out of space. After the neo-avant-garde, the deluge. Indeed, if the neo-expressionism of the ‘80s was perceived by some critics as a step backward rather than forward, perhaps this was because there was nowhere left to go. The return of bright colors, expressive brush-strokes, turbid compositions, and an idea of the canvas as cri de coeur marked a concession not only to the realities of the marketplace, but also to the realities of what art could even hope to be in the final analysis.
Combine the intellectual exhaustion of the avant-garde with the interpenetration of the worlds of art and high-finance, and you have the makings of a subdued if very real crisis, a crisis whose symptom is a malaise which lingers even in the midst of abundance. Thus, Ouroussoff can lament the absence of “raw energy” and “new blood” even while admitting that the city is “bursting with gorgeous art exhibitions.” However, for Ouroussoff and the triumphalist rhetoric of the New York Times, the razor’s edge of this crisis has been blunted into a mere gauge of the topicality of the New Museum. “It captures,” writes Ouroussoff, “an unnerving moment in the city’s cultural history with near pitch-perfect pitch.” Likewise, he observes, “Its ethereal forms hover somewhere between the legacy of a fading bohemian downtown and the ravenous appetites of a society awash in new money.” What Ouroussoff writes is undoubtedly accurate, but to write it in the mode of a compliment is insane.
Currently, the exhibition “Unmonumental” is under way at the New Museum (until 3/30/08). It’s difficult to say whether this theme is meant to rebuke the new building’s obvious monumentality, evoke its sense of sly unmonumentality, lament its reluctant, self-conscious monumentality, or bring into play the idea of a performative deconstruction of the concepts of monumentality and unmonumentality. In any case, few visitors to this monumentally ill-conceived exhibition are likely to care. Although the works on display often compel attention, rarely do they sustain it. The total experience of visiting “Unmonumental” – as delightful, strange, and titillating as it may be – is ultimately reducible to an exotic ambiance.
“Unmonumental” is divided into four components, staggered in inception and designed to “grow over time like an assemblage.” The first is devoted to the “reemergence of sculptural assemblage.” As such, it has become, amusingly enough, a floor-size monument to Robert Rauschenberg. A few works even make this filiation explicit. The second features a gallimaufry of two-dimensional collages or collage-like works, buttressed by the dubious thesis that “historically collage tends to appear in times of trauma and social change.” The third ramifies the theme of unmonumentality into the very air, playing a collection of audio collages composed of “found recording, spoken text, and manipulated noise.” (When I visited the museum, this component had not yet begun.) The fourth component is internet-based and can be viewed at “rhizome.org/montage.” This component is excruciatingly terrible. Although it advertises itself as containing “works by an international group of artists who use appropriation to create Internet-based assemblages,” in fact it’s just a bunch of Quicktime movies, videos “culled from YouTube,” and a few MySpace-like virtual installations.
On one floor, an entire wall is given over to a panoramic, fresco-like surface enameled by glittery craquelure that falls somewhere between the torturous foreboding of Anselm Kiefer and the gritty exuberance of street art. On another floor, the same wall is given over to a massive transsexual space-scape where a moon made of clothes hangs in funky firmament. Here is a sculpture of a lion formed of dowel-rods and other industrial materials, and it looks like a page ripped from an architect’s dream-journal. Here is a huge asteroid-shaped ball of clay whose surface is littered with debris. “Make sense of me,” the giant ball of clay seems to say, “I exist. I am a giant ball of clay.”
The total experience of museum-going at the New Museum is tantamount to exploring a lush jungle of the irremediably strange. In this sense, it is both refreshing and exhausting. Figures of mutilation, corrosion, and dilapidation are to be found, along with the artful contrivance of bric-a-brac, collage and décollage, monuments of debris to unnamable things, and tangled confections of effluvia. The bare concrete floors were allowed to crack as they dried, and the resulting space has the air of a ruined tabernacle, icons defaced and holy objects smashed. Along with Rauschenberg, whose powerful, ubiquitous influence goes unchecked, Eva Hesse and Kiki Smith come to mind as formative precursors. If there is a message at work here, it is the humanism of the worn surface and the heartrendingly unique thing. In a milieu of irradiation and totalizing perfection, perhaps entropy itself can be a source of life and renewal.
“Unmonumental” constitutes an exquisite, bustling hothouse of organic-industrial forms which stand outside the homogenizing rapacity of modernity. And yet, like all hothouses, it represents something unimaginable outside the artificial homeostasis of its privileged existence. If the New Museum is a place where, as Ouroussoff claims, “culture is lived, not just bought and sold,” then it is a culture of mere excursionism and intellectual poverty. It’s difficult to see how “Unmonumental” has anything new or interesting to say. It’s all recycled Rauschenberg, recycled Hesse, and other assorted tropes of the past fifty years – a monument to the trappings of a bygone avant-garde, a production according to staid, academicized formulas which were once revolutionary. There is a word for this, and the word is “kitsch.”