Friday, May 3, 2013

Size Matters


"Put any of MoMA’s art in that building and it will die. And certainly contemporary art does not work there. Even granting that the Williams-Tsien facade is singular (I once compared it to a Kleenex box), the proponents of this building love it as an abstract ideal of a space for art, a platonic thing apart, a fetish," Jerry Saltz has written about the razing of the American Folk Art Museum. 

Originally unveiled in 2001, the architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien designed the American Folk Museum as a sort of paean to folk art.  That's probably what is killing it now.  Although there is a lot of debate and hand-wringing happening about the whole incident,  Saltz seems to be the spokesperson here for institutional truth: the reason the building needs to go is because it kills contemporary art.  The backstory is pretty simple:  MoMA bought the building in 2011, around the time the AFAM was running into major trouble as an institution.  AFAM almost folded last year, but is now back to where it started in a lobby somewhere.  And now MoMA wants to demolish the building in favor of more "big" space.

It's almost like a comeuppance, this tragedy, for any of us who ever had the unmitigated gall of taking something so small and insignificant as "folk art" seriously.  After all, Saltz is letting us know in his piece that "folk art" is not "contemporary art."  Saltz loathes Williams and Tsien's creation because it evokes the strange smallness and unnerving disjuncture that a lot of folk/outsider/visionary/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it art elicits.  He does not know how to categorize something unless it is categorical, defined by tradition, and I guess great big.

Comparing the bronze, beaten, carefully obtuse facade to a "Kleenex box" and then the whole building to a "fetish" is probably the way he sees most of the art that used to be, and would have been, showcased inside the thing.  Something is missing, Saltz is letting us know:  size.  Bigness rules.  Saltz, and the MoMA and its legions, are doing Gordon-Gecko drag here.  Those big MoMA works of art ("big" both literally and figuratively and historically) can't be housed within that itty-bitty Joseph-Cornell shitbox called a "folk art museum."

It's really kind of sad the disrespect not only the arcitecture is getting in this whole weird battle to destroy a "Kleenox box," but also the art that once was celebrated within it.  A lot of folk artists work small, with weird, inarchivable materials, in strange and platonic ways that look dinky and silly, I'm sure, to Saltz' eye, especially when compared to actual "contemporary art." 

If folk art is the Rodney Dangerfield of the artworld, then Saltz' "contemporary art" is the Donald Trump, and the Donald right now is saying, "You're fired" to art that doesn't take up a lot of space literally but that can expand in your head if you give it half a chance.  Same goes for Williams and Tsien's intricate, origami-lush little building. 

"You're fired, Mr. Kleenex Box."