“Just as Gore Vidal observed that the United States has descended into a perpetual state of war, so has MoMA entered a never-ending state of architectural conquest.”
— Martin Filler, New York Review of Books (1/14/14)
If the howlings this week surrounding the fate of the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) building are any indication, a low-stakes outrage has gripped the culture pages of virtually every newspaper and magazine in America. In a rare collective outpouring, critics of all stripes have come out against the no good, very bad plans to demolish the American Folk Art Museum building as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s 100,500-square-foot expansion. You can now read the many iterations of this position in the pages of the Guardian, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, New York, and New Republic, among others.
This voluble multitude believes in MoMA. Or, at least, a nostalgic abstraction of MoMA, a harkening to some mythic purpose the museum stood for at one point in space and time. “I have seen the best modern museum of my generation destroyed by madness,” bawled New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. The next day he penned an “open letter” to MoMA’s trustees. His objection? Some vague issue with how art will appear in the new structure, which he claims will look like “glass squash courts,” somehow too airy but also not big enough. (In 2011, Saltz called the AFAM building “ugly and confining.”) Michael Wolff, a Gawker “20 Best Trollings in Modern History” career honoree, used his space in the Guardian to write a mean thing about MoMA director Glenn Lowry: “Lowry is a hedge-fund looking guy, about whom I have never heard a meaningful characterization.”
Among the more serious voices, the architecture critic Paul Goldberger lamented in Vanity Fair that “A city that allows such a work to disappear after barely a dozen years is a city with a flawed architectural heart.” For his own part, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl used the architect Thom Mayne’s comments to the Times about the ephemerality of architecture and the overly “precious” quality of the AFAM building to launch an elliptical but interesting argument about destroying famous paintings (his kicker: “Thom Mayne further remarked, ‘All of our work is somewhat ephemeral.’ Tell that to Picasso.”). But the belief that the American Folk Art Museum building should be preserved is at odds with both the failure of the institution meant to use that space (a failure precipitated by the building’s expense) and the limited adaptability of the structure itself. In a 2011 article slamming the building, Jerry Saltz extended his critique to a condemnation of the ruinous potential of architectural hubris:
We may be at the beginning of a long period of undoing, of rebuilding or destroying architectural failures. In the years to come, those who oversaw and built many new museums and museum wings will have much to answer for. During a period when the West accumulated more wealth than at any time in the history of the world, a vast amount of ill-conceived space for art was constructed, as institutions wasted their energy on atriums and useless entertainment areas.
A prescient paragraph, especially within the context of the turmoil experienced by today’s art institutions in New York. (Unfortunately, Saltz seems to have forgotten about this part of his old piece.) Take, for example, the work of the aforementioned Thom Mayne, the Pritzker recipient whose flashy $166 million building for Cooper Union played a large part in the school’s financial undoing and ensuing need to charge tuition for the first time since its founding in 1859. But, these logistical observations aside, the outrage over MoMA’s expansion points to a critical naiveté about its claim to cultural and art-historical stewardship.
For two nights last September, Simon Leung staged ACTIONS! at the Kitchen in Chelsea, a sort of Brechtian agit-prop theater history of workers’ protests and labor issues at MoMA. It was an important show, both as an exercise in history making (MoMA has a particularly sordid past on labor matters) and as an aesthetic-political production. Though Leung’s piece was fairly straightforward in its linkage to the real-world events it recast as art, the distance between affect and effect is often hard to parse when talking about institutional critique or socially engaged art. (A pyrotechnic 2006 exchange in October between Liam Gillick and Claire Bishop is representative of the debate on this subject, and Ben Davis approached the topic with some clarity last year in the fourth chapter of 9.5 Theses on Art and Class.) But the matter of major institutional support for such art can foreclose its criticality, at least vis-à-vis those acquiring institutions, making considerations of its political content in a theoretical vacuum nearly inconsequential
Citing some of his own museum-commissioned work as well as that of the late institutional critique artist Michael Asher, Leung told me that “in some ways the artist was meant to be somebody to inoculate the museum against larger threats … the museum or institution needs these gestures to become stronger.” Turning to the thought of Pierre Bourdieu, he added: “The powers-that-be need the picture of the intellectual as an autonomous agent in order to be able to better appropriate artistic and intellectual culture.” If deaccession and demolition are of a piece, a link Schjeldahl hints at and the Wall Street Journal‘s Eric Gibson openly proclaims, then MoMA has already commissioned an artwork that anticipates the current controversy, and they did it over a decade ago: Michael Asher’s “The Museum as Muse” (1999). A booklet compiling every work deaccessioned by the museum from 1928 to 1998, Asher’s work expressed the idea of the museum, its significance, in the negative: the museum’s purpose defined by creeping nullity.
And if the Museum of Modern Art at the end of the 20th century had become a nonprofit cultural corporation increasingly preoccupied with aesthetic and architectural conquest, then Rem Koolhaas’s proposal for the museum’s 1997 redesign, titled MoMA, Inc., completed the metamorphosis. His mordant submission to the board of trustees took the form of a large conceptual tome, or charrette, whose purpose the architect describes as follows:
The notion of the Museum seems at the brink of a quantum leap. The very success of the museum as an institution — a pivtal [sic] center of contemporary society — threatens to engulf its prime function: the organised contemplation of art. A new conceptual framework must incorporate the additional roles and expectations that the museum has recently acquired.
Maybe it’s natural that the architects, whose practice is informed directly by the character of the client, seem much more attuned to MoMA’s present condition. In an interview published yesterday, Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro — the firm responsible for the current MoMA redesign — explained to the Los Angeles Times that “We don’t monumentalize our projects. We don’t imagine that we are building for history. We imagine that we’re building for the occupants.” Before turning to a more conventional (and commercial) practice, Diller’s firm had a long background of producing conceptual work for museums and institutions, so it’s not as though she speaks from a position of indifference to high art. And even those elite architects that have come out in support of the old AFAM building, like Robert A. M. Stern or Richard Meier, seem to do so out of a sense of collegial solidarity with the building’s original architects, Todd Williams and Billie Tsien. “Not everything lasts forever, and sometimes you have to let go,” Meier told the New York Times.