Like everybody else in the New York art and architecture community, we went to see Sejima’s New Museum this weekend. I have never been to Japan (or Asia for that matter… hint to readers with lecture series… invite me!), but on my recent cross-country drive I had seen Sejima’s Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art so this was my second Sejima building in a month.
Urbanistically speaking, both museums seem to be calculated to produce the Bilbao-Effect. Toledo is a post-industrial Rust Belt city—glass was one of its major industries—with a declining population. Not far from the museum, I passed plenty of boarded-up buildings. The New Museum is in the Bowery, a couple of doors down from the Bowery Mission.
It’s hard to imagine the Glass Pavilion re-activating Toledo. On the evening that I visited, admission was free and there were only about twenty or thirty visitors there. The Pavilion is well done but certainly not exciting enough to warrant a trip to Toledo unless one was already driving down the I-80 from Chicago to the East. Nor does it appear to be part of a larger urban redevelopment. Here the Bilbao-Effect has run out of road. Will small cities continue to produce cultural buildings like this?
In contrast, the New Museum is an intervention that, calculated or not, will put the Bowery past the tipping point toward gentrification. Goodbye CBGB’s, hello contemporary art. Chic boutiques and restaurants lurk just around the corner.
But what to say about this condition? Barring some major economic change, it seems like Manhattan is becoming more and more a global playground of the senses. Situationism for the very rich: amazing food, the coolest stores, the best museums. What’s not too like? Well, maybe the fact that Manhattan is following Paris into becoming a "classic city," full of money but void of potential? If Donald Judd, George Maciunas, or Gordon Matta-Clark were 25 today, they wouldn’t live there.
What of the architecture? Where the Glass Pavilion is carefully refined in its details, the New Museum is rough, reflecting its surroundings. Sometimes, the roughness seems to slip past the architect’s control. A badly cracked concrete floor marred one of the galleries. The drywall didn’t always seemed finished well. But there were also missteps. The nosing on the stairs seemed off. You had a sense of pitching forward that was distinctly unwelcome. Don’t put soap on your hands prior to using the sinks in the bathrooms. The motion sensors on the sinks—always a bad idea—are inscrutable. If you’re lucky, the janitor will come in to show you how to do it (as he did for us).
It was a dark, cloudy day and the much-vaunted skylights did little for the art. In the galleries there is a deliberate move to return to the white cube. Certainly this is better than some of the attention-grabbing moves that architects have made recently, but the galleries were relatively uninteresting. Windows were few and far between and gave the viewer a feeling of complete disconnect from the environment.
The Unmonumental Show was timid. This didn’t seem like New Art to me but rather like a get-together of followers of Kienholz, Wasserman, and Beuys. The best works were in the lobby by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries or in the basement, where Jeffrey Inaba and C-Lab (disclaimer: I share an office with C-Lab) did a wall graphic on philanthropy and Francis Alys put you in the position of being a dog encountering a pack of feral dogs.
Those works were welcome and, no doubt, if the museum had catered to my tastes throughout, I might have felt very differently, but the dominance of the show by Unmonumental and my sense that Manhattan had finally met its gentrified end on the Bowery made me wonder just what new meant to us anymore.