During the rush of pack arts journalism that greeted the opening of the New Museum of Contemporary Art in the Bowery (235 Bowery) last weekend, I read all the reviews but decided to stay home until the initial frenzy died down. I wanted to get some distance, if only a week, between the opening marathon and my memory of the reviews. I wanted to experience the newness (as, indeed, all is branded there as "New") with judgments unburdened from the critical mass and to see, really, if I would enjoy myself.
The new building, designed by the Japanese architecture firm SANAA, feels both modern, with a touch of early modernism without the polemics, and postmodern, with plenty of playfulness without the irony. The museum offers several pleasures. The almost medieval staircase linking the galleries is so narrow that it's hard not to be intimate with people walking in the opposite direction, and I intend to use these steps in the future as my public stairmaster. The bathrooms are lined in colorful floral tile patterns. The elevators are the color of absinthe.
The New Museum is not large, a fact I found contributed to my comfort level as a veteran museum-goer. The layout and ambience of the first floor reminded me of Renzo Piano's contemporary addition to The Morgan Library & Museum, with the admissions area to the left of the front doors and the café space at the rear. The mix-and-match chairs of the New Museum's café contribute to the space's informality but also link the museum to the chair stores in the surrounding Bowery neighborhood. The New Food of the café offers large red velvet cupcakes at a reasonable price. Trendy, yes, but sheer comfort also.
Jerry Saltz, in his smart review for New York ("Little House on the Bowery," Dec. 3, 2007), argues that the museum's modest scale poses a problem for the museum's ambitions. I agree that the curators may find in these boxy white and well-lit spaces some challenges for future presentations, especially after the totally appropriate inaugural Unmonumental exhibition (more about that in an upcoming post). But maybe not. Maybe its time for art itself to shrink back to a more human scale after being so frighteningly large for so long. The limited space of an influential museum could help steer contemporary art in new directions. If I ran the museum, I would put in charge of a future exhibition whoever made the decision about the café chairs.
See related post: Unmonumental at the New Museum: Just Like Your Favorite Messy Friend's Place (A Review)