That simplicity has very little to do with the kind of pristine Minimalism that has often dominated the design scene in recent decades. When Biesenbach bought the Manhattan apartment in 2007—after seeing it listed in The New York Times online classifieds—he took out a few walls and refinished the dark wood floors, but he left most of the place untouched, not even bothering to repaint the living room walls. (You can still see faint outlines where the previous owner’s pictures hung.)
Clearly it’s an approach that allows him a break from the countless aesthetic judgments that his day job requires. As MoMA’s chief curator of media, Biesenbach oversees the museum’s fast-growing collection of multimedia installations and video and performance pieces. (He co-organized last year’s Olafur Eliasson survey, curated the current Pipilotti Rist exhibit and is preparing upcoming shows of Marina Abramovic and Tehching Hsieh.) “Normally I have to make so many decisions about the tone of white and the tone of gray,” he says. “And should this be a half an inch higher, and to the left? So I actually think this space is about making no decisions.”
Biesenbach doesn’t have a single painting or photograph in his apartment. He wonders whether people who live with static artworks look at them enough. The “ephemeral” pieces he generally favors—performance, video, film—tend to demand far more active engagement. On the floor of his living room Biesenbach has an old InFocus video projector, which he uses to display a movie or a video piece on the wall. (He’ll sometimes move the mattress from the bedroom to sit and watch.) Mostly, though, he likes to keep the projector turned off because it distracts from what he considers the apartment’s main attraction: the mesmerizingly cinematic view from the 340-square-foot terrace.
“When I first walked out here, I said, ‘Wow, this is like a movie,’” says Biesenbach, pointing out his favorite elements of the hyperkinetic urban tableau: boats cruising the East and Hudson rivers, commercial jets on their way to and from the area’s three major airports, subway cars snaking out of a tunnel to cross the Williamsburg Bridge. On the ground, the teeming streets, sidewalks and handball courts are like the giant set of some deconstructed epic film that’s on permanent loop. The apartment is on the 18th floor—low enough to make Biesenbach feel almost a part of the action but high enough to afford some distance from it. From up here, he says, it sometimes seems as if you could see the curvature of the earth. “Of course you can’t,” says Biesenbach, “but it feels as if you can.”
Biesenbach, who lives alone, spends most of his time on the terrace, where the sights of traffic jams and the sounds of police sirens conjure memories of Kojak and other American TV series that he grew up watching. “There is great sympathy for what you see, but you also feel very disconnected,” he says. “And you’re constantly hearing this sound, but it’s not really a feedback into reality—it’s a feedback into fiction.”