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Above the Crowds

Did Liz Diller really say that? I am not sure if anyone starts out with the idea that they are going to make something that is idiosyncratic. The character of the intellect is the determining factor. I worked alongside Diller and Scofidio in the mid-1980s when we were commissioned, along with a number of other young artists and architects, to realize projects in the Brooklyn Anchorage. They were kinder to my project than some. I have nothing against them. Maybe Diller is distinguishing between architects that contribute to the construction of the social subject as opposed to those that bring an individual sensibility to the social space?

Currently, entering MoMA on 53rd Street is like coming into Penn Station: one feels reduced. Maybe Diller Scofidio + Renfro can improve that, though I am an admirer of the Williams and Tsien American Folk Art Museum with its latter-day Brutalist façade. Now it will most likely end up propped outside in a sculpture park. Maybe they should drag along the Ellsworth Kelly relief from Philadelphia, too. I will go a long way for a Brutalist building—I even went as far as Bangladesh to see one a few years ago. Call it avant-garde cultural tourism, just an advanced version of what the crowds at MoMA are doing. I guess.

The Museum site is a Mall, an extension of what most international cities have become. Shopping opportunities with restaurants that don’t try hard enough because they don’t have to. I always find it sad, too, that the expansion ambitions of art museums are largely preoccupied with people processing. That a trip to the art museum, right up to when one’s physical presence halts in front of a work of art, should feel like time spent waiting to get on a plane is one of the more soul-killing aspects of museum-going life at present. I remember my one visit to the Getty Museum: The winding low-ceilinged descent further and further underground in the parking garage, then waiting for the little trolley to take me up the hill, the children either screaming or lying around on the marble floors with their coloring books, the seniors on a day trip from their care centers looking befuddled, their semi-attendant minders bored, staring into space, or talking to the guards. Then the view through the scrim of poison air of the surrounding priceless real estate baked in glare. The scrubby little Robert Irwin garden. Christ entering Brentwood. One of the best essays on this phenomenon is Rebecca Solnit’s “Check Out the Parking Lot” (London Review of Books, July 2004) that is ostensibly a review of recent translations of Dante’s Inferno but begins by discussing the parking garage at the Getty Museum, a place I only remember by the overwhelming feeling I had visiting that it was like being dead and being transported to hell.

But I don’t think that if museums become more like malls the general public will prefer to go back there. There is such a thing as consuming with the eyes that is the whole nature of spectacle. David Carrier’s Museum Skepticism, an excellent book, is strangely fond of the Getty. He’s very optimistic about it being a place where genuine democratic discussion can happen. I also remember having a painting teacher who attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and said that every day she went into the museum as an art student of the Institute she was allowed to eat her lunch in front of a painting. Well. Those days are over. I looked into it.

As this question addresses MoMA—I am very grateful for the decisions that led to many of the great exhibitions that took place on the sixth floor in the past years; from memory there has been Douglas Gordon, Marlene Dumas, Gabriel Orozco, and most recently, Isa Genzken. I mention these names because these are artists of more international than local stature. These choices, among many of the others, demonstrate a particular intelligence and lack of provincialism, though many artists perhaps think this emphasis is unfair. As I avoid the eager tourists going to Magritte or the Rain Room by immediately taking the back elevator to get to six where it never seems very crowded, I should remember that the people on the floors below are paying for the delights above. Artists are voting with their feet, too. I went to a panel on Genzken at MoMA last week and the auditorium was not even completely filled. That says a lot, too, doesn’t it? But it’s too bad about the Folk Art Museum. I think it’s beautiful. I’m reminded of one of the precepts of the “New Brutalism,” a term coined by the great critic Reyner Banham in 1955. He quoted his colleague, the architect Peter Smithson, “[Brutalism] is about being careful.” What bothers me about all this is that spectacle is not necessarily visual. This is what museums and architects seem to forget.


Joe Fyfe

Joe Fyfe is a painter and a writer who lives and works in New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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