Art Vent Letting the Fresh Air In
“Well I’m glad you like something!” a Facebook friend commented after my glowing post about the new Whitney Museum—which made me realize I might be getting a reputation as a curmudgeon, and that it could be time to come out of blog hiatus and remedy that.
However, Friday, I definitely woke up in curmudgeon mode. I had read, the day before, a wonderfully long and detailed criticism of director Michael Govan and architect Peter Zumthor’s plan for LACMA, which seems to be in direct opposition to Modernism’s aesthetic credo “form follows function.” The article also mentioned that LACMA’s giant monument to testosterone, Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass (2012), which I saw for the first time this winter, cost $10 million. That, along with reading (here, here, here, and here) about how multinational corporations (the same ones that brought us the sub-prime mortgage crisis) are buying up the earth’s water resources, had me convinced, that money really is the root of all evil and mankind is doomed.
Michael Heizer, Levitated Mass (2012), LACMA (Photo: Carol Diehl © 2015)
That said, I wouldn’t care how much Chris Burden’s wonderful Urban Light (2008), on the other side of the LACMA campus, might have cost. I’ve visited it many times and it always delights, whereas it’s unlikely that any future (accidental) glimpse of the bombastic Levitated Mass (built to last 3500 years, BTW) will elicit any emotion from me other than aggravation. Heizer’s threatening feng shui is as depressing as Burden’s is uplifting, and in my drowsy morning state his giant pet rock seemed the perfect symbol of ever-growing corporate fascism.
Chris Burden, Urban Light (2008) LACMA (Photo: Carol Diehl © 2015
So it was in this anti-money, anti-museum, anti-anti mood that I set off for my first glimpse of the new $422 million Whitney. Also I was not entirely convinced of Renzo Piano as a potentially great museum architect. I love the Beaubourg, but that was a collaboration built a million years ago. In-between was Piano’s desecration of the formerly intimate Morgan Library, and then his Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, which I’ve described previously as yet another egregious example of starchitecture run amok: an edifice by and for the elite, where art is simply an afterthought. In addition, the Whitney’s Breuer building lent the institution character and substance, while the photos I’d seen of the exterior of Piano’s replacement were not promising.
However I may not be your typical curmudgeon in that I love being proved wrong, as I was, indeed, in my expectations of the Whitney--and at least had the good sense not to air my reservations until I’d actually seen it.
Other than the Guggenheim, the new Whitney is definitely the best example of modern museum architecture I’ve yet seen, as airy, bright, and open as the Breuer edifice is monolithic and tomb-like. While every floor has a slightly different character, each is expansive, column-free, has a source of natural light, soaring exterior stairways and balconies, and myriad glorious views that make the entire building feel like an extension of the abutting High Line. The paneled ceilings break up the vastness of the galleries with just the right amount of texture, a motif echoing the Breuer building that deftly connects the museum with its past. The floors are pale natural wood with a matte, almost raw-looking finish—salvaged Heartland pine, curator Donna De Salvo told me, from the beams of old factories. Bearing occasional nail holes and the scars of labor, they engender a subtle sense of the passage of time as well as being (unlike the old Whitney) easy to walk and stand on, as well as the perfect neutral foil for art of any permutation.
“Generous,” is the word that comes to mind—generous to the art, the visitors, and the staff, who are treated to massive windows (and shades with layers of special filters in the conservation lab), direct private access doors to the galleries, and their own outdoor balcony. Instead of vertical white tunnels, like those at the New Museum, the utilitarian stairwells, closed off at each floor per fire code, are columns of glass with more opportunities for stunning city views. And the gallery setting is so generous to the art that it makes even art I don’t like look good.
Whitney Museum of American Art, galleries (Photo: Carol Diehl © 2015)
Unlike the Govan/Zumthor plan, where the staff has been complaining of no input, this appears to be a true collaboration between Piano and De Salvo, the architect giving eloquent form to the curator’s clearly articulated function. Now I’m wondering if the difference between this and Piano’s other museum efforts didn’t have to do with the architect as much as the person at the institution who was driving the vision. At the Whitney it appears that the staff has been put first, accommodated in every way, and it shows up in the extreme utility of the building.
Whitney Museum of American Art, conservation laboratory (Photo: Carol Diehl © 2016
We always thought starchitecture was propelled by the architect’s ego, but what if it was more about the director’s ego?
Growing up in suburban Chicago, my early aesthetic life was shaped by Frank Lloyd Wright whose Baker House, around the corner from my middle school in Wilmette, seemed to grow out of the ground. Later Robert Irwin, and his philosophy of “site-conditioned” art and architecture, who influenced the way I look at, well, everything (including my latest investigations into Banksy). Recently, when I mentioned to an artist friend that Irwin was the architectural consultant for the Dia:Beacon, he said, “But there’s nothing of Irwin in it”—which I knew Irwin would take as the ultimate compliment. There is, actually, quite a lot of Irwin in the Beacon plan, but it’s subtle and enhances, rather than competes with, the work of others.
Sometimes the absence of a grand statement can be a grand statement.
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Whitney Museum of American Art, galleries (Photo: Carol Diehl © 2015
Notes: Interesting to me that the Dia:Beacon and the Burden at LACMA (love!) Heizer’s Mass and the proposed Zumthor plan (hate!) are all Govan projects.
I haven’t mentioned the Whitney’s inaugural exhibition, America is Hard to See, because with over 600 works it would be exhaustive and is well covered by Holland Cotter here in the Times. But there were unfamiliar works and artists, which is always welcome, and I got the sense that they were attempting to show a history that was unexpected, hadn't been overexposed, and circumvented the commercial—the American art that’s hard to see because of all the hype. (Example, below: this untitled diagram of a slave ship by Malcolm Bailey, 1969.) But even though, at the preview, the usually cantankerous art world seemed to be in happy agreement, there are always outliers: here LA Times’s Christopher Knight and in the Observer, Walter Robinson.
Malcolm Bailey, Untitled, 1969
The HBO documentary, “Banksy Does New York” reviews the anonymous British street artist’s month-long New York “residency” where, in October of 2013, he generated a new work every day for a month, in all five boroughs of the city. In a brief segment of the film, I discuss the artist’s engagement with the writings of Hannah Arendt. The text is part of a lecture, “Banksy: Completed,” in which I follow his clues to reveal the philosophical origins of his work, given in the past year at University of Southern California/Fullerton, the Berkshire Museum, and the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury, UK.
For Day 29 of his unsanctioned sojourn in New York, Banksy repurposed an original artwork, an overwrought pastoral oil painting purchased for $50 from a thrift store. With his painted addition of a solitary Nazi officer seated in contemplation on a bench, the scene of an autumn forest by a river with snowy mountains in the distance is transformed from kitsch Americana to Caspar David Friedrich-esque German Romanticism, the falling yellow leaves now signifying the decline of the Nazi regime as well as a warning, perhaps, of our own social and political decline. Scrawling his signature under that of the original artist, Banksy, on his website (which existed only for the duration of the “residency”), entitled the work "The banality of the banality of evil, oil on oil on canvas, 2013," and described it as "a thrift store painting vandalized then re-donated to the thrift store," with the intention that the proceeds go to the Brooklyn-based nonprofit that benefits homeless people living with HIV/AIDS. Housing Works auctioned it off and ultimately, after much bidding drama, netted at least $450,000.
On the Village Voice blog, writer Raillan Brooks no doubt Googled “the banality of evil” to discover that it was associated with Holocaust survivor and philosopher Hannah Arendt’s “theoretical reckoning of the Nazis' rise to power.” Brooks, concluded, however, that it more likely had “something to do with Banksy not really caring much about what he's actually saying”—when it’s clearly the theme that underlies all his subversive enterprises.
A Report on the Banality of Evil is the subtitle of Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, an eyewitness account of the Nazi criminal trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was accused of engineering the extermination of European Jews. Writing originally in The New Yorker, Arendt expressed shock that Eichmann did not come across as a monster, but “terribly and terrifyingly normal,” a man whose thinking was so conventional that he spoke only in clichés. This led Arendt to develop her thesis that beyond Hitler’s vile nature, it was the mediocrity of his functionaries, their unwillingness to think for themselves while attempting to fulfill their mundane needs and individual ambitions—hence their banality—that enabled the Nazi atrocities. Therefore Banksy’s title has to do with the original painting being itself a cliché, the work of a painter who is trying to please others rather than thinking for himself, and by inserting the Nazi officer, Banksy is adding a symbol of banality to banality, with his “oil on oil.”
While being tried as a war criminal, Eichmann insisted on his innocence: he never killed anyone or ordered that anyone be killed, nor did he have a grudge against Jews. He was a man eager to get ahead and his job, which he fulfilled efficiently, was to arrange for the transportation of Jewish prisoners to death camps. To do otherwise, he explained on the stand, would be to break the law at the time, and he was not a law-breaker. Their destination was not his responsibility. Upon hearing his sentence of death, Eichmann said, “I am convinced in the depths of my heart that I am being sentenced for the deeds of others.”
This concept is at the heart of Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel, The Reader, later made into a film. One of two main characters, Hanna, is being tried for war crime, but she’s not an officer, nothing like it, simply a guard who never considers the possibility that she could defy orders and unlock the burning church in which most of her prisoners die. Like Eichmann, what’s chilling about Hanna is her ordinariness; she’s just doing her job. Arendt suggests that evil is more accidental than intentional, less a result of ideology and conviction than a by-product of petty ambition and the drive for personal security.
Expanding on Arendt’s thesis was Stanley Milgram’s famous psychological experiment that measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to inflict what they thought were electrical shocks on a hidden subject, an actor whose screams they could hear. Milgram concluded that, “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.... (when) asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”
Commenting on this experiment, Banksy has noted, “Garments are symbols of authority and we have a powerful tendency to accept authority….Take the man out of the doctor's costume and his test subjects refuse to do it.”
Ironically, while railing against this failure of humans to question their environment, Banksy consciously uses it to his own ends. Not one to skulk around in a hoodie, as he appears in his 2011 film “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” one of his methods for avoiding detection is to look as official as possible. To “turn invisible” he recommends a high-vis vest, hardhat, clipboard, and business cards—not to speak of three stories of scaffolding under a CCTV camera.
It is therefore significant that Banksy’s Nazi officer is not depicted as an ogre, but a lover of nature, which makes him all the more normal and therefore frightening. In that context, Banksy’s entire crusade can be seen as one against what Arendt called a “failure to think” or, in other words, mediocrity and banality in all its forms.
The greatest crimes in the world are not committed by people breaking the rules but by people following the rules. It's people who follow orders that drop bombs and massacre villages. As a precaution to ever committing major acts of evil it is our solemn duty never to do what we're told, this is the only way we can be sure.
--Banksy, Wall and Piece.
Related reading: The Flying Walentases (on the developers in NY Mag), Marina Budhos's Kara Walker and the Real Sugar Links, and Nicholas Powers, Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit
CD: I wrote in my post that the window, whose black frame roughly matches the elements you added, appeared to be your starting point. Is that so?
Robert Irwin, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1975.
Further reading: Carol Diehl, "Robert Irwin: Doors of Perception," Art in America, December, 1999.
Olafur Eliasson, weather project (2003), Tate Modern
Frustration and contemplation, however, do not go together.
PART II Robert Irwin on "Scrim Veil-Black Rectangle-Natural Light (1977)" recently at the Whitney
Roberta Smith on Turrell "New Light Fixture for Famous Rotunda" and Irwin "Ineffable Emptiness: From Dawn to Dusk"
Gabrielle Selz "Considering Perception: Robert Irwin and James Turrell": a look at their shared history.
Lee Rosenbaum: "Turrell's Skyspace Obscures the Sky"
Blake Gopnik: "Has the Sage Turrell Sold Out?"