New Museum


Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  3/5
Time spent 96 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj’s “Ru,” a room-sized installation of reproductions of Neolithic artifacts from Kosovo mounted on metal bird legs and perched in habitats of sticks and water, installed in a large white room.  

New Museum
Petrit Halilaj, “Ru” (detail)

It’s odd and obsessive and a little creepy and cute at the same time — like a Miyazaki movie come to life.

New Museum
Petrit Halilaj, “Ru” (detail)

New MuseumThe New Museum, devoted to cutting-edge contemporary art, turned forty years old this year.  I know because one of the exhibits on currently celebrates its history, with a timeline and select ephemera from past shows.

New Museum

Having turned 40 myself some years ago, I think it starts to feel a little ironic calling oneself “New” at that age.

Marcia Tucker, a curator at the Whitney in the 1970s, felt that new and emerging artists didn’t get a fair shake at “established” museums (this despite the Whitney Biennial).  She therefore set out to create an institution specifically for, well, the new.  And thus was yet another art museum born.

The New Museum moved into its current building on the Bowery in 2007, making that aspect of it still actually pretty new.  More on the building in a moment.

Museum of Progressive Politics

New Museum

The New Museum’s name and ostensible mission statement focus on novelty, but in practice, I’ve always thought of it as the most explicitly political of the city’s art museums.  The New Museum has never met a progressive cause it didn’t get behind, and like a rebellious youngster it often feel like it deliberately programs exhibitions on hot-button issues not because the art is great, but just to get attention.  It should’ve called itself the Progressive Museum.

There may not actually be a single young, talented artist anywhere on the planet who likes Donald Trump.  But if one exists, I guarantee the New Museum would go out of its way to not show their work.  Equally, should the Koch Brothers ever think to gift the New Museum with fancy fountains (as they did the Met), I hazard to guess the Board will decline.

In keeping with the politics of the place, the current show takes up most of the museum and focuses on reconceptions of gender beyond the binary.  It’s fine, I guess.  Something of a mixed bag, like all contemporary art.  It feels like this kind of show generally consists of three kinds of art:

  • Good art that doesn’t necessarily reflect the theme, but that was made by people in the category in question.
  • Art that does reflect the theme, on a spectrum of quality.
  • Art that’s bad but that’s designed to push people’s buttons.
New Museum
Nancy Brooks Brody, “Glory Hole” series, 2009-2012, oil on Venetian plaster on wood panel. Can serene, subtle, hand-drawn grids be gendered?

I suppose there could also be art that’s just blah, but if the curators are any good (which they are at the New Museum) you’ll get a minimum of that.

I did enjoy reading a wall text that caused me to ponder whether it was ever correct to call a feminist text “seminal” or if that’s oxymoronic.  Or unintentionally ironic.

New Museum
Harry Dodge, “Invisible,” 2012, inc and acrylic paint on paper

A Teetering Stack of Boxes

New MuseumI’m not a huge fan of the New Museum’s building on the Bowery.  It looks boxy and inelegant from the outside, and its stacked windowless boxes feel charmless on the inside, especially in a city where many museums today embrace windows and views today.  On the positive, I appreciate the desire to create an urban, vertical institution, making the most of a small floor plan.  I also appreciate the New Museum’s absurdly high ceilings.  Great for super-tall art.

New MuseumStairs have been a recurring theme of my reviews:  the beautiful one at City of New York, the sexy one at Czech Center, or the clever use that Museum of Arts and Design makes of theirs.  With one exception, the stairs at New Museum are utilitarian and unpleasant.  For a multifloor museum, where they knew that visitors would need to take the stairs, they really could’ve put more effort in.

The exceptional stairs connect the third and fourth floors in a super-narrow but immensely tall space, with one of the building’s few windows and a small alcove gallery midway up (or down).  It’s one of a couple of unique spaces, which provide some quirkiness but ultimately not a lot of character.  

New Museum
The quirkily narrow, absurdly tall rear gallery at the New Museum

But my favorite parts of the New Museum were where it broke through into older spaces next door.  Perhaps I’m conditioned by classic NY industrial architecture, but those rooms, with their brick and columns, are more to my liking as an environment for art. I’m not anti-contemporary museum architecture; I love the new Whitney Museum building.  But it captures a warmth that the New Museum lacks.

Should You Visit the New Museum?

New York presents a surfeit of places to see contemporary art.  The New Museum is good.  But I don’t think it’s good enough to go unless they’re showing something or someone of great interest to you.  I’d recommend MoMA’s Queens outpost, PS1 over the New Museum. It offers a better space and art experience.  Or the Whitney, or the Met: Breuer.  Or you could always spend an afternoon visiting Chelsea’s many galleries.


For Reference:

Address 235 Bowery (near Prince Street), Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $18 (free on Thursday evenings)