How Now, New Mew?

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New Museum of Contemporary Art, Sejima+Nishizawa/SANAA — Photo: Dean Kaufman

I just got back from previewing the new home of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Manhattan, an eight story off kilter stack by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the Japanese architects who call their firm SANAA. The museum is located on the Bowery, the most redolent street name in the city’s still-kinda-funky-but-fast-condo-fying Lower East Side. This is the same neighborhood where 30 years ago at sunrise the derelicts would hit up the kids heading home from the punk club CBGB for spare change. Even now, with a Bernard Tschumi-designed condo rising a few blocks away, it’s not yet a place to put an ivory tower, and the architects weren’t working with an ivory tower budget. They’ve opted instead for something serviceable and unfussy on the inside, but with enough edge and panache on the outside to hold your attention.

The asymmetrical stacked box idea at the heart of their museum is in some ways similar to the one that Rem Koolhaas’s firm OMA came up with a few years ago for the Seattle Public Library, with the difference that OMA then clad the irregular stack in a trapezoidal wrapper of glass overlaid with a honeycomb of structural steel. There’s an exterior honeycomb at the New Museum too, this time of anodized aluminum mounted on painted aluminum panels. It’s just decorative here, not structural, another of those shimmering skins that architects like Herzog & de Meuron and Frank Gehry have been favoring. But it situates the museum visually in a very shrewd way among the squat white brick loft buildings that flank it, addressing them cordially but with an extra degree of milky luminesence that says “I’m not just another building on this block, thanks.”

The materials inside are neighborhood funky. White drywall and painted grey concrete floors, rows of white flourescent ceiling lights overhead. The elevators are sided in bright green corrugated plastic and mirror steel, and have metal floors stamped in the pattern of the sidewalk cellar doors you can find outside any of the local groceries. And though the elevators open onto gallery floors that are ample enough, there are spaces behind the elevator core that seem like afterthoughts. One long corridor of that kind on the second floor created a gallery intimate enough so that smaller work like Kristen Morgin’s mock antiquities didn’t get swallowed up. But other floors had little ells and cul-de-sacs that were effectively dead space. The upper story event space has a panoramic window wall with a view across lower Manhattan. A few blocks to the east you can see that Tschumi condo, one more portent of things to come.

The New Museum was the brainchild of the late Marcia Tucker, a former curator at the Whitney who lost her job in the 1970s after giving a show to Richard Tuttle that caused much harrumphing by conservative critics, notably Hilton Kramer. Set free, Tucker started the New Museum in a one room office as New York’s only museum exclusively dedicated to contemporary art. Over the years it bounced around to ever larger locations, but this is its first free standing home. Looking it over today I even found myself wondering if there was an echo in its silhouette of the cantilivered stack that Marcel Breuer produced for Tucker’s old workplace the Whitney, a remnant of her personal past now incorporated into her legacy.

The museum is opening with a show, “Unmonumental: the Object in the 21st Century”, that’s built mostly around flotsam-assemblage sculptors like Isa Genzken whose work has been popular over the last few years. Richard Tuttle isn’t in the show, but his love of exalted ephemera hovers over it. I think Tucker would have liked it.