The New Museum, NYC, designed by Japanese architecture firm SANAA

Today we’re lucky to have another dose of international design news from Aus ex-pat James Conway! James’ travels recently took him to the Big Apple, where he found himself pondering the ‘New’ in New York… Enjoy! – Lucy

What’s new? It was a question going through my mind when a project recently took me to New York, a trip which would happily coincide with the US presidential election and the dawn of the new era it recklessly promised. It got me to thinking in that idle, jet-lagged way about the lure of the new, an idea I decided to pursue in a completely literal way by visiting two contrasting museums which, like the city itself, proclaim their newness in their very names.

Neue Galerie exterior. photo – James Conway

Viennese Decorative Arts Gallery, Neue Galerie, New York . Image provided Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York

The Neue Galerie was established in 2001 by billionaire investor Ronald Lauder to raise the profile of 20th century German and Austrian art and design in the US, and is housed in a magnificent 5th Avenue mansion straight out of a Henry James novel. The gallery hit the headlines in 2006 when Lauder purchased Gustav Klimt’s sumptuous, golden Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I for a reported US$135 million, the highest amount ever paid for a painting.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt

While it’s difficult to compete with Klimt’s bling blowout, the Neue’s permanent collection also boasts an important selection of Viennese design circa 1900, when the Wiener Werkstätte reasoned that a new century needs new forms. If the streamlined cutlery and boxy chairs on display here look familiar, it’s because we’ve been using variations of them ever since. Their work doesn’t represent a total break with the past – geometric designs prove there was still an urge to adorn, and their expensive products were hardly accessible to the masses – but they were nonetheless enormously influential. The restless upending of received ideas in everything from jewellery to furniture, the move away from superfluous decoration, the collectivist spirit, the belief that good design could change society – all of it would inspire the Bauhaus movement and just about every other design group since.

Top image – Josef Hoffman (1870 – 1956), five pieces from the ‘Flat Model’ flatware service, 1904 – 1908, Silver. Bottom image – Jutta Sika, (1877 – 1964), tea and coffee service, 1901 – 1902, porcelain with stenciled design in red
Images provided Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York


Kolomon Moser, Armchair, Vienna ca. 1903, Beech painted white, woven raffia-string painted black and white. Image provided Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York

Josef Hoffman (1870 – 1956), cupboard from Biach bedroom, 1902 – 1903, painted pined with maple veneer and inlays of black-stained wood, metal mounts. Image provided Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York

Otto Wagner, (1841, 1918), Buffet for the apartment of Otto Wagner, 1898 – 99, solid walnut and walnut veneer, mother of pearl inlays, marble (replaced). Image provided Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York

Keep following this minimalist route and you arrive at something like the New Museum, amazingly the first dedicated contemporary art museum ever built in downtown Manhattan. It looms brightly over The Bowery, a street which was long a byword for urban squalor but which is now yielding to gentrification. The tipping point in that process came with the 2006 closure of iconic punk venue CBGB’s, a couple of blocks away; the opening of this big shiny museum a year later was mere confirmation.

The New Museum exterior, featuring wiss artist Ugo Rondinone ‘s installation – Hell Yes!, 2001


The building, designed by Japanese firm SANAA, makes a virtue of its limited footprint by heading upwards in dramatic fashion. Half a dozen white boxes, wreathed in mesh, are placed on top of each other at awkward angles, as if each floor was delivered as a pre-fab unit and carelessly stacked – you can imagine someone across the road yelling “left, no YOUR left…OK that’ll do.” As with MOMA, extensive street-level glass windows avoid the intimidating air of older art institutions, while also subliminally inferring that art appreciation is something to fit into an afternoon’s shopping. Inside, colour is almost completely absent (though deployed to blinding effect in the elevators). The ground floor shop, which has a great selection of cutting-edge books and artist multiples, is enclosed in a curving mesh which echoes the building’s façade.

The New Museum gift shop. Top image by Dean Kaufman – (s0 sorry can’t remember where I found this image…). Bottom image by James Conway.

New Museum exterior mesh – photo by James Conway

Oh, and there’s some art as well. Both exhibitions I caught there were retrospectives, and didn’t seem to quite live up to the museum’s pithy, self-proclaimed mission of “new art, new ideas”. The punchy, block-colour abstractions of New York-based artist Mary Heilmann, for example, are easy on the eye but hardly life-changing. The titles at least reference her love of music; in interviews she emphasises her passion for punk, and she claims, incongruously, to identify with the short, shambolic career of Sid Vicious.

Mary Heilmann, Surfing on Acid, 2005. Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 122 cm by Mary Heilmann

Mary Heilmann, Lovejoy Jr., 2004, Oil on canvas, 102 x 81.3 cm by Mary Heilmann

The Sex Pistols star is just one of the icons who appear in Elizabeth Peyton’s heavily publicised show, which occupies the third and fourth floors. All her subjects (predominantly rock stars) are rendered as rosy-lipped androgynes in big obvious strokes on small canvasses, framed like snapshots. There seems to be as much animosity as acclaim for Peyton in the art world; the gist of the criticism seems to be “why her?”, i.e. that plenty of artists fresh out of school are doing more exciting figurative work with much less recognition, and moreover that her stock of cultural references hasn’t been refreshed since the 90s. For me the modestly-sized pieces had real charm on their own but made little impact en masse, and considering this was a major show by a hot artist, the wow factor was disappointingly absent.

Left – Sidney, 1995, charcoal on paper, 33 x 27.9 cm, Right – Sid and his Mum (John and Anne Beverley), 1995, oil on board, 43.2 x 30.5 cm – Both by Elizabeth Peyton

Brett and Rob, 1999, oil on board, 35.6 x 42.5 cm by Elizabeth Peyton

Piotr on couch, 1996, oil on board, 22.9 x 30.5 cm by Elizabeth Peyton

On balance, the artists featured in the New were looking less “new” than the bunch of long-dead Austrians uptown. But the museum itself, the shell at least, lives up to its name – it feels radiantly and self-confidently of the moment. On leaving the building, look up and you’ll see a sign by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone which reads simply “HELL, YES!”. While the fat font and rainbow colours suggest a retro hipster appreciation of the 70s style which punk supposedly did away with, in the “yes we can” era the message looks slightly less ironic.

Hell Yes!, 2001, by Ugo Rondinone, found here on Flickr.

And in the event, yes they did. Watching the election results in a packed Brooklyn bar, there was no New York cool disdain on display; when Obama appeared on screen to claim victory the place went utterly, unironically berserk. Not surprisingly his acceptance speech was full of new stuff: new dawn, new energy, new schools, even a new puppy. But just as new and unprecedented was the way people listened, as if meaningfully engaged by politics for the first time.

Facing the next day with a fuzzy head I briefly wondered if it had all been a bourbon-related delusion. Others were similarly disbelieving: hundreds queued round the block to snap up the day’s edition of the New York Times, eager for black and white proof that Obama really was their next president (you can’t frame a website, so new media doesn’t cut it as a keepsake). And on the very same day, Elizabeth Peyton topped up her show with a portrait of Michelle Obama and daughter Sasha, a deft gesture which not only brought her show instantly up to date, but was also probably the first work by a major artist to mark the historic moment.

At last, something new!

Michelle and Sasha Obama Listening to Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention August 2008 by Elizabeth Peyton

Thanks so much James!