"Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century"

The New Museum reopens with art made from the everyday.

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Installation view

Installation view Photograph: Courtesy Of The New Museum Of Contemporary Art, David Rager

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

In 1959, Robert Rauschenberg stuck a tire around a taxidermied Angora goat; like modern art’s own Yankee Doodle Dandy, he called it a combine and jump-started the fertile tradition of sculptural assemblage. True, Cubist collage, Louise Nevelson’s found-wood constructions and Joseph Cornell’s boxes all came earlier, but it was Rauschenberg’s new math of juxtaposition—an equation that doesn’t necessarily add up to anything—that opened the floodgates for making art by mixing and matching an assortment of everyday objects.

Rauschenberg’s democratic enthusiasm for the humble castoff (if not his madcap optimism) courses through “Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century,” the New Museum’s maiden show at its brand-new digs on the Bowery, featuring recent works by 30 international artists. According to the curatorial triumvirate of Richard Flood, Massimiliano Gioni and Laura Hoptman, artists nowadays are reinventing the art of sculptural assemblage. They’re working in a fragmented, iconoclastic mode, picking up the pieces from 9/11 by using real-world objects to create work characterized by a spirit of improvisation, modesty and informality.

Reinventing? Maybe not: Some premillennium work by artists like Cady Noland or Mike Kelley could easily slip into this show. But you can’t quibble with its gritty energy and scrappy DIY aesthetic, which is darkly alive and interesting. There’s more than a whiff of homage to the museum’s new neighborhood, since almost every sculpture is made from junked material that might have been pulled from Bowery curbside garbage heaps or bought from a street vendor—or at least could have been at some point in the not-so-distant past. Much has been made of the New Museum’s potential economic impact on the area, though for now the building towers modestly over its tenement-size neighbors. (And for all the hype, it’s easy to forget that the New Museum’s last permanent home was only six short blocks to the west.)

Inside, it’s clear that “Unmonumental” was carefully orchestrated to give the new architecture as much breathing room as possible. All the sculptures are freestanding or hanging, leaving the gallery walls clean as a whistle. (Though that will change: The show, something of an assemblage itself, will evolve over the coming months with additional segments of collage, sound and online art.) Each of the three galleries is successively smaller in terms of footprint but taller in terms of ceiling height than the one on the level below, with poured-concrete floors, white walls, aluminum ceilings, occasional skylights and grids of hanging fluorescent lights, all of which make for a solid if slightly generic setting for viewing art. But after three peripatetic decades of making do with spaces in existing buildings, who can fault the New Museum for wanting something along the lines of a utilitarian Chelsea white box?

With few exceptions, the artists in “Unmonumental” were born in the 1960s and 1970s, making this a fairly established crowd with a dauntingly wide range of approaches to creating art. Isa Genzken, who is 59 and clearly an influential figure here, spins rubbish into poetic, recognizable forms in Empire Vampire I (2003) and Elefant (2006). Meanwhile, artists like Gedi Sibony, Abraham Cruzvillegas and Manfred Pernice strip down materials to their barest bones, focusing entirely on the formal nature of stuff itself. Jim Lambie and Rachel Harrison fall somewhere in the middle, with jubilant sculptures that aspire to be nothing other than the objects they are.

Several works belie the show’s title to flirt with the trappings of monumentality, such as Elliott Hundley’s The Wreck (2005), a Greco-Roman column made of crafty, flimsy materials and encrusted in rich detail, like an erstwhile stage prop overtaken by some delicate ecosystem. Matthew Monahan’s Liberator’s Retreat, a fragrant construction of beeswax-covered foam pinned together with broken sticks, riffs on traditional weathered bronze statuary and perhaps even on art-historical representations of St. Jerome. Carol Bove, Carlos Bunga and Aaron Curry use banal materials to evoke architectural and modernist forms. Curry’s weird combinations of biomorphic sculpture (think early Louise Bourgeois) and pop-cultural images are especially enigmatic and impossible to ignore.

The only utterly ephemeral work in the show is also one of its most over-the-top: Urs Fischer’s untitled sculpture, a candle in the shape of a life-size blow-up doll. Tethered to the ground by a cinder-block base, she burns steadily away until all that’s left of her is a pile of raw materials—perhaps ready to be remade all over again into some new, transitional form.

“Abstract Expressionism and Other Modern Works: The Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection” The New Museum of Contemporary Art,through Mar 23

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