It's not a particularly good moment for contemporary art at New York institutions, what with the stale series of exhibitions currently at PS1 and MoMA's growing interest in hosting block buster shows like Georges Seurat, The Drawings. Other museums have performed better than this mind you, but as far as contemporary art in the city goes, many of us were looking to the New Museum's inaugural opening this month to breathe some life into an otherwise lack luster scene.
Needless to say, their first installment of a show in four parts, misses that mark. Don't get me wrong, Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century, investigates a worthy if familiar topic — the renewed interest in sculptural assemblage — but I can't help feeling uneasy about the museum's choice to explore a genre known for calculated grittiness and use of recycled materials, when it seems to so neatly match the ideology behind the new building itself. “The museum serves as a hinge” says the New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff speaking to the function of the mesh that covers the faÃ§ade of building, evoking the glitze of soho from afar, and toughness of a now softening Bowery up close. Maybe the sculptures aren't meant to speak to this same set of ideas, but after seeing three floors of seemingly endless pretty/ugly collage, and spending days reading about the bridginess of a museum on the edge of two similarly contrasting neighborhoods, I couldn't shake the connection. By the end of it, I felt like the virtues of working humbly had been beaten over my head by Richard Flood, and his curatorial team.
Monolithic curatorial vision may contribute to such a feeling, though I suspect the problem lies more in an unwillingness to take certain kinds of risks. For example, in the three floors of sculptural work presented, not one oversized piece was exhibited. With only 10,000 feet to play with, a curator might not want to chance a sculpture dominating the entire show, but the result is an exhibition that feels more like a marathon viewing experience, as opposed to one full of variation and life. It's a real shame because the content within great pairings like Carol Bove's, Experiment in Total Freedom, a stacked table night stand featuring a wire sculpture on one table, and a book with its page open to a reclining nude on another, and Nate Lowman's aggressively bullet ridden teller window simply get lost within the mish mash of sculptures. While both Bove's exploration of domesticated political movements and Lowman's deadpan reconstitution of violent acts on some level explore the idea of neutered social movements, I don't think it was their intention to also have the work function that way.
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