Hell? Yes.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The New Museum and the offending art work. (photo: dominiqueb/flickr)

I’ve never loved the New Museum Building, in part because I know what SANAA is capable of achieving.  The Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, which was completed in 2006 (preceding the New Museum by about a year), is a truly original building, technologically inventive and formally stirring.  A one-story structure, it soars–far higher than the New Museum’s teetering tower ever will. And yet I appreciate the New Museum for what it is: an ethereal, sculptural presence, a kind of apparition.  It never looks better than it does at night, glowing, hovering, seemingly unconnected to the city grittiness around it. Its facade is gauzy, gossamer, “less like a wall than a scrim,” as Paul Goldberger wrote in the New Yorker. Which is why the decision to place a heavy, kitschy artwork on the façade  is so infuriating. When the museum opened in 2007, the artwork–a rainbow hued sign that declares Hell, Yes!–was described as a temporary adornment. Now, according to the museum’s communications director, Gabriel Einsohn, it is a “semi permanent” installation; the museum has no plans to remove it.

The piece is by Ugo Rondinone, whose, work, according to the New Museum website, “explores notions of emotional and psychic profundity found in the most banal elements of everyday life.”  Perhaps.  The quality of the artwork, which resembles a Hello, Kitty logo, is beyond my ken. I do know something about architecture. And the Rondinone piece directly undermines SANAA’s objective: The architects chose to make the thickness, the weight, even the precise location of the building envelope ambiguous. Hanging a heavy object from that envelope changes everything, for the worse; imagine wearing a campaign button on a wedding veil.

Museums are too often willing to demean their architectural treasures.  (How many times has the Whitney proposed working its Marcel Breuer building–to which the New Museum, incidentally, owes a great debt–into some larger composition?)

Frank Gehry’s IAC building is in the same boat as the New Museum. After the West Chelsea structure was complete–and after the architectural photographers had shot it as Gehry designed it–the company added two neon signs, on the north and south facades, that say IAC.  As at the New Museum, they take semi-transparent, ambiguous surfaces and render them static and heavy, like turning the lights up when a magician is trying to perform a trick.  But at least you can understand why IAC, which is a commercial enterprise, would want its building to say IAC. There, the signs represent a rational, if regrettable, decision.

The New Museum has no excuse.  It should have said, “Hell, No!,” instead of ‘Hello, kitschy.”

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9 Responses to “Hell? Yes.”

  1. astrid says:

    Hear, hear.

    Temporary, okay. Permanent? Ridiculous. This is New York?

  2. Bill Bored says:

    a formalist critique at best…a rarefied critique at worst…

  3. Avi says:

    That sign hanging on the building is truly awful. But so is the building. And the museum is pretentious, and unwittingly offensive, as trendies fork over $20 each to get into see preposterous works, sidestepping the lumpenproletariat gathered in front of the adjacent shelter.

  4. […] “Hell, Yes” announcement hanging from the facade of the New Museum on the Bowery is angering some [A/N Blog via […]

  5. […] have to agree with Fred Bernstein in the Architects Newspaper Blog about the New Museum and its garish Hell Yes! — a multi-hued text piece by Ugo Rondinone. To […]

  6. Kevin says:

    Stop your whining. The building isn’t that great anyway.

  7. Mathew says:

    Nothing in New York is permanent. Under the cover of night, “Hell, Yes!” should magically disappear.

  8. brandon says:

    get over it. the museum’s exhibition space is mediocre at best. the building is unique as an object in the cityscape but its monolith lacks any interesting character beyond its minimalist charm. the hell yes artwork, albeit kitschy, brings a colorful tongue-in-cheek point of view that provides a counterpoint to the building’s serious demeanor. i vote for permanence.

  9. jack e savage says:

    no such thing as high culture anymore, Fred.
    If you want Jean Nouvel (sp?), you’re going to have to abide Mr. Brainwash and/or Revs/Costs> simultaneously.
    You and Hilton Kramer will have to cry in your cups at the Princeton Club.
    Oh yeah…he’s dead. You?

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