New Kid on the Block

New York

Left: Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, with New Museum chief curator Richard Flood. Right: Ellyn Dennison, New Museum president Saul Dennison, and New Museum director LIsa Phillips. (Photos: Patrick McMullan)

“This is the best night of all,” Laura Hoptman told me as I checked in last Thursday for the fourth of five nights of parties (each with a separate guest list) inaugurating the new New Museum of Contemporary Art. “No stars,” she said of the sea of unfamiliar faces around us. “And so many young people! I think it’s great.”

A moment later, I was introduced to Gabriel Kuri of Mexico City and Brussels, one of the thirty artists in “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” the first of a four-part show (assemblage now, then visual and audio collages) put together by the museum's trio of curators: Hoptman, Richard Flood, and Massimiliano Gioni. Kuri was accompanied by Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo curators Tobias Ostrander and Jorge Munguia, as well as Jumex Collection director Abaseh Mirvali. They had come a long way for an opening, hadn’t they? “As one floor in the museum is named after my boss,” said Mirvali of Eugenio López, “I think I had better be here!”

Lisa Phillips, whose vision for the museum inadvertently spearheaded the redevelopment of the Bowery, the neo-bohemian boulevard outside, looked ecstatic. “I am so happy to be in this building,” she said proudly of the seven-story pile of unevenly stacked white-on-white cubes (designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA) that is her new professional home. Glenn Lowry had been there the day before, she noted with the bat of an eye. He was particularly taken, apparently, with the size of the museum’s café, theater, gift shop, and galleries—the classy, cool intimacy that is making it, in other words, everything that MoMA isn’t and that is letting it err in a sweet, small way, instead of embracing what many feel is a major blunder with eight hundred million dollars. I don’t know what “Unmonumental” cost, but its existence proves that you don’t have to sell the farm to achieve a solid art experience. “It’s reactionary,” Hoptman said of the show. “I mean, it’s about things—sculpture—the kind of stuff you can dust.”

Left: New Museum trustee Dianne Wallace. Right: Artist Gabriel Kuri, Museo Tamayo's Jorge Munguia, and Jumex Collection director Abaseh Mirvali. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

“Monday night, there was a dinner for the trustees,” explained trustee Dianne Wallace, whose name in Plexiglas graces the museum’s irradiant-green elevators. “Tuesday, we had a dinner in a Chinese restaurant for the big donors, and last night,” she said, her voice trailing off, “was fashion night.” She meant the evening had been sponsored by the Calvin Klein company, which brought its own crowd of movie stars and models—“leggy young girls on couches with their skirts rising up to their heads,” said artist Mel Kendrick, who was not one of the artists who donated a work to the museum’s eight-million-dollar benefit auction at Phillips de Pury a few weeks ago but who had been allowed in with them the night before.

I hadn’t missed much, he said. Just the cabaret in the basement theater, where “a guy from The Box,” the club on Chrystie Street, entertained by picking up a beer bottle with his rectum and drinking from it. So much for bending elbows, which is what was going on at the bars on the museum’s top floor, its party room, which has windows and a terrace on two sides, offering views of the now-glittering Lower East Side cityscape.

Thirty years ago, the New Museum was in a Tribeca office building, art consultant Allan Schwartzman reminded me. As founding director Marcia Tucker’s assistant at the Whitney Museum, from which she was summarily fired in 1977 for championing artists like Richard Tuttle, he had followed her downtown to become the New Museum’s first resident curator. “I feel like some big hand is going to come out and grab me,” he said when he spied the clear Plexiglas letters informing us that we were standing in Marcia Tucker Hall. Yet it was touching to see him there.

Left: Artist Andrea Blum with art advisor Allan Schwartzman. (Photo: Linda Yablonsky) Right: Performer Raven O from The Box. (Photo: Patrick McMullan)

Tucker might have been astonished at how clean and white and open the museum is, compared with dank former home on Broadway. But then the Bowery itself is a mere shadow of its once-dingy self. What with Whole Foods on the corner and the Bowery Hotel next to the men’s shelter a few blocks north, and circled by an increasing number of galleries, it is quickly turning into the new SoHo the art world has been longing for since it gave up on the old SoHo and moved to Chelsea and Bushwick—and London, Los Angeles, Berlin, Săo Paulo, Shanghai, and most points between.

What is the center of the art world now, anyway? Is it wherever you happen to be? Does it even need a center anymore, now that we have not just the Internet but NetJets? Was art any better when the Cedar Tavern, Max’s, The Odeon, or Gavin Brown’s was the only place for artists to go and be seductive? Maybe not. But there is more heat in a collective core than in a diaspora, that’s for sure. It would be nice to see it rise from this new home.

“I saw every show the New Museum did for years,” enthused Hammer Museum curator Gary Garrels, who had flown in from Los Angeles (on a commercial airline). As we waited for the elevator to take us upstairs, he gave another nod of approval to the black rubber bracelets imprinted with the word UNMONUMENTAL that we had all been given at the door. The galleries may have been strewn with fetish-worthy objects, but the bracelet proved to be the evening’s most admired item. Was that just because it was free? Hardly a Murakami-designed Vuitton bag, of course, but a collector’s item all the same!

Left: Curator Trevor Smith and New Museum curator Laura Hoptman. Right: UCLA Hammer senior curator Gary Garrels. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)

“We just want to keep people coming back,” Flood said, by way of explaining how the show would fill out in January and February with not just collages but also a Rhizome-created website. On this night, however, the problem did not concern attracting people to the museum but getting everyone to leave—the bars, that is, not the galleries, where attendance was curiously sparse, perhaps due to the morguelike fluorescent lighting, which Phillips termed “European.” Then again, the bar was offering free drinks and something else the galleries don’t have: a window to the world outside. “We don’t have views in London,” said Frieze Art Fair cofounder Matthew Slotover, heading straight for the terrace. “This is great.”

Jerry Saltz handed me what turned out to be the first copy of the fifth issue of Charley, the publication put out by Gioni, Maurizio Cattelan, and Ali Subotnick—a black softcover book that was heftier than it looked. Perhaps art now means so much to so many that it has become literally heavy, even in reproduction. Or perhaps it wasn’t just a book but a bible. Or perhaps it is what it is. Whatever. As “Unmonumental” artist Rachel Harrison said, “I’m postmedium at this point.”

As the hour grew long and the finger-food supply short, I took another tour of the galleries and found Dash Snow bearing a freshly shaven head and a papoose cuddling his four-month-old daughter, Secret. Snow liked the Sarah Lucas red leather sofa impaled by a fluorescent tube. Nate Lowman’s bullet-ridden bulletproof glass was another favorite. Penetrating though these works are, they were given nowhere near the real estate accorded Jeffery Inaba’s mural Donor Hall, which, with pie charts and images of cheese wheels and homemade pies spread across every wall of the lower floor, details the stratospheric transactions that make up the global art-money network. “We had to give his project the biggest space,” Gioni joked. “It’s about money!”

Linda Yablonsky

Left: Artist Dash Snow with daughter Secret. Right: Artist Jeffery Inaba with New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni. (Photos: Linda Yablonsky)