“Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century”
The New Museum, New York
December 1 to March 23

Art Monthly
March 2008

Considering their glistening new building, a roster full of artists coveted by international art collectors, and the glossy, $70.00 Phaidon exhibition catalogue for sale in the bookstore, ‘Unmonumental’, the title of the New Museum’s first exhibition in its new home on the Bowery, seemed an odd choice. For those who witnessed the Target-sponsored events on the opening weekend, the implied modesty of the museum’s packaged debut might have appeared curious as well. Taking sole possession of the top floor during the first ‘30 free hours’ the museum was open, Target’s candy give-away, featuring a carnivalesque appropriation of the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, provided the public with the spectacle of a uniquely corporate spin on relational aesthetics.

Stepping off the elevator into a Coney Island-style experience in the heart of high culture, excited museum-goers frantically grabbed at drawers full of candy and shovelled it into little white bags, while a DJ in a booth adorned with Target logos played urban contemporary sounds to try to maintain an atmosphere of cool. The floor-to-ceiling windows also featured Target’s signature red circles, which had the effect of branding the entire view of downtown Manhattan from the museum’s site on the Bowery. Back in the main galleries, some of the visitors were packing more candy than the bags could handle so, occasionally, the distinctive sound of dozens of small projectiles hitting a concrete floor and spraying in all directions caught the attention of those who were trying to focus on one of the many assemblage works that comprised the exhibition.

Given the enthusiasm with which the curators’ catalogue essays celebrate the artists’ free spirited use of cast-offs and everyday detritus, there was something poignant in the embarrassment of those viewers whose lack of control had added to the chaos and mess that surrounded them. But, through their regular invocations of past heroes of assemblage art, (Rauschenberg, Joan Miró, Duchamp, etc) the ‘don’t try this at home’ cautions the essays contained were made abundantly clear; as casually constructed and tossed off as much of the work in the show appeared, this activity is the province of experts and professionals, the latest incarnation in a respected lineage of masters who possess a unique way with materials considered by others to be merely junk.

Although the artists can certainly not be blamed for being thrown together in an unwieldy and repetitive display, vastly over-committed to a narrow spectrum of contemporary art-making, the contradiction implicit in the requirement of genius to execute ‘de-skilled’ artworks does not seem lost on many of them. The low-key DIY moment of the recession-era early 90s, when the market for sculpture was a bit soft, has blossomed, thanks to a series of financial bubbles (and through careers such as that of Jessica Stockholder who, given the debt that much of the work in this exhibition owes her, was bizarrely omitted from any reference in the catalogue), into a full-blown movement worthy of attention from the most high-profile galleries and art collectors.

When ordinary materials are refashioned into sculpture because there’s nothing else around, the result often possesses an urgency that is refreshing in its lack of investment in formal codes and self-conscious artistic gestures. When artists become ‘known’ for ripping certain kinds of T-shirts and fabric in signature ways (Lara Schnitger), or bundling up rags in a strikingly direct reference to Michelangelo Pistoletto (Shinique Smith), or running a roller full of white paint across a 4x8 sheet of cardboard (Gedi Sibony), their ‘found’ materials become no less predictable than the bronze or clay employed in traditional sculpture. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your perspective), what might be seen as a trap that stifles creative invention becomes an asset in the development of a style. With all these assemblage works bunched together, one must ‘set themselves apart’ by taking specific articles drawn from the everyday and clearly mark them as one’s brand in order to be distinguished in this intentionally ‘ruined landscape’.

As the artists mine the ordinary and put their selective stamp on its contents, we are told that the work is conversational and ‘about the world’, with a filter that transforms these contents into … what, exactly? Conversation suggests the projection of some position or thought for an audience to react to, but the engagement with politics here feels too inarticulate, muted or facile to provoke or even titillate. Claire Fontaine’s Passe-Partout,(2006) reduces the sceptical urbanism of the Situationists to trinkets and souvenirs, Rachel Harrison’s Huffy Howler, (2004), skewers a straw man (who doesn’t find Mel Gibson embarrassing?) and Nate Lowman’s work, no matter how hard the glossy catalogue photos try to make the case for more, bears only a superficial relationship to the art of Cady Noland. What is missing from the politically-oriented work here is an understanding of the world as more than a bunch of arbitrary fragments that can be cobbled together to make a self-enclosed statement but as (in Noland’s work) a conflicting series of representations whose agendas might be revealed through a critical engagement with their source.

The brutality inherent in Noland’s OOZEWALD, (1989), (illustrated in the catalogue), a life-size cardboard cutout photograph with cartoonish holes which represent Jack Ruby’s bullets, is partly achieved through its ability to transform a historical media event with mythic properties into a kind of scarecrow figure that confronts and haunts the viewer. Noland’s transformation of a notorious moment of American lawlessness and intrigue into a pop-up figure in a shooting gallery takes the extremes of the media, as Warhol’s early work did, on its own terms. Although Sam Durant’s chain-link fence piece hints at the possibility of this direct engagement, the much touted ability of the sculpture in this show to present a meaningful dialogue with our ‘anxious moment’ is so unconvincing that it leaves the curators’ words hanging. With such limited evidence for such claims to be found in the work, one wonders why they were offered to the public in the first place.

Perhaps the answer is because they can be. The degree of packaging of this show was so great, and the expectations so high, it seemed as if the majority of criticism was convinced of its success in advance (albeit with the occasional caveat). With the Museum of Modern Art flying its corporate flag high in the wake of Tanaguchi’s chilly renovation, and with the Whitney Museum looking to claim a stake of the downtown culture scene, the New Museum, once a thorn in the side of the museum establishment from which its founder Marcia Tucker had so unceremoniously withdrawn, had a great interest in carefully crafting its rebirth in its new ‘off Broadway’ location.

Hiring the boutique Japanese architecture firm SANAA to ‘channel’ the particular urban context of the (formerly derelict) Bowery through its expanded metal skin, and the ultra cool ad agency Droga5 to brand their new creation, the ‘new’ New Museum was clearly determined to craft a fresh profile that, out of necessity, and the new reality of a booming art market, would jettison the more overt politics of its founder (witness Gran Fury’s Silence = Death, (1987) piece tucked away near the basement). While the ‘grow or die’ phenomenon is no less true among cultural institutions than in the world of international business, the uncritical adaptation of a branding process that would have made Nike proud was, for those who caught it (the cultural press didn’t seem interested) kind of surprising, given the museum’s past reputation as ‘alternative’.

It may be that the most revealing aspects projected by this event onto our cultural moment are not found in the curatorial issues raised by the “Unmonumental” exhibit, nor the design solutions celebrated in SANNA’s new building, but in the museum’s clichéd response to the ‘gritty’ nature of its adopted neighborhood and (nearly former) inhabitants. Through its limited menu of scrappy and detritus-laden assemblage art, the institution’s shameless appropriation of the Bowery’s mythology for its inaugural show could not have been more obvious. Hiring an ad firm that, in a perfectly executed example of ‘cross branding’, orchestrated a faux graffiti ‘attack’ which outlined the silhouette of their new signature building on top of a Calvin Klein billboard nearby, the ‘new’ New Museum’s debut reflected the strategies of the many franchises now found in the new urban landscape. With their re-arrival onto the downtown scene in a style the befits a groovy ad campaign for the next big box store, they have loudly announced that the unpredictable nature of an urban culture they owe their origins to is clearly over, only to be replaced by scholarly invocations and expensive anti-monuments to its ‘edgy’ former self.