Saturday, April 9, 2011

New Museum of Contemporary Art / FusionArts Museum

Inochi by Takashi Murakami, in front of I’m in a Limousine (Following a Hearse) by Richard Prince
4/18/10, Sunday
New Museum of Contemporary Art .....….….. 1 hr
FusionArts Museum……………...............…… 20 min
New Museum of Contemporary Art ............. $12 each
FusionArts Museum……………...............…… Free

Nomo by Pawel Althamer
Whatever else it may be, contemporary art is the art of our time and an expression of cultures we live in.  Thus it seems ironic that Paul and I find contemporary art to be among the least approachable and the hardest to understand.  The problem seems to stem from the influences of our “Age of Information.”  Contemporary art frequently references other art, expanding on, poking fun or criticizing specific works and themes.  If you go in blind as Paul and I do, without a background in art education, then even when you think you understand particular pieces, you often feel like you’re missing part of the story (and you usually are).  

F.O.B by Ashley Bickerton
As an example of our ignorance, take the exhibit we saw today at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.  Called “Skin Fruit,” this exhibit was highly controversial, inspiring a front page article in the New York Times and vicious attacks by multiple blogs and critics.  If you’d asked Paul and me what was so controversial, we would have guessed that was due to specific X-rated pieces, like the statues of a naked man and woman pleasuring themselves, the torso of an extremely fat person impaled on a pole like a lollipop (see image at right), the sculpture of old men doing seriously disturbed things with pigs (see image below), the mostly naked man strapped to a crucifix, or possibly the life-like sculpture of JFK lying in a coffin.  However, to the art world, none of these pieces were remotely scandalous, and that was actually the scandal.  

Paula Jones by Paul McCarthy

New Museum of Contemporary Art
Since its opening in 1977, the New Museum of Contemporary Art has declared itself the “anti-mainstream” museum, specializing in new and undiscovered artists, celebrating the off-beat and the daring.  Yet today’s exhibit was from the Dakis Joannou Collection, a famous art collection owned by a Greek billionaire, who also happens to be a trustee of the museum.  Making matters worse, the exhibit was curated by the very well established artist Jeff Koons, who selected only the most well known "mainstream" artists for the exhibition.  For the art world, this was a betrayal of the principles that the New Museum stood for.  It was called incestuous “insider trading” (, a “perfect storm of wretchedness brought on by the collision of too much wealth and too little taste” (Howard Hall of Time Out New York) and the “New Museum Sausage Party” (Christian Viveros-Faune of the Village Voice).  One reporter asked, “Are shows at the New Museum essential exhibitions, or just the last word in product placement?" (Richard Lacayo of Time).
Untitled (Chocolate Mountains), by Terence Koh

One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank by Jeff Koons
Of course, Paul and I knew nothing about this as we made our way through the museum today.  We were suitably impressed by the New Museum’s ultra-modern building (it looks like a gigantic off-kilter stack of blocks, see picture above), and enjoyed the view from the seventh floor “Sky Room” with panoramic views of the lower east side.  For the most part, we liked the “Skin Fruit” exhibit as well.  We marveled at the twin towers of melted chocolate frosting, laughed at the pile of penises that made a face in profile and ogled the large sparkly butt of a rhinestone covered prostitute.  Paul's favorite piece was the intimidatingly stern 10 foot tall statue of a woman in a business suit, while I was touched by the crucifix-like "Bowed Woman" by Kiki Smith hanging in a stair well (see image at end of post).  I can’t say we understood all, or even most of the pieces.  (The basketball floating in an aquarium got a big “Huh?” from both of us, but apparently it was the most famous piece in the whole freaking exhibit!)  Yet despite occasional blank spots, we both found enough that touched us in some way, and that’s all we ask of any museum.
RATING: New Museum of Contemporary Art
Pauline: 6 out of 10.  Lots of variety and eye catching weirdness.  I even liked some of it.
Paul: 7 out of 10. Liking 60% of the pieces at a contemporary art museum is a pretty good percentage.

FusionArts Museum
As its name suggests, the New Museum of Contemporary art is among the newer of the enormous “blockbuster” museums of New York, but New York’s rich art scene has spawned far more than just one contemporary art museum.  The P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (run by MOMA in Queens), the Whitney, the Fisher Landau Center, the Museum of Arts and Design, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts all devote huge amounts of high profile gallery space to contemporary exhibits.  Even better, there are a number of smaller museums scattered around the city started by contemporary artists with specific focuses, like the funky Proteus Gowanus in Brooklyn and the high tech Eyebeam Atelier hidden among the galleries in Chelsea.  Just three blocks away from the New Museum is one of these small focused contemporary museums, called the FusionArts Museum.  This tiny two-room museum is dedicated exclusively to multi-disciplinary art and made an interesting side trip today.

Wall of Cultural Confusion by Shalom Neuman
Fusion art seeks to combine all artistic disciplines, such as painting, sculpture, music, theater, video and digital art.  It incorporates light and sound into modern sculptures, often with moving interactive parts.  The day we visited, the exhibit was a retrospective of Shalom Neuman, one of the founders of both the museum and fusion art itself.  Neuman has been making fusion art since 1968, when he enlisted the help of a physics graduate student to build a computerized dimming projector and a looped sound system as part of a painted sculpture.  He found that the integration of multiple sensory inputs distorted perceptions, yet created a unified statement.  As he puts it, “if our world is composed of overlapping stimuli which create constant sensory overload, then why should visual art limit itself to any one discipline?

Isadore by Shalom Neuman
The FusionArt Museum is actually located in Neuman’s old studio.  He bought the building in 1986 when the neighborhood was a much rougher place, but full of artists.  These days the lower east side is decidedly more civilized, and the FusionArts Museum livens up the place with its colorful façade of bicycle parts, propellers, wheels and colored foot prints (see image above).  Inside the museum, gigantic robots blink and beep, phones in colorful suitcases blurt out songs, and bright sculptures made of Barbie parts have moving text commentary.  Paul’s favorite section of the museum was the basement where a room of faces made out of household objects speak cryptic messages when their buttons were pushed.  Paul tried out all of the buttons in the room, complaining whenever he found a silent one.  We both agreed that fusion art could be confusing and nonsensical, and all the flashiness fell a bit flat for me, but Paul thought it made for a fun hands-on experience and loved the idea behind fusion art: art doesn’t have to be passive.

RATINGS: FusionArt Museum
Pauline: 1 out of 10.  Flashy loud art just didn't resonate with me.
Paul: 5 out of 10.  Liking 40% of the pieces at a contemporary art museum is still a pretty good percentage.

Untitled (Bowed Woman) by Kiki Smith
The New Museum of Contemporary Art was a good introduction to contemporary art for us, with large, varied exhibits and a specialization in art’s leading edge, while the FusionArt Museum was a small but engaging experience in artistic chaos.  However, we should caution that neither the New Museum nor the Fusion arts museum will please everyone.  Yet, the best art is supposed to challenge us, to make us think, and even make us uncomfortable, and the art at these museums will probably do most of those things to most people.  Maybe you should go even if you know you’re going to hate it, just to say you’ve decided for yourself what art is and what it is not.  And you never know, you might end up liking some of it.  We did.

Images in this post, from the top: Inochi by Takashi Murakami 2004 in front of the painting I’m in a Limousine (Following a Hearse) by Richard Prince 2005-06; Nomo by Pawel Althamer, 2009, metal helmet, wooden spear, metal structure covered with sponge and dressed in old clothes, ski boots, and gold paint; F.O.B. by Ashley Bickerton, 1993; Paula Jones by Paul McCarthy, 2007; exterior of the New Museum of Contemporary Art; Untitled (Chocolate Mountains) by Terence Koh, 2006, mixed media: styrofoam, fiberglass, and white chocolate icing; One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, by Jeff Koons, 1985, glass, iron, water, and basketball; the exterior of the FusionArts Museum; Wall of Cultural Confusion by Shalom Neuman, 2002-2010, multisensory sculptural instruments, oils, found objects, audio and incandesent light on plywood; Isadore (Amerika Series #2) by Shalom Neuman; Untitled (Bowed Woman) by Kiki Smith 1995 hangs high on the wall leading to the stairway. Made of brown wrapping paper, cellulose and horse hair.