The New Museum Triennial

NewMu4I wanted to like the New Museum. I really did. I’ve gone there a couple of times. I even considered becoming a member.

But it sucks.

OK, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But every time I visit the New Museum, I find their “art” more laughable than inspirational. It’s as if the mission statement of this museum is along the lines of “You can declare anything to be art, and we will revere it as such.”

I’ve gone-off about meritless art many a time on this blog (including here and here). And I’ve spared the New Museum my scorn simply because they weren’t worthy of it. Genuinely interesting art seems to be the exception in that place, so I stuck to taking jabs at other art museums where sham art is the exception not the rule.

But I thought I’d give the New Museum a third and final try when I saw they were having a triennial exhibit. After all, they have a boat hanging from the front of their building, so the place can’t be all bad, can it? And, in fairness, it surely won’t be my last visit because the International Center of Photography is opening up its new museum across the street this fall, and I’m definitely rejoining that institution.

The Try-ennial
I plowed through the New Museum’s triennial exhibit in hopes of finding some inspiration. Most of the stuff was what I call sham art – stuff that’s considered art simply because someone declared it to be art. But there were two gems that caught my eye.

The first was an aquarium. It had some convoluted meaning which required a long, rambling explanation on a poorly lit placard. But I really liked it because it gave you an up-close look at some beautiful soft coral. And I didn’t even have to don my dive gear.

The second was a virtual reality thing. Apparently some guy (or guys) digitally mapped a small section of the Brazilian jungle. And by “small” I mean about a 10-yard radius. This exhibit had its own separate room, with a pair of goggles tethered to the high ceiling. And there was a line. Normally I wouldn’t bother with a line. But since I found little else of interest, I figured I’d stick around and have a look.

One of the highlights of the New Museum's triennial exhibit was the stairs, which were lit in green and a lot faster than the elevators.

One of the highlights of the New Museum’s triennial exhibit was the stairs, which were lit in green and a lot faster than the elevators.

When my turn came, I slipped the goggles over my eyes and was surprised by what I saw. I was told that it would be a 3D image of the Brazilian rainforest, which I expected to be in full-color (it is 2015, after all). Instead, it was black and white. In fact, it wasn’t an image but rather dots of white light – like stars in the night sky – that formed the outlines of plants and other features. More of a sketch than a picture.

At first I felt a little disoriented. I looked up to get my bearings and saw that I was in some sort of tube or vortex. Too small to be a clearing in the canopy, I thought. Then I realized I was standing in the middle of a tree, looking up through its trunk. I stepped out and walked around a bit. It was pretty cool – like the Matrix, but with patterns of white light instead of green.

I told the attendant, who was there presumably to keep order in the line, that the only thing missing was a member of the indigenous population running out of the darkness with a machete after five minutes. That, I explained, would prevent people from bogarting the goggles. Though it would also be quite the buzzkill for anyone who was high, and that’s probably the best way to experience such an exhibit.

In fact, being high is probably the only way the New Museum is worth the price of admission. Yes, they deserve credit for taking chances, like an “exhibit” in which visitors can follow an “artist” around the East Village (I prefer to trail random people in the East Village). And I am glad someone is taking chances, as it offers opportunities for new artists and encourages established ones to try new things.

Other Options
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has long been the innovator in the city’s museum scene. Its busy midtown location, which they are planning to expand yet again, probably draws more tourists than locals. But, in an attempt to attract more of that new money (and even more tourists), they have shamelessly been pandering to all of the wrong young people. As a result, they’ve only managed to shoot themselves in the foot. In fact, MoMA even made Bjork look decidedly uncool (which is no easy task). And this pandering to Main Street USA may attract tourists, but it also makes MoMA the Cats of the New York City museum scene.

Fortunately, there’s also MoMA PS1 over in Long Island City. That’s where MoMA keeps its edge sharp. Like the New Museum, exhibits at PS1 tend to be hit or miss. But with the backing of MoMA, they seem to have better luck landing the hits.

Again, experimentation is good, especially in the art world. But I don’t have the kind of deep pockets to consider myself a patron of the arts. Maybe (hopefully) someday I will. But until then, I go to museums for inspiration and – if possible – enlightenment. And having devoured the New Museum’s triennial exhibit, I found little of either.

On Kawara – Sham

KawaraShamThe latest exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum here in New York City is unbelievable, and not in the good way. It’s hard to believe that someone could pass off such half-ass shit as art, let alone earn good money and critical acclaim in the process.

The exhibit, On Kawara – Silence, takes up the museum’s entire rotunda. Though that’s way more space than it frankly needs – let alone merits. It is overwhelmingly underwhelming. And even though The New York Times called it “enthralling,” I call it “absolutely ridiculous.”

On Kawara was a “conceptual artist” (meaning, if the artist says it is art, than it is art…no matter how ridiculous the claim may be) and this is supposedly his first comprehensive exhibit, representing every category of his work since 1964. However, I couldn’t help wondering how his early rubbish paved the way for his later rubbish? Didn’t anyone catch on? Didn’t anyone notice the man had no talent? That his art was but a ruse?

I have complained about sham art – scam art – before (Modern Art, Or Not), but this exhibit really takes the cake. Sure, the curators offer up all sorts of vagaries to try to justify it. They say the “work engages the personal and historical consciousness of place and time” and transforms the rotunda into “a site within which audiences can reflect on an artistic practice of cumulative power and depth.”

I think it fucking sucks.

Dissecting the Disappointment
What exactly is in this exhibit, you ask? The biggest waste of space are Kawara’s “Date Paintings.” These are dates painted onto squares and hung on the wall. Yes, the painting of text specifying a date. Sometimes that’s all that there is. Other times the date will be accompanied by a corresponding shallow cardboard box, usually in a nearby glass-enclosed horizontal display case, with nothing more than a newspaper clipping from that date – as if to say: I have scissors and a calendar, therefore I am an artist. Or, to be really artistic and convey a cumulative power and depth, sometimes he would forgo those burdensome scissors so the shallow cardboard box would contain – get this – nothing at all. Brilliant, huh?

There’s also 108 telegrams (yes, I was so bored I actually counted them) that the artist sent with the same simple message: “I am still alive.” I’d like to think that the recipient, around the time of the 100th telegram, was really hoping the artist would die (which he did, last year…in case you didn’t get that telegram).

Beyond lacking any real artistic merit, this repetitive telegram ploy isn’t even original. I recall a recent exhibit at one of New York’s modern art museums (it might have even been the Guggenheim) in which another artist, obviously attempting to engage the personal and historical consciousness of place and time, repeatedly sent the same telegram to the same recipient. Even Kawara’s stupidity is banal.

And speaking of repetition and a shameless lack of originality, there was an exhibit at MoMA PS1 last year that showcased the postcards of an artist, sent repeatedly to the same person over the years (another unfortunate soul). Well, it seems Kawara did that too. I couldn’t bring myself to count them all, but this Guggenheim exhibit features glass displays of all the postcards the artist sent over an 11-year span informing the recipient of the exact time he awoke that morning. Such a clever boy, ain’t he?

Now before you start to wonder if the exhibit is sponsored by Western Union or the US Postal Service, there was one last treasure on display. Kawara made volumes, literal volumes, of pages that are filled with either dates or numbers. No particular meaning, but just dates and numbers packed on page after page after page. Yeah.

Overall, the Guggenheim’s On Kawara – Silence was sickening. Such a half-ass effort. Creation without meaning. Repetition for the sake of repetition for the sake of repetition for the sake of repetition. Annoying, isn’t it?

Fortunately I’m a member of the Guggenheim, so I didn’t feel like as much of a chump as the people who shelled out $25 to see that shameless charade. I did learn two things, though. First, that artists are nowhere near as clever as they think they are. Second, that curators are nowhere near as intelligent as they think they are.

And in case you are wondering, no, I am not going to see the universally panned Bjork exhibit at MoMA. I’m a member there, too, but I ain’t stupid!