December 2007, Unmonumental @ New Museum

December 2007, Unmonumental @ New Museum
Exterior view of the New Museum (with Ugo Rondinone, Hell, Yes!, 2001): Photograph by Dean Kaufman

It has been over 40 years since an art museum has been built from the ground up in New York City. Designed by architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the Tokyo-based firm SANAA, the New Museum building, with its irregularly stacked white cubes, is poised to be the new visionary space for the 21st century. Although it looks too clean for the Bowery today, in five to ten years it will surely camouflage amongst the condos and boutique hotels that the inevitable gentrification machine will bring to lower Manhattan. Lets just hope the art doesn’t go stale with it.

The museum’s premier exhibition, “Unmonumental,” curated by Richard Flood, Laura Hoptman, and Massimiliano Gioni, takes over the three gallery floors in a four-part installation. Much like the museum’s architecture and the art on view, the exhibition follows an additive structure. The current exhibition (“The Object in the 21st Century”), which focuses on sculpture, will be joined by two-dimensional collage works in mid-January, and will be joined by sound art in February, and finally with Internet montage in March.

It’s an exciting concept, and it will be useful to see how the new space takes to varying stages of exhibition. The three gallery floors are intimate, yet one can comfortably envision large scale works in the space. There are no temporary walls dividing the current gallery space, so the objects on view might have felt crowded if they weren’t so structurally related to one another. They seem to inhabit a unitary landscape, and at times it feels as if they are sharing materials.

 John Bock Untitled, 2006 Cardboard, photo, and paper bag 13 3/4 x 12 x 8 in /
 34.9 x 30.5 x 20.3 cm Collection of Alvin Hall

“Unmonumental” surveys recent D.I.Y. tendencies in contemporary sculpture as a way of illustrating our fractured view of contemporary life. According to the New Museum, this exhibition “describes the present as an age of crumbling symbols and broken icons.” The pessimistic worldview that many individuals subscribe to – that of the constant terrorist threats and crimes against humanity – certainly doesn’t deserve the brightness of Pop or bold geometry of Minimalism as its spokesperson. This current art is a fragile, humble assemblage that instead recalls Dada, Art Povera, and bits of 70’s art. Full of everyday objects and decaying forms, the works in “Unmonumental” seem to be failing at stability and just on the verge of collapse (or in Urs Fischer’s case, literally on the verge of collapse; his Untitled (Kerze), 2001, a wax sculpture of a female figure physically disintegrates throughout the course of the exhibition).

To some, this may not seem like anything new. After all, artists have been knocking sculpture off its pedestal since the 20th century. Dada and collage have proven apropos during times of war. And many artists in the show, from Martin Boyce and Carol Bove to John Bock, subvert and critique the language of early modernism to create forms that are formally rigorous, yet disrupt outmoded utopian aspirations. So when someone like Isa Genzken comes along and places her work back on a white pedestal, that gesture somehow feels radical, even poignant.

If these works are uniformly successful at something it is avoiding the grand overstatements of modernism. Gedi Sibony’s seemingly random forms of construction materials convey a gesture rather than provide a concrete statement about anything in particular. And nothing overtly political like art made during the Reagan era appears in the show (except maybe Gran Fury’s still-powerful protest sculpture, Silence=Death (1988), which hangs in a lower-level stairwell). Instead, there is an overwhelming sense of political uncertainty, of something on the verge – as in Sam Durant’s street protest props, or the detached violence of Nate Lowman. In the end, these fragmented forms speak to a larger cultural fatigue. Maybe it is time to lay our monuments to rest?

“Unmonumental” is a four part exhibition that runs from December 1, 2007 until March 23, 2008.

Dmitry Komis, 2007 Whitehot Magazine, New York
whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Dmitry Komis

Dmitry Komis is a freelance writer and independent curator living
in New York City. He can be reached at 

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