It was the great expectations that got me.
I had such hopes for the New Museum. Seattle is in the midst of reshaping its contemporary museum landscape, and the New Museum is a model.
Seattle’s dominant museum of new art, the Henry Art Gallery, is in search of a director and a fresh approach after a series of years spent wandering as though in search of something it doesn’t quite have the energy to find.
Seattle Art Museum is about to launch a contemporary series in its new building and has an entirely new modern and contemporary curatorial staff.
The jewel-box Frye Art Museum, once a bastion of conservative anti-abstraction, has been reinvented in the last few years by Robin Held, formerly of the Henry, in a move not unlike Marcia Tucker’s famous act of founding the New Museum.
For now, the Frye is what keeps the juice in the system of Seattle. By being genuinely, not just rhetorically, dynamic, the Frye has demonstrated how to be a hotbed of ideas tied equally to a specific history and to the spirit of experimentation.
But another, major source of juice ought to be Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Imagined by Lisa Corrin, this thing was not supposed to be a fixed 19th-century garden. She hated the idea of calling it a “sculpture park.” There are no figurative bronzes. There is a living vivarium by Mark Dion. There is no admission charge and there are no walls separating it from the city–unless you consider the large, panicky “OUCH” don’t-touch signs as tiny little walls in themselves, which they most ridiculously are.
No, the Olympic Sculpture Park was supposed to be a dynamic place in constant conversation with its surroundings, and maybe it still will become one. (The museum has no current plans to add to or alter the outdoor sculpture lineup that went up last January. At the very least, it ought to consider moving the most poorly installed sculptures, including Mark Di Suvero’s Bunyon’s Chess, which stands, grossly miniaturized, below a path at the base of a downward slope. But I digress.)
Researching the Olympic Sculpture Park about a year ago, just before it opened, I was curious about how the quite, yes, unmonumental, nature of sculpture since, say, the 1970s, but especially since the 1990s, would fit in a sculpture park. Would this format be yet another ill-fitting modernist box? Would the outdoors itself neuter the impulses of contemporary sculpture?
For points of departure apart from other sculpture parks, I found Anne Ellegood’s 2006 Hirshhorn exhibition The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas (with artists such as Isa Genzken and Rachel Harrison), a streamlining of some of the issues raised in the Hammer’s Thing from 2005, especially by artists like Kristen Morgin and Lara Schnitger. At the Rubell Collection at Art Basel Miami Beach last year, I caught on to the assemblage work of Aaron Curry as an artist following these concerns, and at Eden’s Edge at the Hammer this summer, there were Elliot Hundley, Matthew Monahan, and Anna Sew Hoy.
Which is all to say that it was quite nice to see all of these artists (except Anna Sew Hoy) and others (especially Nate Lowman, Carol Bove, Sarah Lucas, and John Bock, all with strong works) represented in Unmonumental at the New Museum, but new, it was not. It was a coronation for these artists and these ideas, not an introduction–the sort of late-in-the-day institutional move that, in the best-case scenario, might prompt a rejecting response (I can see the bumper stickers now: Visualize Monumentalism!). Is this the gist of the work of a contemporary art museum? It’s not what I want to see happen in Seattle.
The New Museum seems to have the same uneasy relationship to progress that many institutions share, then. Nothing new about that. Except that, as almost every critic writing about the New Museum’s architecture has pointed out, progress in this case is measured not simply inside the museum but outside it, too, in the gentrifying neighborhood of the Bowery–the latest symbol of the frightfully gentrifying universe of New York (and of what the rest of us fear in our smaller cities).
It is easy, then, to see the New Museum as a referendum on New York’s place in art, and maybe even art’s place in the world, as naive as that may sound. In this, I agree with Christopher Hawthorne, who described the pseudo-roughness of SANAA’s building as the gesture of an architecture that is hedging its bets, claiming both to be “of the streets,” with all of their past, and “of the future,” with its promise of more buildings that look like this one instead of like the grimy brick supply stores on the Bowery now.
As a sculpture, from the exterior, the building is ingenious, light, and coherent. The inside, by contrast, feels drab and monotonous. There are some exceptions–the bright green color inside the elevator, the way the elevator opens on both sides in the middle of the galleries to give unexpected views of the exhibitions, the lone narrow back-of-house staircase between the third and the fourth floors–but these random details remain random. The shifting of the skylights due to the setbacks of the twisting stacked boxes is the exception to this rule: a detail that is both gorgeous and grounding.
But the chain-link-like cladding on the building and the repetition of mostly undifferentiated large spaces with high ceilings makes the museum feel like, as other critics have also noted, a simulation of a repurposed warehouse gallery in a sketchy neighborhood. The screamingly self-conscious rows of antiseptic fluorescent lights are the nail in that creepy coffin.
I wish the New Museum, both in its architecture and its first exhibition, had taken a look at the double-edged sword of newness, at the rather discredited avant-garde idea of the new, rather than simply pretending to be new in its exhibition schedule and pretending not to be new in its architecture. Then again, may we all be more cautious, and more daring.
Tyler Green Modern Art Notes
To Pick Up Where I Left Off: First Thoughts on the New Museum
It was the great expectations that got me.