Concrete being essentially stone, and people essentially water, the latest New Museum Triennial, titled “Soft Water Hard Stone,” evokes an image of the institution being incrementally worn away by a succession of visitors. Dramatizing this vision is one of the first pieces a visitor encounters on the fourth level: Machine #4: stone (ground), 2017, by Gabriela Mureb, features a simple motorized rod rigged to prod, continuously and rhythmically, a head-size rock. The rock tips back, then forward, striking the concrete floor with a thump that resounds through the gallery. In a corner of the same room is the first portion of Jeneen Frei Njootli’s Fighting for the title not to be pending (2020), the artist’s weight in beads, sprinkled throughout the exhibition. This whimsical take on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy piles, with the body not so much depleted as spread thin, seemed wan at first; but as I filtered through the show, following its top-to-bottom flow through the building, the beads appeared in more surprising crannies and subtler cracks, in the joints of the concrete floor and along the bottom edge of the plate glass in the lobby gallery. The grander gesture yielded to the slight, persistent one.
Curated by Margot Norton and Jamillah James with Jeanette Bisschops and Bernardo Mosqueira, the exhibition is heavy on formalism, mercifully light on lessons. Most of the work approaches materialism, kineticism, representation/abstraction, and other issues well within the purview of contemporary, or even modern, art. Sometimes, the show’s formalism still alludes to historical and ongoing social ills. Krista Clark’s Annotations on Shelter 3 (2021), a small orange tent wrapped around a concrete slab leaning against the wall, models homelessness in a minimalist idiom. Iris Touliatou’s Flavin-esque arrays of flickering fluorescent lights, Untitled (Still Not Over You), 2021, were salvaged from offices in a near-bankrupt Athens. And the titles of Kang Seung Lee’s doting, large-scale drawings of pebbles reference international sites significant to queer liberation where the stones were found: Tapgol Park in Seoul, an historic cruising ground and LGBT protest site, and Prospect Cottage on the Dungeness coast, once the home of Derek Jarman. Other works, such as Brandon Ndife’s amalgams of furniture and earthy growths, carry a more elemental sense of decay. In one of the curators’ more literal portrayals of the show’s theme, Tomás Díaz Cedeño’s 1000 años (2019), a gathering of stalactite-shaped conglomerations of concrete dangle from chains while water drips slowly off their ends, pooling at the sculpture’s base before being pumped back to the top—a loose citation of “systems art,” perhaps, which, unlike the mineral drips of natural stalactites, is self-eroding. The title invokes a short-term geologic time, less suggestive of glaciers or caves than of human-made structures.
In short, the exhibition offers an oblique, almost misty critique of the institution that conceptual art built. Conceptualism’s classic, text-dependent pseudoscience appears in Clara Ianni’s line drawings mapping museum employees’ more or less lengthy commutes (Labor Drawing [New Museum], 2021), which illustrate the correlation between class and access, and in Rose Salane’s image-text panels (60 Detected Rings [1991–2001], 2021), which describe the sixty rings on display, all lost and found in Atlantic City, including their weight, raw value, and underwhelming readings from a psychic. Throughout the show, subversive impulses invoking the 1970s mingle with an even older generation’s art pour l’art, minus the interceding experiments in direct action. I kept thinking of Chris Burden’s practically mythological Samson (1985), where a turnstile at the entrance to the museum or gallery cranked a machine that would, eventually, break the building. “Soft Water Hard Stone” would do the same, but metaphorically: the show tap, tap, taps on the idea of the Institution, broadly stated. The physical gags of works like Mureb’s stonebreaker are wistful instantiations of political force—namely, a people-power push toward equity.
It may be more exciting to declare a revolution than to reiterate the promise of gradual change. But art is better suited to the latter. What we see within and beyond the museum walls isn’t the catastrophic systemic failure that many of us imagined, even hoped for, in the unrestful past few years; and yet—case in point—in the four years since the New Museum Triennial’s more gung-ho, bomb-throwing 2018 edition, “Songs for Sabotage,” the institution’s staff have unionized, overcoming stiff, cynical contestation from management. And “Soft Water Hard Stone” is the second consecutive Triennial to focus almost entirely, with one or two exceptions, on women and people of color.
Would any gallery have let Burden’s Samson crack their structure? It didn’t come to that—maybe the crowds were too thin—and anyway, in at least one instance, the fire department shut the piece down. In contrast, “Soft Water Hard Stone” seems resigned to the political limits of art as it stands. Put another way, “Soft Water Hard Stone” offers nothing more, nothing less, than the expediency of art without violence.