Maze of New Folk Museum Takes Getting Used To

Another week in New York, another art museum opens. Well, not quite: The American Folk Art Museum, which has now opened its new headquarters at 45 West 53rd Street, down the block from the Museum of Modern Art, has been around in one guise or another for four decades. When it was inaugurated in 1961, it was called the Museum of Early American Folk Arts. Under its current name, it also maintains a branch museum on Columbus Avenue at Lincoln Square, between 65th and 66th streets. Yet over this 40-year period, there have been many problems. The erratic visibility of this museum–often, indeed, its viability–has raised many doubts. Until now, anyway, its role in New York art life has been marginal.

With the opening of its big and rather bizarre new building, however, the American Folk Art Museum has at last made a serious bid for the big time. Whether or not it succeeds in this ambition remains to be seen. A great deal will depend on how the public responds to the new building, which is anything but folksy. After two visits, I have to confess I find it somewhat daunting. It is certainly unlike any other museum building that I’ve seen, either here or abroad. It is going to take some getting used to. The building’s designers, the New York firm of Tod Williams, Billie Tsien Architects, have given us an edifice that is, in effect, a sort of vertical maze or labyrinth–a fusion, if you will, of Bauhaus geometry, English brutalism and Piranesi. If this makes it sound like an improbable exercise in architectural incongruities, so be it.

Its 30,000-square-foot structure is divided into eight levels and features great geometrical slabs of gray stone, gray concrete and gray steel enclosing many narrow passageways, shadowy catwalks and charmless stairwells. (The eight levels are serviced by a single public elevator, by the way, so recourse to the uninviting stairways is all but mandatory for the able-bodied.) The interior contains a great deal of glass but few brightly lit areas, the principal one being the white-walled main-floor atrium. Owing, perhaps, to the many objects on view that are works on paper, the light levels tend to be unusually low.

Another of the museum’s eccentricities is its signage. The wall labels, too, are often an exercise in incongruity. Some are situated at knee-level and can scarcely be read without getting down on hands and knees; others are so distant from the objects they identify that they’re hardly worth bothering with. Only the major works are provided with wall texts. One has the impression that design has been given priority not only over readability but over basic information as well.

But then, this is a building that at every turn–and it is a building of a great many turns–calls insistent attention to itself rather than to the objects on exhibition. Many of the smaller objects are crammed into insufficient exhibition space, and the framed works on paper are similarly crowded into storage-like inventories. The paintings, especially the many portraits, fare better, but the overall impression we’re left with is of a building that is already too cramped to accommodate the scale of the exhibitions the museum aspires to.

I say all this with considerable regret, for I have a keen interest in American folk art, and I think it ought to have been given a more viewer-friendly building. This is trophy architecture of a kind that artists have every reason to despise, for it inevitably has the effect of aggrandizing the architecture at the expense of the art it’s supposed to be serving. In some respects, to be sure, this is a brilliantly conceived building, but every aspect of it is wildly at odds with the spirit of the art that it houses and is expected to house in the future.

My own standards in this matter are derived, in large part, from the dazzling–and dazzlingly intelligent–exhibitions of American folk art that the late Jean Lipman organized years ago at the Whitney Museum of American Art, especially the great exhibition called The Flowering of American Folk Art . The Whitney is no architectural masterpiece, either, and it’s certainly not lacking a certain brutalism of its own. Yet owing to the consistently high quality of the objects that Jean Lipman selected for the Flowering exhibition and the genius of its installation, that show did more to advance the aesthetic appreciation of American folk art than any other in my lifetime, and it won over a new public for the art. For many of us, it was a revelation. It tells us something about the new quarters for the American Folk Art Museum that there isn’t a single space under its roof where the Flowering exhibition could have been accommodated.

(Jean Lipman was herself a great collector of American folk art as well as a great scholar in this field, and her role as a benefactor resulted in the Whitney’s acquisition of many masterpieces of American folk art for its so-called permanent collection. Yet as soon as Mrs. Lipman was dead, the museum sent off its entire folk art to be auctioned at Sotheby’s. Of course, earlier on it had done more or less the same thing with its collection of 19th-century American paintings.)

There are many wonderful things to be seen at the new American Folk Art Museum, especially in the show Radiance: The Ralph Esmerian Gift to the American Folk Art Museum . But this, too, is so cramped for space in the new building that it’s going to take a while to figure out what is of permanent aesthetic interest and what is merely an object of historical curiosity. Folk art, like any other field of artistic endeavor, calls for connoisseurship. For that matter, so does architecture. And one feels the absence of a governing connoisseurship very keenly in the crowded collections that dominate this opening installation of the American Folk Art Museum. These collections, like the building itself, are going to take some getting used to. They remain on view at the museum through June 2, 2002.