During yesterday morning's press preview for the opening of the new New Museum, which opens to the public tomorrow on Bowery, at Prince Street, the sky was overcast. On my approach east on Prince, the museum, shimmering gray, a shade or two darker than the sky, materialized as if it were a mirage. The seven-story-tall structure, rising 174 feet above street level, is a series of six stacked, silvery boxes of various sizes, some of which step back from the street or jut slightly north or south.
The building, which was designed by the Tokyo-based firm SANAA, whose principals are Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, looks best at dusk or at night, when its glass-fronted ground floor lobby gives the upper floors the appearance of being suspended above a cushion of light and air. Looking at the museum yesterday, however, I was reminded of the great pyramids, whose edges and faces appear to vibrate and to dissolve in the desert's sand-infused light.
There is something very Japanese about the diffusion of light on the New Museum, as if the steel, like shoji screens, had been made translucent. Light appears to be absorbed or enveloped just beneath the skin of the building. There is also something very American, and appropriate to the Bowery, in the strange, heavy-footed, boxy and bullying architecture of this addendum to the downtown neighborhood whose primary business on the Bowery is restaurant supply. The New Museum looks like one of those industrial, stainless steel sinks — albeit one that had come in contact with atomic waste and, as if out of a Japanese horror film, grew to gargantuan proportions and transformed into a robot that would eat Manhattan.
But then it hits you: It will eat Manhattan, or at least the Bowery, whose lighting and restaurant supply businesses, like the warehouses in 1970s SoHo, and the low-rent buildings in 1990s Chelsea — will soon be displaced in the service of contemporary art.
And it hits you, even before you have entered the New Museum, that any pretension toward Japanese restraint is all a façade. Like a trumpet blast, Ugo Rondinone's large-scale, illuminated sculpture, "Hell, Yes!" (2007), in all its rainbow-colored glory, arcs its letters across the New Museum's spare, silver exterior, giving the structure the appeal of a Toys "R" Us.
The New Museum was founded in 1977 by Marcia Tucker, after she was fired from her position as curator of painting and sculpture at the Whitney when her show of Richard Tuttle proved to be too controversial. It is the first and only museum in New York City devoted to contemporary art. The New Museum has had various homes, including stints in SoHo, at the New School, and at the Chelsea Art Museum.
The museum has no permanent collection, and its mission is to show only contemporary art — to run unapologetically and fearlessly in circles in the now, no matter where each moment of today's art takes it. This is admirable, to a certain extent, and has led to the launching of numerous careers, including that of Mr. Tuttle, and the career of the gifted abstract painter Bill Jensen. But it is also a little bit too fashion-conscious to have any genuine ethical weight. It is a mission-less mission that is closer to that of a shoe store, which — season by season, high heels or high tops — is a clearinghouse that will sell whatever the kids are wearing.
Obsessed with fashion, rather than with quality art, the New Museum cannot fail to look somewhat silly and youth-obsessed, if not childish. Colored silver, with its fashionably iridescent nomenclature, lime green elevators, and industrial-chic design, the museum will quickly weather and become dated. In its adherence to the now, and only to the now, it will eventually age and lose step, to appear one day, not too far away, like a leering old man hanging around the playground.
And one has to wonder: With nearly 1,000 galleries in New York, most of which are devoted to contemporary art, do we really need yet another venue to showcase (or regurgitate) the same old new art? If the New Museum were standing behind different contemporary art — that is, art other than what is supported by so many galleries, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and MoMA — then power to them. What we are getting, however, is vapid redundancy.
One of the odd things about this endeavor is that it feels — like so many recent museum renovations and expansions — as if it is more about the building than the art. Some buildings appear smaller on the outside; others appear larger. The New Museum is surprisingly less significant on the inside than its exterior promises. With its cramped, narrow passageways, it has the proportions and feel of a ship. And each floor's gallery feels like an oversized lobby: The people waiting to get on the elevators cannot separate themselves from those attempting to look at the art. The new art at the New Museum, mostly sculpture, is from its inaugural show, "Unmonumental: The Objectinthe21stCentury,"alarge, multi-floored, three-stage, changing exhibition of international contemporary art. Generally, "Unmonumental" is another garage-sale show. It is filled with knickknacks and odds-and-ends, tied and glued and strung together like so many found objects and bad art school collage projects.
There are sticks and stones, an old sleeper sofa impaled with a fluorescent light, by Sarah Lucas; torn cardboard boxes; plastic doodads; a bound tower of old clothes; a life-size, wax, female nude candle; a chain-link cage; and a mattress covered with buttons. There are works that nod mockingly to Giacometti, Noguchi, and Russian Constructivism. And references abound: Martin Boyce's "Our Love is Like the Flowers, the Rain the Sea, and the Hours (Tree)" (2003), is a Joel Shapiro sculpture made out of Dan Flavin's fluorescent tubes. Lara Schnitger's "Rabble Rouser" (2005), comprising political protest T-shirts and slogans stretched over a wooden armature, pokes fun at the act of protest itself.
No work in "Unmonumental" is monumental, but a couple of artists stand out. Marc André Robinson's "Myth Monolith (Liberation Movement)" (2007), an arcing stack of furniture, has a witty, twisting lyricism (too bad it needs the wall as a support). I was also particularly impressed, especially considering the company, with the sculptures of Kristen Morgin. Her deconstructed "Lion" (2006) fuses elements of the carousel with a Futurist sense of cinematic progression. Her series of six vessels, which incorporate raw and fired clay, photographs, wire, and wood, blends ancient pottery and architectural ruins, dioramas, and Victorian valentines. Delicate, weathered, and serpentine, they feel made yet found. In one, the Virgin steps out of a decimated teacup, as if she were emerging from out of a bombed-out building. Ms. Morgin's work, however, is the exception rather than the rule. The New Museum, in the future, could be a great asset to the city. But if "Unmonumental" is any indication of what is to come, I'll take stainless steel sinks, refrigerators, and pots and pans.
Until March 23 (235 Bowery at Prince Street, between Stanton and Rivington streets, 212-219-1222).