New York's museums have unveiled their summer shows all in a rush, and it's the rare critic who could have previewed every one of them. But even the busiest viewer wouldn't miss the much-anticipated, much-reported-on opening of the new Queens Boulevard outpost of the Museum of Modern Art, otherwise known as MoMA QNS. The question is, what do you get when you start with a 160,000-square-foot warehouse and apply some $50 million?
The architecture, credited to Michael Maltzan in collaboration with Scott Newman of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, is pretty good. The building is painted IBM blue on the outside, and is easy to spot. Inside are nicely proportioned spaces, walls painted bright white or dark gray with no moldings or baseboard, and a tall ceiling with exposed industrial parts but painted black. The curving entrance spaces have plenty of pizzazz, with video and film works projected on the walls and a so-called "project space" asymmetrically positioned, tilted up off the floor on struts so that one end opens up (like Jonah's whale?) to make room for the ticket counter (paging James Wines and SITE architects, who in the '70s designed some similarly literal facades for arts patron Sidney Lewis' Best Products showrooms). The floors are polished concrete, as if the place might need to be periodically hosed down; the museum could have sprung for some carpets and made it easier on our poor feet.
The installation of some 75 works from the permanent collection is credited to curmudgeonly curator Kynaston McShine, who was nowhere to be seen during the press preview. The exhibition runs from van Gogh's Starry Night to "Cats in Bag, Bags in River," an unfortunate devolution, even for our Postmodernist time (if that's what it is still). The show is titled "To Be Looked At," which foregrounds the notion of artworks as simple objects of contemplation, a good strategy, considering that the modesty of this transformed industrial space, however pristine, does not provide the dignity that masterpieces typically demand. At the entrance to the galleries, Joan Miró's 1966 Moonbird is placed like a cartoon character welcoming customers to Disneyland, an annoying touch that suggests the influence of the marketeers -- nowadays the sprightly bronze (like much of Ernst's late work) is rather more Pokemon than personage.
Step through one doorway and enter a huge, irregular space that holds five automobiles, including a Jaguar, a Jeep and a Volkswagen bug. Go another way and there's the maze of rectilinear galleries that hold "Tempo," a show of contemporary art organized by curator Paulo Herkenhoff (who beats it back to his native Brazil this September, after three years at the museum). "Tempo" will be received with complaint, since many of the various works here don't easily express the concept of "time." It won't help that the curator tries to broaden his brief by dividing the show into five sections -- "Time Collapsed," "Transgressive Bodies," "Liquid Time," "Trans-Histories" and "Mobility/Immobility."
But forget that. "Tempo" is full of fresh things, as it should be, much of it from out of state. Herkenhoff has indulged his fellow Latin Americans and also searched elsewhere around the globe, an approach in consonance with Okwui Enwezor's notably de-Westernized "Documenta 11" in Kassel, Germany. So, there's a spherical crystal fish bowl filled with water, called Fulfilled Aquarium (1981), by Brazilian artist Waltercio Caldas and a film of a 1½-hour performance by the Brazilian body artist Michel Groisman, who in a loincloth and with a gauze bandage on his nose contorts himself to reflect a red laser pointer held in his mouth off a mirror attached to his thigh along the contours of his body. Whew.
Other worthy new works or new artists include a video of a stationary swimmer doing the butterfly stroke by the German Angelica Middendorf, and a three-minute video loop by Paul Pfeiffer called Goethe's Message to the New Negroes (2000-01), in which images of the backs of the heads of various basketball players morph seamlessly one into another. Even the portentous Scottish artist Douglas Gordon has not one but two bearable works in the show, including Monument to X, a shot of a couple kissing on a park bench, one of my favorite subjects.
But the question remains -- will the people come? Unfortunately, the number 7 subway train is slow and rocky and runs rather infrequently, and MoMA QNS is a full five stops into the multinational borough. At one press opening, while black limos and Mercedes filled the street outside, MoMA chairman Ronald S. Lauder admitted, "I'm still not taking the 7 train," prompting New York governor George E. Pataki to give the former NYC mayoral candidate a Metrocard. "It's good for 11 rides," he joked.
* * *
Meanwhile, the Guggenheim Museum has filled its ample and air-conditioned Fifth Avenue headquarters with its very contemporary collection of photos, videos and films, some 150 works by 55 artists, from Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci to Rineke Dijkstra, Sam Taylor-Wood and Wolfgang Tillmans. If you wonder what happened to that $20 million in endowment funds that the New York Times mysteriously reported as gone bye-bye some six months ago -- and the art world is avidly awaiting the Sunday magazine article on "The Rise and Fall of Thomas Krens" by Deborah Solomon, due out on June 30 -- perhaps the museum spent it all on new acquisitions.
Actually, the Gugg seems of two minds about this exhibition, which is dubbed "Moving Pictures." On the good side, the museum proudly shows off its taste in hip new art -- it was organized by chief curator Lisa Dennison and contemporary curator Nancy Spector -- as well it should, and does it via a brilliant installation by Hani Rashid. The 30-something master of Postmodernist Streamline Supreme actually makes Nam June Paik's TV Garden (1972) look good, better than it did in the video pioneer's retrospective.
What's more, Rashid has come up with still another way to modify Frank Lloyd Wright's intractable exhibition bays, this time converting several of them at the top of the ramp into mini-theaters, complete with attractive signage and sound insulation of blue egg-carton foam. Gotta give it to the Krens administration -- its willingness to experiment with Wright's architecture is one of its more interesting legacies.
On the down side, "Moving Pictures" is the kind of thing that a museum can do very much on the cheap -- bring a bunch of works up out of storage. This curatorial strategy prompts insiders to suspect that the sponsoring institution has run out of money -- which seems to be more or less true in the Guggenheim's case. Adding to this dead-end feeling is the term of the exhibition, from June 28 through Jan. 12, 2003. More than six months -- only the Dia Center goes longer.
And then there's the problem of the acquisitions themselves, so many of which heartily embrace the avant-garde gesture (now clearly market-anointed). Seen in quantity, viewed one after another in a steadily accelerating downward trajectory on the Guggenheim ramp, this kind of art can cumulatively seem facile and even stupid. In 1967-68, Bruce Nauman filmed himself dumbly covering his own body with make-up, a consideration of "his own role as an artist while also acknowledging the artifice involved in constructing an image," the curators write. In a more recent videotape, Ann Hamilton pours water not into her mouth but into her ear. So little has changed.
Meanwhile, more adventures are on tap later this summer. The Gugg opens "Jeff Koons: Easyfun -- Ethereal," July 12-Sept. 3, 2002, a group of seven paintings commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin.
* * *
A few blocks downtown, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is "The Paintings of Joan Mitchell," June 20-Sept. 29, 2002, a retrospective of nearly 60 paintings by the cranky Abstract Expressionist organized by Jane Livingston. It's nice to see gallery after gallery of serious painting, even if the works do look very much the same.
The salty-tongued artist, an expatriate who lived in France and died in 1992 of lung and jaw cancer, was a confirmed alcoholic and expressed a lot of anger in her paintings, through the horizontal swarms of strokes that occupy the surfaces of her canvases with frenzied intensity. In retrospect, it seems a refreshingly down-to-earth application of the Ab Ex rationale, which is usually given a more high-minded philosophical interpretation. But an artist would hardly strive to sustain an expression of rage over a 40-year career, of course, and some of the larger paintings from the '60s and '70s do seem to strive towards pastoral pinks and yellows.
Interestingly, at her death Mitchell left half of her estate -- largely artworks -- to a foundation, 40 percent to a best friend and two five percent shares to a pair of studio assistants. Though the foundation is up and running, giving out grants to artists, the three French heirs are still battling over the estate 13 years later, a contest that prohibited Livingston from exhibiting any works currently in storage in France.
* * *
Last but not least, up at the Metropolitan Museum the façade is festooned with three new banners, for an exhibition of Paul Gauguin on the first floor in the Lehman Wing, and shows of Thomas Eakins and a foreign collection of Impressionist paintings upstairs. Special exhibitions at the museum are always crowded, but early weekday visits -- the museum opens at 9:30 a.m. -- aren't too busy.
"Thomas Eakins," June 18-Sept. 15, 2002, features more than 150 works in a show that has already appeared in Philadelphia and Paris. From the look of his works, Eakins' achievements didn't come that easily to him -- almost all of the paintings have miscues and wooden passages. Yet the two big medical pictures, The Agnew Clinic (1889) and The Gross Clinic (1875) are fabulous, no matter what anyone says. And the wealth of photographs in the exhibition -- Eakins used photography extensively, and clearly is the first Photo Realist -- is also a treat. In a typically American way, Eakins seeks his freedom in clumsy science, in contrast to that effortless French joie de vivre, and it's hard not to love him for that.
Around the corner is "The Age of Impressionism: European Painting from the Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen," June 18-Sept. 8, 2002. Ignore the unwieldy Danish name, and check out nearly 130 works that you probably haven't seen before. The selection includes an entire gallery of Gauguin paintings, plus a great early Manet portrait of Suzanne Leenhoff from ca. 1858, the girl he would later marry, a delicate Renaissance-style rendering in which he shows his subject wearing what could be a wedding band.
A handful of period photos of the Danish businessman who assembled the collection, Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936), show a proper bourgeois, tightly bound in the sartorial claddings of his day, a dramatic contrast to the artworks, which make even the quotidian seem brightly colored and exotic.
Speaking of the exotic, about "Gauguin in New York Collections: The Lure of the Exotic," June 18-Oct. 20, 2002, a show of approximately 120 works, from major paintings to woodcuts, watercolors and drawings, not enough good things can be said. It's a great opportunity to study Gauguin's work, and contemplate the ultimate bohemian search for life away from civilization.
* * *
We here at Artnet Magazine put the budget of Documenta 11 at "about $10 million," while the New York Times reported that it was $11 million. In fact, as the Documenta press officer Markus Mueller points out, "our budget is public and it is 25 million Deutsche Marks -- the budget is from pre-Euro 1998 [more than $12.7 million at recent conversion rates]." More than 70 percent of the funds are spent on artists and their commissions, Mueller said. As for curatorial salaries, well, those numbers remain unpublicized.
Out in San Francisco, as Yoko Ono opened her traveling retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art there, visitors were treated to the spectacle of L.A. MOCA curator Paul Schimmel being summoned by the artist to perform her 1965 Bag Piece with her, which apparently involved the doffing of various items of clothing while hidden inside a large black sack. Unfortunately, the striptease was reversed before the pair emerged from the bag. "It's deliberately meant to be anticlimactic," said a museum spokesperson.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.