Three Dimensions of Uncertainty

John Haber
in New York City

Unmonumental at the New Museum

When it comes to Modernism and after, people still scream: "That's not art!" They have to scream louder all the time to be heard, but maybe they could settle for more a nuanced complaint: "That's less art!"

The New Museum of Contemporary Art gives New York its biggest new museum building in forty years (as will appear in an accompanying review). For all that, it flaunts the casual air of the Lower East Side. I shared the near universal excitement over the new architecture, but hardly the praise. And inside lies work just as casual in structure—and just as determined to make an impression, shallow or deep. In every way, the opening group show, "Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century," reinforces the mixed messages of the building itself. Isa Genzken's Elefant (New Museum, 2006)

Unless is unmore

Maybe one can no longer say what art is, but museums still get to say what it is not. First "Undone" arrived at the Whitney at Altria, meaning at once no longer intact and not finished. Now the New Museum of Contemporary Art kicks off its new building with "Unmonumental." I am holding out next for "Unreasonable," "Unbelievable," and "Uncertain."

Art may be thriving, but it is going nowhere fast—least of all vertically. The New Museum even asked for six extra weeks to add "Collage: The Unmonumental Picture," with eleven artists, plus a few more to bathe the exhibition in "The Sound of Things: Unmonumental Audio." Meanwhile "Unmonumental," with sculpture by just thirty artists, leaves the rooms quiet and their walls all but bare. Still more work remains invisible downtown, for "Montage: Unmonumental Online." So much for William Butler Yeats's "monuments to unaging intellect."

The museum intends all that empty space, just when other museums are cutting back. It welcomes a test not just of the new galleries, but also of its mission. It asks one to look not just at the walls or the work, but at where art is heading. And it wants one to know what the New Museum has to say about all that. Like everything else about the Lower East Side, it still leaves one hanging between the latest trend and new directions.

Start, like the exhibition itself, with sculpture. Art like this recycles the scraps of everyday existence, from household materials to pop imagery. Many works draw on old furniture or dry goods, like Jim Lambie's mattress of used buttons. They capture a moment, when anything goes except formalism. The 2008 Whitney Biennial in fact has several of the same artists.

This art sticks close to the ground, while threatening at any moment to rise up. Manfred Pernice's little towers of wood, tin, and the occasional beer can could domesticate Monument to the Third International or Alexander Rodchenko. Rebecca Warren hints at a plinth in daubs of clay, while Shinique Smith fashions one out of old clothing, as in the Studio Museum's "Frequency." Lambie's wooden box with belts protruding could stand for a suspiciously hollow memorial or the closet that Smith has emptied. It makes sense for the first show in the new building on the Bowery, with its resemblance to cardboard boxes on the outside and warehouses on the inside.

Even the installation seems a work in progress. Some wall labels supply floor plans for the sculpture, while others cluster in corners. Both sets leave one struggling to figure out just who did what. Even with only thirty artists, far too much simply drowns in bright lights and open space.

Sculpture after all

Minimalism once promised an end to art as a big deal. It borrowed from a prefabricated culture, and it surrendered to gravity and entropy. Where Constantin Brancusi had made the pedestal a part of the work, Minimalism kept the pedestal and threw the art away. And one can see its legacy in the boxes and soft materials of "Unmonumental," with their debt to Richard Tuttle. With his balletic trees of fluorescent tubes, Martin Boyce crosses Dan Flavin with Joel Shapiro. In another sense, however, Minimalism was a monumental trend, and "Unmonumental" has something else in mind.

At least since Maya Lin, Minimalism has become the quasi-official language of memorials. If the Vietnam War Memorial literally broke new ground, follow-ups like the planned memorial at Ground Zero are taking on outsize proportions and a deadly regularity. Meanwhile installations compete to demolish galleries and to fill them to the brim with the debris. Robert Rauschenberg and his "Combines," Gordon Matta-Clark, and Peter Fischli and David Weiss all helped set the pattern. In the spirit of structuralism and Claude Levi-Strauss, one might call them bricoleurs, or tinkerers rather than master planners—but with the artist at a wry and almost superhuman remove from his creation. Now Rirkrit Tiravanija, T. J. Wilcox, Jason Rhoades, and others put a celebrity artist's life and temper tantrums very much on display.

Compared to those models, much of "Unmonumental" seems almost quaint. Many of the artists work small, and the rest look small in the three large, undivided rooms. They think in traditional terms of sculpture rather than installation or theater. Even when Gabriel Kuri stacks wire waste baskets with an artificial plant inside, he seems more interested in creating a neat shape than in pointing outward from the placement of a receptacle to an imagined living room. Dozens more artists would fit in well, such as Cady Noland, Cordy Ryman, or Phoebe Washburn, but the New Museum does not aim for an encyclopedic group show. Biennials and recycling centers alike fill up quickly.

One circulates this art rather than participates in it. Only the painted fragments of wood, cardboard, and fabric by Gedi Sibony challenge the site by their variable dimensions, and they can only fail. Only the spiral of broken chairs by Marc André Robinson challenges it by rising into a corner before returning to earth. Sam Durant proclaims "Obedience to the Law Is Freedom," but no one need worry about getting trapped in his cage. As Bob Dylan could have told him, "to live outside the law you must be honest."

Little of the art has the insistent, at times annoying edge that one may well want from a new museum downtown. Lara Schnitger even buries her occasional protest slogan in a pile of tourist t-shirts. Often as not, it seems too unmonumental for its own good. With his combination of posters and bland sculpted curves, Aaron Curry gives a Pop Art gloss to Alexander Calder and Calder mobiles, while Tom Burr pays a hermetic tribute to Truman Capote in collage on folding screen. No doubt the artist identifies closely with his subject, as suggested by mirrors on the work's flip side. I doubt that many viewers will look for their reflection, too.

Much looks an awful lot like a grade-school art project. John Bock's tabletop sculpture of used plastic bottles suggests kids let loose to refashion their own New York skyline. Warren's fired clay retains the look of Play-Doh. Kristen Morgin leaves her finely crafted pottery weathered and unfinished, like a class in how to build on a wire frame.

In for the long haul

Like the new building, the show poses uneasily between the fringe and the mainstream, and too few artists have the energy and wit to look both ways before crossing. While not the big names one might expect, they still come mostly from major galleries in New York, Los Angeles, and Europe. They may challenge the concept of fine art, but they trumpet the museum's role in an elite art scene. Even the impulsive, ego-tripping, big-gallery installation appears after all—in the show itself. An occasional work hints at violence, like Nate Lowman's shattered windows or Elliot Hundley's Wreck. Mostly, however, it is the gallery that transforms modest sculpture into an ostentatious whole.

Not many works survive that treatment, already a sign that the celebrated architecture has some serious problems when it comes to displaying art. Not many deserve to survive. Isa Genzken does, with an elephant of cardboard tubes that could pass for a miniature carnival ride. Sarah Lucas does, too, with an unmade pull-out bed pierced by a thick fluorescent tube, as if laying bare someone's sex life. Arrangements of shelving and personal artifacts by Carol Bove almost do, like mirrored shelves uptown at the Whitney by Beth Campbell, but they need a room small enough for their fragile construction and intimate memories.

The few who emerge intact care about what they represent. I mean the associations with both found objects and the final image. Nude statues emerge from Matthew Monahan's hacked forms like a Pop Art update of Michelangelo's slaves. Rachel Harrison has a talent for conjuring mock monumental portraits out of garbage, and she does so again. A female bust in a cowboy hat, atop a pedestal and surrounded by potatoes, might serve as the official greeter to America's country fair. A mountain bike weighed down by handbags filled with pebbles and topped by a poster of Mel Gibson allows the heroic to crack up, leaving women to pick up the pieces.

Urs Fischer collects stones, too, as part of a building's foundations pierced with a sword. One cannot easily pull the sword from this stone or restore the stone to its context, not unlike the vanishing foundations of the Lower East Side and the vanishing affordable spaces for art. He also molds the statue of a woman out of wax, and her club feet still show traces of the Styrofoam mold. As a candle, she will burn throughout the show. I imagine her as Galatea, rudely shaped by Pygmalion and only briefly sprung to life. With luck, her silence will survive the cacophony of sound art to come.

In Soho of the 1980s, shows at the New Museum reflected the ideals of its founder, the late Marcia Tucker—alternately maddening, insightful, angry, and beautiful. In Chelsea, the New Museum's survey of East Village art recalled a decade of artists surviving by the skin of their teeth. Meanwhile the surrounding Chelsea neighborhood swelled to hundreds of galleries. Now the New Museum wants the best of both worlds, cutting-edge and in for the long haul. So does "Unmonumental."

For now, the building's undivided boxes still look blank and inflexible, with only the hint of a quieter alcove beside the elevator on each floor. Even a small show seemed disorganized and cluttered before art so much as took to the wall. The museum will have to find a style as frank, funny, and shimmering as the building itself.

Picture imperfect

In a modest way, the process may have already begun, with the rest of the show. With art on the walls, the space looks better, and so does the art within it. "Collage" helps make sense of those long, high surfaces. It gives them a purpose, able to handle work with multiple pieces on a mural scale. Without all that white, too, the sculpture looks more able to fend for itself. The additions also have some of the anger and irony one might have expected all along, and they help bring out comparable themes in the scraggly assemblage.

Unfortunately, a few other things go wrong along the way. While the art gains, the show and by implication the museum look less coherent than before. The puzzle starts with what one might possibly mean by "The Unmonumental Picture." It may represent modest progress, but there is not much else modest about these pictures. They also add to the general noise level, even without the more than a dozen pieces of sound art slated to join them, without even a hand from Christian Marclay. They bring "Unmonumental" that much closer to the conventional trash heap of a major gallery.

One cannot call these pictures unmonumental in size. Wangechi Mutu turns an especially long wall into a three-dimensional lunar landscape, with duct tape for rills and bits of animal pelt for stars. The gray of the heavens reaches to the ceiling, and the tape mounds spill out onto the floors. Torn posters by Mark Bradford create a single thick, dirty topography as no single wall in "Frequency" at the Studio Museum, the 2006 Whitney Biennial, or even South LA ever could. Much of the rest has as its components at least a dozen drawings or photographs. The pages of Henrik Olesen's Anthologie de l'Amour Sublime pass for an entire eighteenth- or nineteenth-century porn novel, as seen through the eyes of Max Ernst.

Pictures tackle monumental history painting in theme as well. Something of their epochal tone appears already in Mutu's title, Perhaps the Moon Will Save Us. Martha Rosler in her collage photographs, Kim Jones's doodles, and Nancy Spero's Hours of the Night all do their part toward what Rosler calls Bringing the War Home—all the way from Iraq, via the TV screens of America. Charmingly, the education center happens to be showing Rosler's old Bowery project, documenting a previous incursion of capitalist ruins onto the Lower East Side. Jonathan Hernández borrows from twentieth-century Mexican muralists, not to mention from Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and the remake of Scarface. The larger than life nature of popular culture appears, too, in Kelley Walker's recycling of the 1960s, Christian Holstad's psychedelic night, Thomas Hirschhorn and his violence, and John Stezaker's brittle, almost Cubist Film Portraits.

It says something that Rosler, with U.S. soldiers leaping over living-room furniture, comes closest to a sense of humor. It says something, too, that Spero comes off as something of the Old Master, with some of her deepest colors and most painterly application to date. Conversely, not much suggests a modern or postmodern critique of representation itself. The show's title aside, most of the elements have space to rest side by side rather than as collage. The choice of artists, too, again pampers a museum content to work within the mainstream gallery system. The Bowery is in competition with the Whitney.

The best part comes in the large scale, bright colors, and resonance between photography and sculpture. The focus of the "pictures" on violence, darkness, and homosexual provocation makes one look for more of the same in the "objects." More often than before, too, I could find it. I still found myself, however, in search of the New Museum. Will it embrace something truly unmonumental and ungovernable, and where will that take art? And what happens next time, when the arch architecture's "boxment" once again towers over everything in sight?

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"Unmonumental" ran at The New Museum of Contemporary Art through March 23, 2008. A separate review looks at the new architecture and the December 2007 reopening, and related articles consider other changes to the Lower East Side and other possible heirs to Chelsea.


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