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Marc Andre Robinson, ‘Myth Monolith’, 2002/3, wood

Manhattan is etched with a grid of streets and avenues anchored on a roughly north-south axis. The cultural consequences of this topographical orientation permeate New York’s conception of culture, dividing the city in two: uptown and downtown. Uptown bears connotations of money, American patrician class, and the history with which money and aristocracy like to associate themselves. Downtown, by contrast, represents working-class, spontaneity—the new and the now of the city.

Exactly where the uptown/downtown divide lies is not clear. Rather, the two are known by their extremes; in music, uptown means Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, while downtown means Experimental Intermedia and other modest spaces that come and go depending upon the caprices of rents and funding. The same is true of visual art, where the Museum Mile on the Upper East Side stands in contrast to the contemporary galleries and temporary exhibition spaces of SoHo, Chelsea and most recently, the Lower East Side.

The divide is perhaps more temporal than the spatial terms suggest, although the time frame it encompasses is relatively short. MoMA opened in 1929, the Guggenheim in 1959 and the Whitney Museum of American Art, which was intended to be the museum for contemporary American artists was founded in 1931, after the Metropolitan Museum turned down Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s gift of her collection of American art. But by 1977 the need of a museum devoted to contemporary art was felt yet again, so Marcia Tucker created the New Museum to be devoted to living artists and the principles that their work espoused.

At the mythical speed at which New York City moves, the migration of downtown ideas and objects to uptown institutions can be almost immediate; Jasper Johns’ first exhibition was almost entirely bought by Alfred Barr for MoMA. Institutions themselves often make a similar migration—the Whitney, which evolved out of the Whitney Studio Club and housed in Mrs Whitney’s studio on West Fourth Street, moved to its present uptown premises in 1966. Most recently, the New Museum, which has been a downtown fixture for the last 30 years, opened the doors of its new building in December 2007, but rather than embarking on the ubiquitous New York cultural migration, it remains downtown.

Its defiant geographical stand and inaugural exhibition, Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century refute the condition of museum as mausoleum. If uptown represents the appraised and accepted in culture, that which is preserved for posterity, downtown deigns to offer no more than the undifferentiated here and now. Laura Hoptman, the New Museum’s senior curator defines the unmonumental not as the antithesis of monumental—monumental being massive, timeless and of public significance—but rather work that intentionally lacks these qualities; intentions that the New Museum not only embraces, but which it also seems to endorse.

The sculptural assemblages by the 30 international artists included in this exhibition employ a variety of found objects and materials including Styrofoam, cardboard, cement, plastic, foil and polyurethane. The emphasis of the exhibition, according to the catalogue essays, is on the immediacy of this kind of sculptural practice, and traces that immediacy to the socio-political climate of the 21st century, the cultural landscape, and the sheer volume of materials available to artists. However, works such as Rachel Harrison’s ‘Huffy Howler’, 2004, a bicycle adorned with handbags, wedged on a pedestal constructed from cement-coated polystyrene bricks painted purple and a publicity photograph of Mel Gibson as Braveheart clipped to fake fur hanging from a long metal pole, are possessed of a visceral permanence rather than an ephemeral immediacy.

Assemblage has a necessary objecthood and an implicit history; it reveals something of the artist and its constituent objects. Jim Lambie’s ‘Split Endz’ (wig mix), 2005, belies the artist’s relationship to music while the individual objects, the belts, mirrors, wardrobes and trainers simultaneously reinforce Lambie’s statement and make their own. The immediacy of this kind of work is deceptive; it relies on the fallacy of the brevity of the process of assemblage, rather than the fact of the sculpture is innately historical. However, the immediacy of sculpture is not impossible.

Lawrence Weiner, 'AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE', 1988, language and materials referred to
Lawrence Weiner, ‘AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE’, 1988, language and materials referred to

In 1968 Lawrence Weiner wrote his ‘Declaration of Intent’ which delineates three possible forms for sculpture; constructed by the artist, fabricated, or not built, all of which are consistent with the intent of the artist and the condition being with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership. This declaration, which appears at the entrance to As Far As The Eye Can See, Weiner’s retrospective at the Whitney, makes the viewer instrumental in the existence of the sculpture, effectively removing the artists’ hand, broadening the physical possibilities of the work, and making it immediate.

Weiner has defined art as ‘the relationship of human beings to objects and objects to objects in relation to human beings’. The relationship of viewer to art being such that it usurps all others. In As Far As The Eye Can See, Weiner’s works appear in their various forms, ‘(THIS & THAT) PUT (HERE & THERE) OUT OF THE SIGHT OF POLARIS’, 1990, is presented as text on a wall, whilst ‘TWO MINUTES OF SPRAY PAINT DIRECTLY UPON THE FLOOR FROM A STANDARD AEROSOL SPRAY CAN’, 1968, is realised in bold magenta. His works explore the physical, temporal and spatial: the essential properties of sculpture, which are also the essential properties of being.

‘IN DIRECT LINE WITH ANOTHER & THE NEXT’, 2000, a series of cast iron manhole covers that traverse Manhattan from Greenwich Village to the East Village, may suggest the prime meridian line of latitude in Greenwich, or the rose line of Paris, or maybe they finally provide Manhattan with a physical demarcation of uptown and downtown.

For the Whitney exhibition, one of these manhole covers has been displaced, sitting outside that museum and marking the entrance to a once downtown institution that does its best to maintain its contemporary agency in the land of the mausoleum far from its usurper.

Victoria Miguel is a writer living in New York