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The Museum of Modern Art is in the unenviable position of destroying a relatively new building by a respected architecture firm. The former American Folk Art Museum building sits between the MoMA’s existing building and a planned tower designed by Jean Nouvel. The folk art museum’s former home, designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsein Architects, was completed in 2001 and sold to MoMA only ten years later, in 2011, relieving the folk art museum from a heavy debt burden.
According to MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, the folk art museum initiated the transaction. “We entered into the process with an open mind,” he said a statement. “However, it was also with the understanding that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to integrate a building that was designed for a very specific purpose and as a discrete structure with the Museum’s plans for expansion.”
Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of MoMA's architecture and design department, told AN that the decision was an administrative, rather than a curatorial one. He called the decision “painful” for architects and others who appreciate Williams and Tsein’s work, and acknowledged that museums have a responsibility to the art in their care—including architecture. But, he said, the building “was designed as a jewel box for folk art,” and could not reasonably be altered to fit a different collection and a different purpose. Bergdoll added that some possible solutions, including retaining only the facade of the former folk art museum building or drastically restructuring it, would violate its architectural integrity and “denature its total design aesthetic.”
Williams and Tsien’s firm has been inundated with press inquiries since news of MoMA’s demolition plans broke, but a public statement on their website expresses their sadness over MoMA’s decision. “The Folk Art building stands as an example of a modest and purposefully conceived and crafted space for art and the public; a building type that is all too rare in a city often defined by bigness and impersonality,” read the statement.
Williams and Tsein are no strangers to museum design. Their design for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia was completed in 2012, and they have undertaken two expansion projects for the Phoenix Art Museum. Their website lists several other cultural organizations as clients, including the HoodMuseum at Dartmouth College and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Meanwhile, the American Folk Art Museum, thriving in its scaled-back home on Lincoln Square, presents a cheerful public face. They have also issued a public statement via their website. “We remain grateful for the purchase of the building by our good neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art; the sale of the building was a necessary step for our resurgence.”
I was saddened by the news of Michael Asher's death last month. It was too soon perhaps. When he was alive his work did not get much attention from architects. In the art world, he was a giant with highly creative, fully engaging works and intensely figured out in-situ art installations. His teaching at Cal Arts was also legendary. His lifelong friend and fellow artist John Knight, who was my teacher at SCI Arc in late 70's and early 80's, introduced me to Asher’s work.
Courtesy The Art Newspaper
What made Michael Asher extremely relevant to architecture has to do with his work’s spatial concerns and their contextual narratives, particularly site specific and situationist manipulations of space often in a dialog with the viewer via the sculptural platforms. As Duchamp did with his readymades, Michael Asher also sought to connect art with people. Except in Asher's case they were decidedly engaged more direct interdependencies between art and architecture.
His “air works” is a good example of one of these sculptural platforms when Asher, inspired by the air movement inside a structure, installed a fan or combination of fans blowing air from the ceiling to floor in a conical spread, defining a territory in which a resultant interiority is felt by the body's sensory reception of the moving air. Often using an industrial Dayton air blower as art material, Asher in one of his first installations, experimented with the “air works” in appropriately titled exhibition called “Appearing/Disappearing Image/Object” in Newport Harbor Museum and later in Whitney Museum in 1968, “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials.” In “air works” the invisible volumes created inside a museum space invited the viewer for interaction while on the other hand opened discussions for materiality in art and its breakaway independence from the formalism of the sculpture and its production process. Air works ultimately staged the viewer thorough a highly configured sensorial theater in its situated “site” strategically selected in the gallery.
Another project in relation to site/context/content integration is called Michael Asher Lobby. The actual reception/information area of a then newly opened Temporary Contemporary Museum in Los Angeles in its inaugural 1983 exhibition “In Context” for which the artist secured the aesthetic control of the lobby area of the Museum via a licensing contract for a specified time of twenty months.
Courtesy Pomona College Museum of Art
In doing so, the artist juxtaposed the institutionally occupied “site” with a privately controlled one. Practically owning the territorial and the artistic control of the space and its prestige value. He simultaneously established a privileged objectification and branding of the otherwise unchallenged architectural programs the public often accepts as granted and part of the “interior landscape.” A corporate looking lobby in this case became a context artist himself controlled directly. Michael Asher Lobby is also an insurgent decoy ironically exposing the museum's power recognition of the corporate and individual donation politics in the form of a plaque on a column and folded business cards on the information counter. They are the artist's performative materials in addition to a claimed lobby. They set the operational associations within the corporate aesthetics. All of this is packaged on Michael Asher's interactive platform. These are the texts of his discussions strategized within the politics of space. They are rigorously investigated conflicts, expositions of cultural control and production, masterfully situated, contextualized and made visible to co-exist with the conventional architectures and sculptures in the gallery space of the museum. These inserts and constructions have the content which architects (with the exception of Robert Venturi and few others) generally mute and ultimately compromise in exchange for purely physical forms, for one to one surface/mass affinity with traditional sculpture and often disarming themselves without much to say.
Finally, in his installation in Mies van de Rohe's Haus Lange in 1982 the artist took the existing floor plan of the house at the ground level and rotated 90 degrees. Thus the white exhibition walls protruding out of brick exterior walls of the house, exposing the idea that Mies designed the house on a grid system which is not easily apparent as the architect's later projects. In this project, Asher clearly employs the formal and abstract notions of making the sculpture. The existing floor plan re-introduced via the movement of the rotation, emphasizing its architectural formalism, re-contextualized. The result is purely sculptural, driven directly from Mies' floor plan of the house. Sort of reverse of what architects are usually concerned with, when the construction is the other way around. As it is generative, it is ironic and critical in the same time.
Even though they are separate projects, this project is also in a critical dialog with Daniel Buren's installation in Haus Esters next door, where Buren takes the Haus Lange plan and super imposes on the Haus Esters, creating new set of interior and exterior rooms in his Plan contre-plan. Both works remarkable examples of juxtaposing architecture and sculpture and there are some collaborative results arrived by both artists who were close friends as well.
Whether it is architectural, conversational, sculptural, political and social, Asher's work heavily engages context for developing the work. This is as to say, art exists everywhere and the artist must decide where to make it known to viewer. Most of this art happens during the oscillation of the objectification and de-objectification of the final work. In Michael Asher's art there is always the two, as in and as if figure to ground. The meaning of the work is found in the dialectic of these two things. Black room to white room, permanent to temporary, mark to demarcation, institutional to deinstitutional, meaning to another meaning and so on. If the dialectic is there, it has an intelligent plan.