Softening the Blow

Last February New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff used the death of Philip Johnson as an excuse to launch a wholesale attack on MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design. The piece was headlined “Where MoMA Has Lost Its Edge,” and it lamented the loss of Johnson’s “strong point of view,” criticizing architecture curator Terence Riley (and by implication, design curator Paola Antonelli) for “lifeless” exhibitions.

It seemed strange that a critic would use one of MoMA’s landmark shows—Johnson’s 1932 Modern Architecture: International Exhibition—as a yardstick for new galleries housing work from the permanent collection. Very apples and oranges. If you want to bash present-day MoMA by using exhibitions from when the museum was young and feisty—when Modernism was a cause célèbre rather than a well-established fashion—you should at least wait until there is a major architecture or design show to discuss.

I’ve liked many exhibitions curated by Riley (who recently announced that he will step down in March) and Antonelli, but there is something a little astringent about MoMA fare. Riley’s 1999 The Un-private House show became much warmer when it moved to the Walker Art Center, in Minneapolis, because there it was paired with a partial re-creation of an experimental house that had been built on the museum grounds in the postwar years and occupied by a family. The Walker introduced the notion that houses are not just formal constructs: people actually live in them.

When the Ouroussoff article came out I had just made my second visit to the revamped MoMA. My first visit involved one of the many opening galas when, sometime late in the evening after several vodka and sodas, two self-proclaimed “bloggers” asked me how I liked the new building. I told them I loathed it. “What do you mean?” one sputtered. I couldn’t articulate an answer, but what I meant is I hated the grandeur of the place, how much it seemed to celebrate not the art or the objects but the exalted cultural role of the institution.

On my second visit I made peace with the building. I still don’t care for the bombast of the communal spaces, but I’m happy with the contents of many of the galleries, especially the smaller ones housing prints and drawings, architecture and design. Granted the design gallery is no longer a sparsely populated hideaway on the top floor of the museum. And I’m nostalgic about the days when I would have the collection all to myself, but the bigger, brighter space surely reflects the new status of design in American popular culture.

About that same time I was also thinking about how hard it is to mount a really innovative contemporary industrial-design show these days. The problem—and it’s not specific to MoMA—is that the products one can find on the shelves of almost any store are likely to be as varied, sophisticated, and inventive as the objects a museum can pull together. Stores can change inventory faster and with much less planning than a curator burdened with two-year lead times. When I visit the Cooper-Hewitt now I spend more time in the shop than in the galleries. Director of retail Gregory Krum was once the product manager at Moss, a Soho design shop that appropriated the aesthetic of a museum design gallery. Because he is a merchant, Krum can put his ideas into action without sitting through countless committee meetings. As a result the store is generally a better place to view fresh design.

Nowadays even mainstream retail outlets such as Target or Kmart (particularly the Martha Stewart aisles) have become surprisingly exciting showcases of formal innovation. So a museum design exhibition must be better than a trip to Crate & Barrel. It’s not enough to have pretty objects; it needs to have a message or tell a story.

Thus I was looking forward to Antonelli’s first major show at the new MoMA, Safe: Design Takes On Risk, because it was so topical and because it seemed like an exhibition that could warm the cold heart of the institution. It opened in mid-October, right on the heels of a major terror scare in the New York subways, with police on the lookout for bombs secreted in briefcases and baby carriages. How could a museum exhibition be timelier? When I walked into the opening party—fresh from travels around the country that involved too many passes through airport security, too many flights through stormy skies, and too many drives through blinding rainstorms and unseasonably early snowstorms—I wanted the exhibition to directly address my bone-deep sense of unease.

Maybe it was the vodka or the air-kissy dynamic of the room, but my initial reaction to Safe was a lot like one I had to the building on its grand reopening. I decided to walk away and come back another time. Sober and well rested, I returned to the exhibition. Clearly I’d approached this show with big expectations. I’d hoped that it would grapple with some of the most overwhelming problems of our time—like the fact we live in a world that grows more treacherous with each day, that our technologically sophisticated society is so bedeviled by war, terrorism, religious strife, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, pandemics, and the occasional beheading that we might as well be living in the Middle Ages. Indeed many of the items on display allude to this crazy disconnect between our twenty-first-century way of life and our increasingly fourteenth-century way of death, but the gulf between our sophistication and our utter haplessness is not part of the narrative.

To her credit Antonelli has put together a fascinating mix of real and conceptual objects, high design and low. But Safe fails to truly engage the dangers of the present moment and instead demonstrates the limits of product design in mitigating those dangers. The objects, the introductory wall text explains, “have been selected because they display the ways in which skillful designers can come up with graceful solutions to high-pressure predicaments.” A lovely sentiment, but I’m not sure the items on display are solutions to anything. All the design in this room does is soften the blow.

Safe is a good show, but it felt like the wrong show. In early 2001, during the period when the museum was temporarily based in Queens, Antonelli began planning an exhibition at the temporary MoMA Queens called Emergency, an examination of emergency-response equipment and tools. That show was refocused after 9/11; the immediacy and emotional power of the subject ap-parently spooked the museum. It’s a shame because there was something about MoMA’s outer-borough retreat that allowed it to operate a little closer to the ground. And a sense of immediacy—a clear connection to world events—is exactly what’s missing from Safe.

I don’t expect images of bomb-ravaged streets or hurricane-battered buildings. Nor do I anticipate that MoMA will take on global politics, domestic security, or radical theology anytime soon. But I keep thinking that at least half of the show simply wasn’t there. So many of the things that actually keep us safe aren’t things at all: they’re systems or networks or procedures often buried deep in our environment, inside the walls or the wiring—or our heads. To give those invisible, often intangible things anesthetic and to display them in a museum in an engaging, entertaining way—now that’s something they can’t do at the gift shop.

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