Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 114 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned “Meeting,” an installation by light artist James Turrell.  One of Turrell’s Skyspaces, it is a moderately sized, square room, featuring dark wood paneled seating, white walls and ceiling, and a square cutout open to the sky.  

Turrell at MoMA PS1, Queens

All you do is sit there and look at the sky thus framed, and the light  patterns it casts on the walls.  It shouldn’t work. I should find it boring. And yet…it’s beautiful.

MoMA PS1, QueensThe Museum of Modern Art’s satellite branch, MoMA PS1, presents contemporary art in a unique setting in booming Long Island City.

PS1 started out as the “Instute for Art and Urban Resources, Inc.” in 1971.  Originally nomadic, it settled permanently in its current building in 1976.  And MoMA absorbed it into its empire in 2000.

School’s In Session

MoMA PS1, QueensHoused in a school building that dates to 1892 (“PS” in NewYork City parlance stands for “public school”) PS1 is another of New York’s examples of a masterful adaptation of an old structure to new, museum-y purposes. It’s the second schoolhouse-turned-museum I’ve visited, along with the City Island Nautical Museum.

I’m very fond of PS1’s building.  A new, concrete structure houses the admissions desk and a small shop, and the concrete stretches around a courtyard with a couple of outdoor spaces, leading to the stairs into the old brick schoolhouse itself.

PS1’s interiors retain a great deal of scholastic charm, including floorplans on blackboards, institutional stairs, sections of ancient linoleum and wood floors, and desk seating in the cafe (run by trendy Brooklyn restaurant M. Wells).  And light fixtures that almost certainly come from a company called, appropriately enough, Schoolhouse Electric.

MoMA PS1, Queens
The Cafe at PS1

Thanks to the cafe, a tantalizing bacony smell permeated much of the ground floor.  Delicious if slightly distracting. I always like a building that retains enough of its original purpose that you can still feel it, at least assuming its spaces for art work well as well.

MoMA PS1, Queens

Some Permanent Art

MoMA PS1, Queens
Ernesto Caivano, “In the Woods,” MoMA PS1, 2004.

PS1 has several permanent pieces, things that are part of the infrastructure.  There’s the aforementioned Turrell Skyspace.  Also multiple works in stairways, making traveling within the building a more artistic experience.  I’m particularly taken with spooky tree silhouettes by Ernesto Caivano.

There’s a mysterious hole in one wall which may or may not align with astronomical phenomena.  And Saul Melman gilded most of the school building’s massive original boilers, like blinged up steampunk.

MoMA PS1, Queens
Saul Melman, “Central Governor,” MoMA PS1, 2010.

Mostly, however, PS1 hosts temporary shows that MoMA doesn’t want or can’t fit in the mothership in midtown Manhattan.

Art, Angry and Baffling

MoMA PS1, Queens
Carolee Schneemann at MoMA PS1

The big show at PS1 currently is “Kinetic Painting,” a Carolee Schneemann retrospective.  Schneeman hit it big in the 1960s as a multi-threat, with an oeuvre combining painting, sculpture (and hybrids thereof) and aggressively challenging performance pieces. Her work reminded me of lots of different things.  I have in my notes:

  • An extremely angry Joseph Cornell
  • A deranged Cindy Sherman
  • An insane Marina Abramovic

Among other things.  Not to accuse her of being derivative —  Schneemann was definitely not copying anyone.

Possibly Schneemann’s most infamous piece is something called “Meat Joy.”  A performance from 1964 involving several men and women in their skivvies, along with gallons of paint and assorted raw meat — fish, plucked chickens, and such.  PS1 has a video. I’m not sure how much of the piece is choreographed versus improvised, but either way, it is funny, gross, and uncomfortable.

Which three words sum up my reaction to much of Schneemann’s work.  I liked some of it, don’t get me wrong.  But if you go, do not bring the kiddies.

The other large exhibit at PS1 currently is the work of Cathy Wilkes, which I found incomprehensible.  I realize the line between “art” and “trash” hasn’t been the same since Duchamp’s famous fountain.  But still.

MoMA PS1, Queens
Cathy Wilkes at PS1

PS1, I Love You?

Contemporary art is almost by definition challenging.  I like PS1 mainly because I find the space very friendly.  I guess if I’m going to be challenged by art, I’d rather be challenged in a nice, comfy place rather than someplace cool and sterile and purpose-built. (More on that when I review the New Museum.)

PS1 provides awesome spaces to display art, with a nice variety of sizes and scales to the rooms, many of which retain windows that let in tons of natural light.  Visiting PS1 takes a reasonable amount of time — despite three floors plus some work in the basement, it won’t exhaust you.  The cafe and bookstore there are both terrific too.

MoMA PS1, Queens
The door to the sky

For some people, even art lovers, contemporary art can be a bridge too far.  That’s perhaps why MoMA keeps this place safely across the river in Queens.  Still, if you’re willing to take the plunge and have your buttons pushed, MoMA PS1 is a fantastic place to do it.

Worst case scenario, you might find something you like.  And if nothing else, there’s always James Turrell’s eternal sky.


For Reference:

22-25 Jackson Avenue, Long Island City, Queens
Cost  General Admission:  $10, but free in 2017 for all New York City residents
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