The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth's new home is stunning, and only in part because of its size, which is downright Texan. Driving up, the place has the feel of a concrete-bunkered city on what passes for a hill--in North Texas anyway. At first gander, it looks less like a museum than like the home of some huge federal bureaucracy. Half walled-in by concrete, metal and asphalt, half glassed-in but looking over a reflecting pool toward the Fort Worth skyline, it has the feel of a large, official government building, a ministry of information perhaps.
Which is, of course, exactly what it is. Like most museums focusing on art since World War II, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is less a repository of objects than a forum for the public presentation of ideas. Thus, the majority of MAMFW's 153,000 square feet of new space is devoted to the activities of its staff, a small army (or priesthood, if you prefer) of contemporary art experts and support staff who toil behind the massive, rebar-reinforced gray walls. Together, they come up with a message, or more precisely messages, which are presented in some 53,000 square feet of sparkling new public exhibition space.
The messages are not always profound. With the sometimes touching, more often infuriating, naïveté of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, contemporary art is in love with the idea of ideas. "We are living in a time when anything can be a work of art, when works of art can be made of whatever material seems suitable, and where there are no perceptual criteria in virtue of which some things are works of art and some things are not," writes the art theorist and critic Arthur Danto. "Contemporary art celebrates the thought projected by the work, which may itself have very little distinction, aesthetically speaking." Indeed. Thus have we come to the point where art is only art by virtue of someone appending a highfalutin pompous philosophy. Duchamp rules.
Given this (sad) state of affairs, the MAMFW's new building is ironic on several levels. For one thing, this may be the first museum of contemporary art in America that actually works on an aesthetic level. In outré, old-fashioned terms, it is beautiful, a remarkable piece of public sculpture. Designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the museum--Ando's first major public commission in the United States--manages at once to fit perfectly into its context and to break through, to create something new and marvelous.
This is no mean feat. For one thing, the 'hood is full of miraculous and idiosyncratic buildings. Across the street is the Kimbell, Louis Kahn's quirky, barrel-vaulted travertine-and-concrete masterwork. Up the hill is the Amon Carter Museum, Philip Johnson's International Style period piece. Ando's new work manages the improbable trick of incorporating the language and materials of both buildings, and out of them creating something new.
Remarkably new. For inside, Ando and his clients have created a space full of miracles and wonder. From the second you enter the building, the vague, half-sinister sense of a bureaucracy up to no good fades, replaced by a feeling of openness and warmth. In part this is the byproduct of Ando's design, which erases the boundaries between the material and the ethereal. The building makes ample use of concrete and steel--cold, hard, industrial materials--but they are polished to a warm charcoal tone and so inviting that you instinctively want to touch. Across the way, the concrete gives way to a remarkable series of walls of glass that plunge into a reflecting pool. The walls of glass form an intriguing series of blind corners and nooks and crannies, all overlooking the pool and the downtown skyline, lending the space that vague air of unease, that sense of mortality and fragility that one gets from, say, looking over the edge of a cliff. It is a layout that emphasizes opposites--air and water and concrete--and space that gives the illusion of erasing material boundaries. In short, it sets one up for thinking in philosophical terms.
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This may be the first museum space in which works of pure thought come off better than the canvases on the wall. In this context, Martin Puryear's minimalist woodworks and Donald Judd's stainless-steel-and-Plexiglas rectangles take on a sense of purpose and wonderment that they have never held for me. Similarly, Anselm Kiefer's "Book with Wings," a work that has always seemed corny and ham-fisted in the usual sterile, white-walled art-viewing venue, here seems mystical and profound.
Wandering through this amazing space, I found myself wondering how much of the problem with contemporary art is attributable to the ubiquity of the museum-as-white-box. The starkness of the white wall lays an idea bare for all to see, and viewing art in that context can be a bit like seeing it under a microscope, or on a dissecting table; there is the idea, and that is all. MAMFW's new venue changes this somehow. For example, at one point I wandered into a stairwell and heard what seemed like a soundtrack from some piece of video art, and, for the first time I can recall, I found myself looking for the source. I wanted to see how it would look here, to experience it in this context. I found myself wondering whether the video art of Gillian Wearing, which struck me as a series of slight, false, too-clever-by-half gags when I recently viewed it at Chicago's white-walled Contemporary Art Museum, might actually work here.
Of course, this raises certain questions about what passes for profundity and meaning in the world of contemporary art, as well as about the meaning underlying the MAMFW. What is the philosophy undergirding this amazing feat of concrete? Again, the answer, as presented in the permanent collection and in chief curator Michael Auping's essay introducing "110," MAMFW's newly published catalog of the collection, is ironic in the extreme. For the permanent collection reveals one of the more conservative collecting strategies to be found among museums of contemporary art. Heavy on Ab Ex and Pop art, light on photography-based work, the collection leans heavily toward canvases on the wall and away from more experimental forms of "art." MAMFW's collection manages to avoid many of the excesses of the past, especially of the '80s. Indeed, at times it seems to reflect a minority taste in the arts--the notion that beauty and the object both count. Aesthetic distinction may not be greatly prized in contemporary art, but it is abundantly present at the MAMFW, both on the walls and in the form of the building itself. It is that rarest of sculptural pieces, one that works in terms of both thought and aesthetics.
The cynic in me can even ignore the dark side. MAMFW's new venue is the perfect place to collect, introduce and stage works of "pure thought," slight works that rely on the illusion of profundity, that encourage viewers to believe in what Danto calls "the philosophical reflection in the heart of artistic discourse" the way the scarecrow believed his problems would be solved if he only had a brain. Viewed in this context, the canvases that rely on fuddy-duddy virtues like hard work and artistic skill may look musty and old-fashioned, but who cares? With the thoughts we'll be thinking, we'll be a buncha Lincolns.