New York: Brooklyn Museum
Open House: Working in Brooklyn
In a metropolis that boasts a Museum Mile – the stretch on the Upper East Side of Manhattan populated by several of the nation’s greatest museums – The Brooklyn Museum of Art is almost destined to be an underdog. On the Eastern Parkway stop of the 2/3 line, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden is the Museum’s nearest neighbour. A few stops closer to Manhattan lies The Brooklyn Academy of Music, but other than that, there’s not much ‘out there’ in the way of major cultural institutions.
Planned by McKim, Mead & White at six times its current
size before Brooklyn’s annexation by New York City – which would still be
the largest museum in the world – only the central portion of the
architectural plan was opened as the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 1897, its
imposing Beaux-Arts façade signifying that bygone era’s now naughty
‘elitism’ rather than the thousand-flowers multi-culti demands of the
present one. Hallowed halls behind an impressive traditional façade work
well at the Met, but it hasn’t worked for many years at the Brooklyn. In
1934 thirty feet of steps rising to the original third-floor entrance were
removed, and the main entrance was shifted to ground level, through what was
once the backstage of an auditorium. Despite ambitious beginnings and its
current status as the nation’s second largest collection, the Brooklyn
Museum’s location and architectural legacy have compromised its vitality,
and there have been few exhibitions like ‘Sensation’ that have drawn
significant media and public attention.
At the opposite end of the public plaza is the design’s catchiest feature, a computer-choreographed fountain consisting of dozens of water geysers. This water installation, complete with rhythmic sound effects as the water rises and then splats against the concrete, is complimented by an ample amphitheatre that steps down from the Museum’s façade, echoing the original grand staircase. Whether the Museum will successfully host performance events in its new public plaza, as the amphitheatre seating would suggest, remains to be seen; but as kinetic public sculpture, the fountain is a clear winner with museum visitors. The idea was to make a ‘front stoop’ for the community at large, and in that the Museum has succeeded.
The façade renovation also preserves interior details such as the brick support piers that once housed the original front doors, opening up a cavernous lobby space that improves visitor circulation. It’s unfortunate that the visitor welcome and orientation centre planned for the central lobby was not completed with the rest of the project (delayed funding or poor project management?), because the scale of the entry and lobby area seems oversized for its purposes. But if traditionalists may be troubled by the resolutely populist nature of the façade-lift – complemented by ‘strategic changes to…name, logo, and graphic identity’ – the improvements are so obvious they hardly merit kvetching.
With the mid-April ribbon-cutting festivities, the Museum also opened several new exhibitions, the most significant of which is ‘Open House: Working in Brooklyn’, an eye-opening show curated by the home team that begs direct comparison with the Whitney’s recent biennial. Although a handful of artists overlap (Sue de Beer, Amy Cutler, Katy Grannan, Emily Jacir, Fred Tomaselli and many more from past biennials), ‘Open House’ is in many ways a more interesting and diverse exhibition, despite its limitation to Brooklyn-based artists – hardly a constraint. The exhibition makes manifest Brooklyn’s usurping of Manhattan as the primary site of contemporary art production (if not distribution), a shift that has been underway since the early 1980s. There are now more than 5000 artists working in Brooklyn, of which some 200 were selected for inclusion, with all works made after 2000.
As with the architectural renovations, so with the exhibition, which advances the Museum’s role as a destination for contemporary art firmly embedded within the borough. Internationally famous artists of many generations and hailing from around the world now make their professional home in Brooklyn. The ever-productive Louise Bourgeois (b. 1911) is the oldest artist in the exhibition (the youngest was born in 1980), but there are many other well-knowns, such as Vito Acconci, Martha Rosler, Nayland Blake, Glenn Ligon, Byron Kim, Lorna Simpson and Brazilian-born Vik Muniz.
Among the slightly younger generation of rising international stars included are Turkish-born Haluk Akakçe, French-born Stephen Dean, German-born Oliver Herring, Chinese-born Yun-Fei Ji, Kenyan-born Wangechi Mutu, Nigerian-born Fatimah Tuggar and Singaporean-born Su-En Wong. If the ‘-born’ identification tires, it’s worth noting that all of these artists were educated in the United States, which is not the case for Xu Bing and Wenda Gu (both born in 1955), two of the most important artists of the Chinese New Wave generation.
While the diversity of media, artists and themes in Open House exceeds that of the 2004 Whitney Biennial, the Brooklyn Museum’s installation suffers by comparison. This grab-bag bazaar seems cramped within its two main floors, augmented by the use of interior and exterior circulation areas and, occasionally, the permanent collections. Even so, there is something appealing – and in keeping with the populism of the new Brooklyn more broadly speaking – in this none-too-pristine or precious hang.
There’s plenty of work worth mentioning, much of which is ensured discussion elsewhere. I was particularly pleased to see Arch (2003-4), Joe Amrhein’s rainbow-coloured archway installation of text on vellum; as the founder and director of the seminal Williamsburg gallery Pierogi, his artistic work has been eclipsed by his other activities and remains under-appreciated. Matthew McCaslin and the team of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy have also received less attention than is their due. McCaslin, who generally works with light and electrical hardware, is here represented by the sculptural installation with video monitors, Free Ride (2000-4). The McCoys’ video work deconstructs movies and other mass media, often archiving narrative typologies or scrutinising specific film moments, as here with The Kiss (2002).
Karl Jensen’s grand installation Pulpit (2002) presents a forceful, hitherto unknown voice in which white-trash pop and religion dramatically intersect. Also unknown to me were Peter Scott, Marc Lepson and John Powers, each of whom offers a memorable work that doesn’t hesitate to confront with eloquence the current political situation in America; thankfully, this interest is shared by several other ‘Open House’ artists. Kirsten Hassenfeld’s installation of large crystals, gems and cameos fabricated in paper reflects a beautifully handcrafted neo-baroque sensibility, and Jean Shin’s sensitive work with found objects, in which she tears, sews or stacks a variety of mundane cast-offs, is here best represented by the witty and precarious Chance City (2001-4), a colourful, house-of-cards installation made of $17,119-worth of discarded lottery tickets.
Although Chelsea continues to expand as the primary gallery centre and Manhattan remains synonymous with New York in the international imagination, ‘Open House’ makes clear the borough’s central role in contemporary artistic production and complements the new Brooklyn Museum’s efforts to establish itself as a dynamic voice within the borough and an important destination on New York City’s competitive cultural map.