Nicolai Ouroussoff vs. Roberta Smith

The New Museum galleries: “refreshingly unpretentious” or “horribly proportioned and oppressive”?

Attentive readers of the paper of record this week may have noticed an intriguing clash between two of its major critical voices. In an article about plans to expand the Whitney Museum to a new building downtown, the Times art critic Roberta Smith roundly dismissed several recent high-profile museum projects in the city—projects that the paper’s architecture critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff, had initially given glowing reviews. To wit:

The New Museum

Ouroussoff (2007): “It succeeds on a spectacular range of levels: as a hypnotic urban object, as a subtle critique of the art world and as a refreshingly unpretentious place to view art. … By shifting the positions of the various floors, the architects were able to create narrow skylights along the outer edges of the galleries, allowing a soft, diffuse sunlight to wash down their white walls during the day. Rows of fluorescent lights are suspended from the ceilings, and the mix of artificial and natural light gives the spaces a lovely warmth that shifts ever so slightly with the weather or time of day.”

Smith: “The New Museum’s galleries are generally viewed as horribly proportioned and oppressive in their lack of windows.”

The Morgan Library and Museum

Ouroussoff (2006): “To enter the building through its new Madison Avenue entrance, you slip first under the steel cube that houses the reading room, the full weight of the building bearing down upon you, before experiencing the psychic release of the soaring glass atrium. This is the soul of Mr. Piano’s design, and its most spectacular and complex space.”

Smith: “[Piano’s] atrium at the Morgan Library and Museum, while beautiful as a space unto itself, is of the event variety; it has diminished, not improved, that museum’s gallery spaces and their layout.”

The Museum of Modern Art

Ouroussoff (2004): “[T]he expanded museum is a serene composition that weaves art, architecture and the city into a transcendent aesthetic experience. Its crisp surfaces and well-proportioned forms clean up the mess that the building had become over the course of three expansions. No doubt the design will breathe new life into the museum’s collections, too.”

Smith: “The Modern’s new building is, simply put, one of the great cultural tragedies of 21st-century New York.”