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Felicity D. Scott

Beautiful Rough Felicity D. Scott on the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York

Außenansicht "The New Museum of Contemporary Art", New York, 2007 Außenansicht „The New Museum of Contemporary Art“, New York, 2007

The “New Museum for Contemporary Art” is considered as a place of origin for critical postmodernism. Founded by Marcia Tucker in SoHo in 1977, the New York institution with its exhibitions on activism, appropriation and “bad painting” advanced to the embodiment of a theoretically informed as well as politically committed engagement with the heritage of Greenbergian formalism as well as with the prosperity of neo-expressive painting at that time – as legendary publications such as the collection “Art After Modernism” evidence still today.

The Museum was re-opened on the Bowery in December last year in a new minimalist building designed by Japanese architects SANAA. The information noted in the press release that this is the first museum building below 14th street in Manhattan raises the question of how this prime example of a “critical” institution positions itself within the gentrification processes that its move to this “gritty” neighborhood entails – and if, respectively how, the architecture itself can take these conditions into account.

The recent opening of the New Museum for Contemporary Art’s new eight-story building on New York’s storied Bowery marks the occasion both to celebrate the rare appearance of a significant work of architecture in the city and to scrutinize the art world’s (and the building’s) imbrication within the forces of gentrification in lower Manhattan. Designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA to read as a stack of six anodized aluminum mesh-clad boxes — each exhibiting different geometrical proportions and fields of transparency, and each shifted laterally with respect to the others around a central steel core — the shimmering new tower jostles at once with its program, environment and the city’s planning ordinances to create a distinctive staggered profile. Sited on the Bowery between Stanton and Rivington Streets, a few doors from the Bowery Mission for the homeless and directly opposite the eastern termination of Prince Street (hence looking back to the museum’s former Soho address on Broadway between Prince and Houston), the Lower East Side location seems over-determined with respect to the vicissitudes of the area’s recent redevelopment. Commissioned in 2002 following an invited competition and two years in construction, the New Museum tower emerged late last year to find itself not simply having escaped an overdeveloped Soho to a neighborhood more able to sustain a vanguardish “downtown” identity, as avowedly desired by the institution, but in a field of similar high rise landmarks, predominantly new high-end condominium developments. Yet in launching its new location, the museum did not shy away from contradictions inhering within this institutional and geographical nexus. Despite its role, witting or unwitting, in the area’s transformation, and bucking the trend of a mass exodus of Soho galleries to Chelsea, the new New Museum mobilized the “grittiness” (a term used repeatedly) of the Bowery and Lower East Side as key to maintaining its “downtown” identity.

The legendary tale of the New Museum’s founding by Marcia Tucker in 1977, 24-hours after being fired from the Whitney Museum of American Art over a controversial Richard Tuttle show, is stressed throughout the press material. Set up as an alternative to established uptown museums and as an institution committed to challenging the institutional status quo, it has a history of sponsoring socially committed contemporary art. Traces of its support of AIDS activism remain evident, if somewhat marginalized, in the new building. Act Up’s (soon to be Gran Fury) “Silence = Death” of 1987 is installed in the stairway to the lower level, and Gran Fury’s “Wipe Out (New York City Subway Project)” of 1990 in the narrow but dramatic staircase joining the 3rd and 4th floor galleries, a staircase harboring the memory of Soho loft buildings. The Bowery’s equally renowned if less romantic history of skid row flophouses and homeless shelters and their occupants — known elliptically to the art world from Martha Rosler’s work of 1974, “the bowery in 2 inadequate descriptive systems” — is mobilized ambiguously as harboring the promise of a certain edginess and as part of the institution’s narrative of openness to the community. Even prior to the building’s opening in 2004, the New Museum staged the exhibition “Counter-Culture” as an engagement with sites and subjects in its future neighborhood. This included, for instance, Julian Schwartz’s construction of a conduit of yellow plastic pipes and mirrors through which passersby could voyeuristically peek into the lounge area of the adjacent Sunshine Hotel, while the SRO’s residents could reciprocally channel their voice to those on the street through speaking into the device. The legacy of the neighborhood’s role in housing poor and migrant communities is memorialized in the new 5th floor resource center, which includes a shelf dedicated to “The History of the Bowery”, along with the “Bowery Artists Tribute”, an interactive digital map locating artists who have lived and worked there.

Such gestures raise, of course, the question of whether these various moves constitute a form of self-consciousness or if the new New Museum’s attempt to align its dissident past with its new location is simply good marketing? SANAA’s design seems to speak, albeit in an oblique way, to something like an institutional memory at work here. With the building’s slightly uncanny citation of industrial vernaculars, those that served so well in adaptation as “white cube” galleries, the architecture begins to articulate the very contours of these contradictions to insightful if perhaps unwitting ends. The architects’ own rhetoric is not that of historical knowingness, but they do overtly pick up on key aspects of the institution’s story, noting, as cited in the press release, that “the Bowery and the New Museum have a lot in common.” “The Bowery was very gritty when we first visited it”, they recall, in turn attributing heroism to the museum’s decision to relocate there. “We were a bit shocked, but we were also impressed that a fine arts museum wanted to be there.” “When we learned about the history of the New Museum”, they also explain, “we were flabbergasted by its attitude, which is very political and very focused on new ideas, fearless and very tough.” [1] Pointing to the mission of sponsoring “new art, new ideas” and to the ideals of an open institutional framework, the architects have also spoken of having produced a building capable of continuous transformation and programmatic flexibility, as well as of having solved the problems of column free gallery space, controlled lighting, openness to the context and public. If the rhetoric is that of ongoing transformation and flexibility, the references are not experimental architectural practices of the 1960s that dreamed of adopting the recursive structures of feed-back or the supposedly indeterminate logic of system-based structures to drive such an ongoing transformation. The model is not that of Cedric Price’s and Joan Littlewood’s cybernetic “Fun Palace” but something closer to the paradigm of flexibility harbored in the clear-spans and universal space of the post-war work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Mies is avowedly a reference for Sejima and Nishizawa: asked about each other’s “architectural heroes” in a recent interview for the Japan Times, the responses were Mies and Le Corbusier. But the building is also clearly not subsumable to the abstract language of a Miesian aesthetic, and we might ponder what relation to the so-called “Heroic Period” of architectural modernism could possibly inhere within the new building given that conditions of production and reception have so radically changed.

If instigated by tight site conditions, the vertical organization of the building as stacked boxes reads at once as a nod to 1960s Minimalism and a reworking of the ziggurat-like forms of corporate office towers, the latter a pragmatic response to maximizing floor area when profit-driven calculations met the New York zoning regulations aimed at controlling the height of buildings at street level. In designing the Seagram Building on Park Avenue (1954–58), Mies had responded to those zoning regulations by stepping his entire tower back 90 feet from the street, thereby allowing it to appear as a monolithic block and hence free of such contingencies. Such a luxury was out of the question on a site measuring 71 foot wide by 112 foot deep. Yet something of the complex and shadowy depth and rigorous articulation of the Seagram’s bronze façade returns here in a low-budget version. The careful structuring of its double-layered skin — composed of finely corrugated, silvery panels onto which are clipped at a slight distance the stretched aluminum meshes — produces a notable perceptual effect. The semblance of a delicate shimmering surface, one that transforms according to light conditions and phenomenologically with viewer’s movement, gives way to an encounter with its raw materiality as one approaches the building. It is, however, within the gallery spaces that further relations to industrial spaces and to minimalist aesthetics are played out to more interesting effects.

The three main galleries — located on levels two, three and four and each having distinct volumetric proportions — offer an unapologetic remake of the white cube gallery. But they seem to reference such institutional spaces of contemporary art with a self-consciousness bordering on appropriation. They read less as typological reiterations than as uncanny repetitions of familiar industrial environments and artifacts — white walls, distressed concrete floors, loft-like spaces, exposed steel structural members and services, and fluorescent tubes — elements coming to us saturated with the legacy of Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and subsequent critiques of the institutional functioning of the gallery space. To this list we might also add skylights, industrial staircases, freight elevators, etc. If upon entering the galleries it becomes evident that shifting the boxes serves to open the ceiling up to bands of natural light from above, the effect is largely overwhelmed by the field of fluorescent tubes that form one layer within a complex matrix of exposed structure and services. The conceit of cracked concrete floors — an effect produced by not using expansion joints — also helps conjure a “gritty” industrial aesthetic. “We wanted to make interiors that expose the way they work in a ‘beautiful rough’ way that is appropriate to the Museum and right for the budget and the place”, Sejima and Nishizawa are quoted by the museum as stating. “We don’t want to hide things behind gyp board, we want to show what the building is made of and maximize the feeling of openness, but do it in a beautiful way inside the parameters of the toughness. This is why the building’s structure and guts are exposed — the ducts, the sprinklers, the fireproofing material — and the view from the street includes everything on the ground floor.” The building notably meets the street as a continuous plate glass wall exposing not only the lobby and gift shop but also the loading dock.

In their rhetorical use of exposed materials and structure and in their rigorous and consistent if self-consciously straightforward detailing and organization, SANAA’s New Museum project recalls, to a degree, Reyner Banham’s famous 1955 formulation of New Brutalism as “ethic” not as “aesthetic.” Reading Alison and Peter Smithson’s neo-Miesian Hunstanton School, the British critic offered a deceptively simple definition of how the work transcended the merely functional and the purely aesthetic in presenting the “thing as such.” In addition to “Clear exhibition of Structure” and “Valuation of Materials ‘as found’”, what distinguished a New Brutalist building, he explained, was its “Memorability as an Image.” By image Banham was referring not to its composition or even form, but to the conceptual dimension of the work as it was revealed in the visual register. To him a conceptually rigorous building merely served as “an ad hoc device” for the creation of an image, a vehicle of its apprehensibility. But with the New Museum fifty years later we are reminded that the function of images, conceptual or not, has radically changed, as exemplified in the branding strategy developed for the museum by the corporate branding giants Wolff Olins (famous for their work with the Tate, London’s 2012 Olympic bid, WaMu and Sony Ericsson, and who stress the importance of the museum’s role in “catalyzing the transformation of the Lower East Side” on their website). And we are left wondering if the architects could possibly have foreseen the manner in which their project — both in its references to industrial spaces and in its creation of a slightly quirky silhouette — would be so aggressively deployed, and its valence recast by the museum’s marketing campaign.

If the building’s silhouette seemed to register a slight anxiety regarding the pressures of its context, any sense of contradiction soon evaporates when, as a negative cut-out form, it is deployed as a logo and primary marketing tool not only on the usual institutional banners and commercial gift shop items produced by any museum, but through a poster sniping campaign for the public opening. The neighborhood’s many construction sites became not simply evidence of redevelopment but also, in providing extensive plywood surfaces for posters, the very infrastructure for the invasion of this image recast literally as empty form. Some posters even faked the appearance of the content of another poster beneath the cut out shape. The apotheosis of this collapse of the New Museum’s silhouette into commercialism was a “co-branding” stunt “combining graffiti, fashion and art” staged on the Calvin Klein billboard at the corner of Lafayette and Houston in Soho. Engineered by Droga 5, the billboard was spattered with pink paint three times in late November as though it had been tagged. By the third installation, the building silhouette emerged as a void from amidst dripping paint to announce the opening of the museum (New Museum Inc.?) on the Bowery, suggesting not only that it had moved but also that with that relocation came the threat of an exacerbated commercialism following it. With this campaign any articulation of a counter-narrative to market forces, any claims to a non-normative institutional identity or to a political questioning of the forces of gentrification, rapidly dissolved into bad faith.

It would be naïve to suggest that major institutions didn’t need marketing campaigns or corporate sponsorship to finance cultural programs and the spaces which house them, or that museums are immune to the pressures of the New York real estate market and could effectively stem its impact on local communities. But we might, nevertheless, interrogate how an institution represents its relation to such forces, how it stands with or in its community, something which architects have long faced, to various outcomes. We might imagine that Jeffrey Inaba’s Donor Wall, described by the museum’s wall text as an “impressionistic picture of global giving”, was commissioned to flag inherent contradictions here. Installed in the theater lobby, Donor Wall takes the form of a graphic information or data-mining project. The format is best known from the work of Koolhaas, as is its ironic pose of neutrality (in this instance tracking global public and private cultural philanthropy). We find listed for instance: “Non-Giver, Halliburton”, “Exon $ 5.2 million”, “Hezbolla $100 million”, “Non-Giver, Fidel Castro”, etc. As with the New Museum’s marketing campaign, such projects raise the question of how any irony or critical self-consciousness might be communicated, how that ambiguity might be charged with a more tactical political valence.

A more evident critique of the museum’s relation to the market, or more properly to its inscription within the vicissitudes of the neighborhood’s real estate boom and relation to institutions of art could soon be found nearby when the cut-out silhouette technique used as a logo for the new New Museum was provocatively détourned by Christian Phillip Müller in “Infill” (2008). Appearing in the window of the Lower East Side gallery Orchard on January 6 as part of Müller’s exhibition “Cookie-Cutter,” the sculpture reiterated the technique of using the figure of the void but featured instead of a quirky vertical silhouette the strangely similar horizontal plan of the gallery’s ground floor, a plan of a typical tenement building in the neighborhood. The view through the silhouette revealed “Floating Arch (for Colin)”, a tribute comprised of an installation of fluorescent tubes that remind us (via Flavin) of the institutional critique motivating Colin De Land and American Fine Arts. Beneath it are a series of book vitrines from Müller’s 1994 “Interpellations”, a work first presented at American Fine Arts and comprised of an “archive” of altered travel guides, listings and maps of Soho from over a decade earlier. If, on the one hand, self-reflexive with respect to the Orchard collective’s close relation to American Fine Arts, on the other it appears (at the moment of Orchard’s imminent closing) to point to the radical changes in what such guides, listings and maps — no longer of Soho but now of the Lower East Side — will soon contain. The new New Museum is a significant landmark within this new geography, at once heralding that transformation and harboring the promise of remaining an institution that can take a sense of responsibility for it. After years of closure, its reopening sparks a certain optimism that this might be the case.


[1]Press release “The Architecture of the New Museum of Contemporary Art”, not dated.