In 1932, three years after its founding in 1929 by Lillie P. Bliss, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and Mary Quinn Sullivan, The Museum of Modern Art moved from its rented galleries in the Heckscher Building on Fifth Avenue to 11 West Fifty-third Street, a limestone townhouse owned by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. To house its ever expanding collection, the Museum’s first permanent building, designed in the International Style by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, went up on this site in 1939. The previous year, two townhouses to the immediate north, on West Fifty-fourth Street, had been demolished to provide the land for the Museum’s sculpture garden. Of these, the one at 4 West Fifty-fourth Street—a four-story brownstone with a two-story carriage house and a central garden—had belonged to John D. Rockefeller, Sr. At the time of its demolition, three of its Victorian-style rooms were disassembled and donated to The Museum of the City of New York while a Moorish room was given to the Brooklyn Museum. The other, at 10 West Fifty-fourth Street, had belonged to Abby and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Designed by William Welles Bosworth, the nine-story building contained a gallery for modern art on the seventh floor and displays of earlier European paintings, statuary, and Chinese porcelains throughout.
Since the inauguration of the sculpture garden, in 1939, the foundations of these dwellings have remained largely undisturbed, despite the Museum’s subsequent renovations and growth. In 2000, in preparation for the Museum’s most extensive rebuilding project yet, the garden was temporarily disassembled and the land was excavated to a depth of fifteen feet. In October of that year, artist Mark Dion performed a series of archaeological digs, recovering a pillar and fragments of the limestone foundation from the nine-story townhouse. A month later he scavenged again in the garden, as well as in the hollowed-out brownstones adjoining the Museum to the west and in the newly demolished Dorset Hotel. His findings included historical artifacts such as cornices, moldings, shards of ceramic and glass, sections of fireplace mantels, wallpaper pieces, and bricks from distinct phases of the Museum’s expansion, as well as more recent ephemera, including the remains of Bruce Nauman’s Audio-Visual Underground Chamber (1972–74), which was installed in the garden as part of the artist’s 1995 retrospective. The digs confirmed that subsurface deposits not associated with the Rockefeller family’s period of residence were also extant. This was not surprising, since the garden had served as the construction site for a number of projects over the years, from Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Deployment Unit (1942) and Marcel Breuer’s Demonstration House (1949) to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s child-sized glass pavilion (1997) and Piotr Uklanski’s dance floor (2000).
Dion has conducted a number of archaeological projects over the last decade: he dredged a Venetian canal for Raiding Neptune’s Vault: A Voyage to the Bottom of the Canals and Lagoon of Venice (1997–98); combed the banks of the River Thames on the sides of both the old Tate (Millbank) and the new (Bankside) for Tate Thames Dig (1999); and investigated his own cultural backyard, Massachusetts, for New England Digs (2001). In each case his work was divided into three phases: the actual dig; the cleaning and cataloguing of the finds; and the display of artifacts in treasure cabinets. Unlike bona fide archaeological digs, Dion’s excavations have no real scientific value. Instead, his approach to gathering, ordering, and displaying is designed to probe the underlying taxonomic systems of museums and the narratives that their collections construct. What is an important artifact? Who determines the context in which it is displayed? How is it used to tell a story? These are some of the questions raised by Dion’s work. Drawing on 1970s aesthetics such as, on the one hand, Robert Smithson’s dialectical rapport between “sites” and “nonsites,” and on the other, Marcel Broodthaers’s fictional museum displays, Dion underscores the fact that the story told by a collection is only a partial one. His questioning is thus part of a process of opening art up to a broader field of critical debate.
Rescue Archaeology: A Project for The Museum of Modern Art is among Dion’s most focused ventures, being intricately linked to the founding and history of the Museum. Yet despite its documentary makeup, the project is infused with an element of fantasy. A series of six fireplace mantels, for instance, salvaged from the brownstones adjacent to the Museum and fully restored by the artist, are intended to refer to the living room of Abby and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., renowned for its warmth and intimacy. A custom-made cabinet presents objects cleaned and classified not by scientific criteria but by the artist’s logic; visitors are invited to peruse its contents and appreciate its odd organizational paradigms. Finally, a functional laboratory and a group of photographs recording Dion’s behind-the-scenes archaeological “performance,” as he calls it, reveal an interest in experimentation and process that balances his investment in the finished product. It is fitting that an artist who acts as both performer and archaeologist should link the site of production with that of display, making the material remains buried beneath the Museum’s garden and in its environs the subject of his study. Conceiving an installation about the Museum’s foundations within its new building, Dion ascertains a direct link between the house of modernism and the world around it.
Organized by Roxana Marcoci, Assistant Curator Department of Photography.