On any Sunday (the galleries are open)

Posted on Saturday June 09, 2012

Last Sunday’s weather was even better than Saturday’s, being clearer, with a touch of coolness at the start and end. Mid-morning (NYC wakes up late on Sundays) I strolled down to the New Museum on Bowery. This actually is a new museum although in ten, twenty or fifty years it will be an old museum called New Museum.

The highlight was the installation by British sculptor Phyllida Barlow (b. 1944), called siege. Wow, it had all guns blazing, and I certainly felt overpowered, in a delicious ‘this is sublime’ way. Her collection of arches has such physical and emotional presence that I spent a good quarter hour wandering around it. The effects she achieves with low-cost materials (Styrofoam, cardboard, recycled plastic, plaster, a few dollops of cheap paint) are stupendous.

Phyllida Barlow’s arches

It was such a contrast to the work there by young Swedish artist Klara Liden. Some Australians may recall seeing one of Liden’s videos, showing her beating up her bicycle with an iron bar, at the 2008 Sydney Biennale. In this show, Liden used some similar scavenged materials to Barlow, (plus the obligatory video), but in a most self-indulgent way. Well, that’s what I thought; the gallery notes told me I should notice that “.. in her practice, Lidén regularly mines the anxieties of urban space to create ingenious and psychologically charged installations…Lidén uses her body as a tool and a weapon to radically alter the space of the museum and expose it to the material and political realities of the world outside.” Fuck me, people get paid to make this crap up! I would be more convinced of Liden’s power to radically alter the space of the museum and expose it to the material and political realities of the world outside if she were to run full-tilt into the museum’s wall, and knock a hole in it with her head.

From the New Museum I took the subway uptown to MoMA. Well, that was the plan. Instead, I got caught in the middle of an interminable parade of what seemed to be the entire Jewish population of the US. It was a clear demonstration – if one ever needed it – of the power of Israel in this country. But eventually the tail of the parade did pass, and I was able to get into MoMA – and for free, one advantage of being a SVA student.

No, thank you, I’ll keep my inner Zionist where it belongs

Perhaps I was galleried-out by that stage, but much of the work on display had lost its charge. Most of Picasso’s stuff looked old and interesting only for its revolutionary history; same for a lot of the 60s avant-garde works. I’d put this down to over-exposure of such works, but the intense pleasure and physical reaction I got from two of Matisse’s massive lily pond paintings suggests that there’s more to it.

One 60s work I did enjoy (possibly by never having seen it for real) was James Rosenquist’s F111, stretching 26 metres across and 3 metres tall. It actually said something, a nice contrast to Lawrence Weiner’s minimalist work A Wall Pitted by a Single Air Rifle Shot.

Ah, bring back the Sixties … after I’m dead

MoMA also has a major Cindy Sherman show on, but I’ve never been able to take to her work (oh look! There’s Cindy Sherman again, dressed up and pretending to be somebody she isn’t!) and this show didn’t excite me either.

I ended up being as fascinated by the views provided by the architecture of the gallery building, as by any of the works I saw. The building has some great cut-outs that create interesting snippets of views, of both the interior features and the outside world. The open walkways and mezzanines facilitate people-watching, which I find endlessly fascinating. And the New York architecture outside, probably from the 20s to the 50s, is amazingly mixed and rich with detail.

Ascension at MoMA

In a major gallery like MoMA it’s also interesting to see what works really engage people, if you can use camera-pointing as an indicator. There’s a helicopter suspended in a tall space adjacent to the main walkways. It’s an early model, all triangulated small-diameter tubes with a clear Perspex bubble cabin. Every time I went near it, someone was photographing it, and they didn’t all look like old guys who’d had Meccano sets in their distant childhood. It wasn’t the only piece of great industrial object-as-artwork on display; there’s a great show of bent plywood furniture and other home equipment.

I came away from the day ruminating on what makes an artwork engaging, in a lasting way. For me, it must create a feeling, not just a cerebral ‘oh that’s interesting’ process. That feeling can be revulsion or pleasure, fear or hope, arousal – anything but the ‘oh, give me a break!’ response that I’m having increasingly, from works that are trying to be different. But of course, difference and newness, that’s what the artworld machine wants… leaving history to sort out if the work was ever any good.