Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 14, 2005
Terry Smith Making Manhattan Modern, But Not Contemporary, Again: Reopening Exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, November 2004 College Art Association.
The Museum of Modern Art, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. View of the Werner and Elaine Dannheisser Gallery. Fourth floor with Donald Judd, Untitled, 1989. 59" x 24' 7 1/4" x 65" (150 x 750 x 165 cm). Purchase. © Donald Judd Estate / Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y. Photo © 2005 Timothy Hursley.

Billboards and advertisements all over New York declare that “Manhattan is Modern Again,” often showing an image of angled sunlight raking an elegant building interior. The subscript directs you to the locus of this statement: “The new Museum of Modern Art reopens in Midtown on November 20.” These messages formed a long and careful campaign that generated breathless prepublicity in all media, secured a largely reverential art-world response, brought in twenty thousand visitors on opening day, and racked up record attendances ever since. Given the jewels of early and midcentury modernism that are the core of MoMA’s collection, nothing less was expected. But the reopening was not without its risks, for it exposed the museum to some tough questions about its role and relevance in the twenty-first century—in what can perhaps be called the aftermath of modernity.

MoMA director Glenn Lowry justified the museum’s expansion as meeting pressing needs: to show more of the collection, to show it in a more open, less directive (read: historicist) manner, and to keep the museum alive by showing more contemporary art. This agenda invites three sets of questions: Does the architecture declare and enable a renewed vision of the museum? Are the historical collections more generously, less narrowly, and more intelligently displayed in the new, expanded spaces? Has the museum successfully met the challenges of showing contemporary art? My short answers are, respectively, not really, yes (mostly), and no way.

The architect Yoshio Taniguchi is famous in Japan for his deftly spaced, airy art museums, mostly small in scale and in relatively isolated locations. He managed to achieve these effects even in his Municipal Art Gallery in Tokyo. Midtown Manhattan is, of course, anything but isolated, and certainly no friend to the small in scale. Taniguchi’s undeniable accomplishment is the subtlety with which he has conjured the transparency of the block between 53rd and 54th streets and Fifth and Sixth Avenues, revealing the multiple spatial possibilities inherent within the city’s grid structure. As an architectural fantasy about urban interiority, the new MoMA is hard to beat. (It is precisely this fantasy that the photographer Michael Wesely evokes in his long-exposure images of the museum taken during its renovation, presented in an ongoing exhibition in the temporary-exhibitions gallery on the sixth floor.)

Transparency is achieved at the expense of MoMA maintaining a landmark look. Indeed, the building has a somewhat undistinctive exterior, surrendering the museum’s prestigious profile for a series of glimpses—as you approach the building along 53rd Street—of its previous architectural incarnations. The design sets itself deliberately against the paradigmatic successes of spectacle culture. If less than a decade ago Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, was the pinnacle of destination architecture, reticence is now the new excess. Astonished news media homed in on Taniguchi’s remark to the trustees: “Give me your millions, and I will make you an outstanding museum. Give me more and I will make it disappear.” Yet spectacle values are alive and well in such seemingly modest intentions. The architect presents himself as an illusionist of ever more expensive refinement. He seems to say: if you permit me to make $858 million (actually $425 million in construction costs) evaporate before everyone’s eyes, we will trump those who have made tangled waste of the iconic sign of elevated culture, because we will have rendered massive consumption inconspicuous. While this objective is hardly a new move in the internecine warfare of upper-class culture, it is a magical, up-to-date one nonetheless.

These considerations may not be uppermost in the minds of those in long queues waiting more than two hours for entry (currently in a nearby vacant lot) or those crowding the inadequate lobby. Subtlety appears best in the invitation to begin your experience of the museum in the enlarged sculpture garden, making this refuge—it returns to Philip Johnson’s 1953 layout—an already popular park. Auguste Rodin’s magisterial bronze Monument to Balzac beckons the museum-goer (as another cast of the statue did for many years in the courtyard of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia). The garden affords the best views of the subtleties of the museum building’s exterior and is the best recipient of views from the inside.

Next, the visitor ascends the stairs to the second floor to a huge new uplifting space, a vast rectangular atrium that extends 110 feet to skylight monitors. Sections of the room’s walls are cut out to serve as doors to lower galleries, and to reveal glimpses of upper galleries fed by skyline walkways. Refinement quietly underscores this great space. Here, as in every room, a thin, scarcely visible dark strip of baseboard recedes the point where wall meets floor, adding a sense of weightlessness to even the biggest expanse of wall. So, this is where much of that money went!

The atrium’s floor is nailed down at its center by Barnett Newman’s monumental Broken Obelisk—a repeat of the invitational gesture outside the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Although this sculpture is one of the few works in the MoMA collection that could survive in such a large, open space, it immediately establishes a double message: modern art is iconoclastic—see how we endorse the artist’s attack on classicism—but don’t you love how he does it: such élan, such risky solidity, such authority. Here we are. And there you are. Passing each other, comfortably, en route to the next art excitement. To me, this kind of message gets too close to a themed fountain in a shopping mall.

Which is what the basic design concept soon turns out to be. For all its beauties, and despite its refusal to be the apse of a Cathedral of Contemporary Art (namely, the atrium at the Guggenheim Bilbao), the atrium is a great well that dispenses crowds into the galleries that cluster off of it. The room deploys the mixture of disorientation and directedness that typifies most postmodern foyers. We could, for example, linger in this space and be satisfied with seeing the great Waterlilies by Claude Monet reduced to a cipher for the Impressionism that, we will soon learn, precedes modern art. We could skim over the large, bland paintings by Jasper Johns and Brice Marden on another wall, recognizing them as signals of the proximity of contemporary art elsewhere on the floor. And move smartly to the restaurant or café.

At which point, the building asks those who actually wish to look at the art housed within it to make a choice: stay on this level and enter the contemporary galleries; head for the escalators to the third floor and enter one room after another that houses works from the smaller curatorial departments (Drawings, Prints and Illustrated Books, Architecture and Design, Photography, Film and Media); take the elevators to the fifth floor, cross a suspended bridge, and enter the Painting and Sculpture Department’s Post-Impressionist galleries; or go to the sixth floor for the huge temporary-exhibition gallery. As a matter of experience, this sounds clearer that it is. The printed guide pictures each floor as roughly equivalent in their offerings, which they are not; they are also misleading as maps. Repeat visitors will not need them, but bug-eyed crowds will just follow the flow, cross and recross their paths, as at a movie multiplex on the weekend.

The New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff had no doubt that visitors will get the message that great modern art has to be sought out, and that it exists in a pure form in the fifth- and fourth-floor galleries. There, the great works of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries sit at the apex of a hierarchy of artistic achievement, a level to which more recent art can only aspire. Taniguchi’s design, Ouroussoff recognizes, is “an overwhelming assertion of control, beautiful but chilling.” It underscores “what powerful art institutions do: they set standards, they make evaluations.”1

Alternatively, the design can be seen as an outcome of a program dominated by the territorialism (no word is too ugly for such a phenomenon) of MoMA’s curatorial departments. Medium-overspecificity has pervaded the museum’s history, generating its greatest achievements (outstanding special exhibitions, authoritative historical hangs) and its most abject shortcomings (academic conservatism, caution toward the contemporary). The new building miniaturizes and monumentalizes both. Each departmental gallery tells the same century-long story of modern art’s internal questioning (European, mainly Parisian) leading to an embattled confidence (American, primarily New York in style), and each does so in the absence of examples of academic, conventional, and, with exceptions, mass/commercial/pop-culture oppositions over which version of modern art triumphed. But this narrative is given at a different scale, scope, and depth, and in disjointed sections of the museum—with the result that the sameness of the story becomes porous, all but vanishing as it approaches the present. This is, of course, what actually happened in modern art, which left media-exclusivity behind during the 1960s. MoMA, however, cannot bring itself to place its internal organization behind the scenes. It must be paraded front of house, with confusing results, especially when the museum presents the art of recent decades, to which I will return.

What of the old favorites, those early masterworks of modern painting and sculpture that have come, through insistent repetition, to define modern art for generations of art lovers? They are all here, some moved into new places in the story, and they have been joined by more related works by the same artists. Also new to the party are works by artists from long-ignored, parallel traditions, such as those of Latin America. Yet, for all the extra room (a 50 percent increase in exhibition space), these welcome changes come across as tentative variations in the history of modern art.

The displacement of Paul Cézanne’s Bather from its position of first painting to be seen by Paul Signac’s Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Colors, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890 has attracted much comment. Using the figure of Fénéon as an art illusionist is a witty way of welcoming the public into the Magic Kingdom of modern art. This move enables a wider range of Cézannes to be hung side by side and allows us to see the Bather as more ambiguous, as an image about what it is like to hover on the cusp of manhood. (Are those reddish hands enlarged by the cold, or by a women’s touch?) This first room is a quiet antechamber: it has none of the force of standing in the Gallatin Collection rooms at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where a visitor is able to see, in one sweep great, the late bathers by Cézanne, Pierre-August Renoir, and Edgar Degas.

Crowds knot in front of works by Vincent van Gogh in the second room, especially The Starry Night. On the opposite wall is our first taste of Fauvism: Henri Matisse’s work at Collioure and André Derain’s early, boldly colored canvases. Strains of Fauvism and Cubism play out in rooms devoted to the Italian Futurists and the German Expressionists, until one enters the superb gallery devoted to Matisse, which features ravishing recent acquisitions like The Yellow Curtain alongside such icons as The Red Studio. This gallery surpasses the Matisse room at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and those works at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. MoMA’s Matisse collection is not, to my knowledge, matched anywhere.

It is always wonderful to see how Pablo Picasso transformed European, and especially French, painting in the first two decades of the twentieth century: using the visual coding of the “primitive,” among other approaches, he suffused it with the strangeness of Spanish outsider art and thus rendered it, forever, provisional. While Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a demonstration of this new power, you can see it most poignantly in an adjacent small room displaying his Analytic Cubist works, which create a rich dialogue with those of Georges Braque.

Overall, these initial galleries repeat the museum’s long-standing narrative of modern painting as a struggle between Matisse’s color harmonies and Picasso’s trenchant line. Wassily Kandinsky is pinioned by this row, as are the Futurists. This tug of war persists on the floor below through the juxtaposition of Jackson Pollock and Newman, and echoes into the 1960s, where the clash is absorbed into the work of single artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, played out in Andy Warhol’s silkscreen paintings, and, to our astonishment, present in the high-contrast color of the stacked I-beams of Donald Judd’s Untitled from 1989, which occupies a major external landing.

Along the way there are some outstanding concentrations. A display of Constantin Brancusi sculptures looks as forceful as any showing of his work can, outside of the re-creation of his studio on the grounds of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In the room devoted to Marcel Duchamp, Russian Constructivism, and Dada, medium divisiveness relaxes for a moment, and collage consciousness gets its (too brief) moment of glory. This room houses a terrific wall that presents Kasimir Malevich’s White on White and El Lissitzky’s supremely subtle Proun 19 D. (Project for the Affirmation of the New, indeed!)

Piet Mondrian seems to struggle, except, of course, for Broadway Boogie-Woogie; his art somehow appears as less of an accomplishment than it is. Picasso and Pierre Bonnard reclaim the 1920s through their contrasting visions of their respective spouses: the former’s benign grotesqueries face off against the latter’s beauteous self-effacement. Throughout these rooms, welcome additions of works to the canon appear: several Constructivist paintings by Joaquín Torres-Garcia (but nothing from the Madí group), a selection from the “Migration” series by Jacob Lawrence, Agrarian Leader Zapata by Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros’s haunting Collective Suicide, a nightmarish vision of organized society—driven by lynching and fascism—perpetrating a Last Judgement upon itself. What a prefiguration of a crucial turning-point painting hung one floor below: Pollock’s Number 1, 1948. As you leave the fifth-floor galleries, however, there is a disappointment: works by Charles Sheeler and Edward Hopper occupy a space the size of a cloakroom, and paintings by other pre-WWII American modernists hang on a utilitarian wall opposite the escalators.

The fourth-floor galleries begin with Abstract Surrealism. Pollock’s The She-Wolf sets the tone for the entire floor: U.S. artists struggle with, absorb, and triumphantly transform the artistic possibilities and solve the problems bequeathed by the predominantly European artists on the fifth floor. The good news is that the second room unequivocally confirms that this process was a worthy one: a half-dozen Pollocks, unmatched anywhere, demonstrate that he rendered painting (this time European) provisional, as did Picasso thirty years earlier, and by essentially the same means: subjecting the classical (modern version), via the “primitive.” The reinstallation pitches Newman in the role of Matisse, leading us from the Pollock room to the great scarlet zones of his Vir Heroicus Sublimis. Line and color brawl in the following rooms, with Rauschenberg’s combines and various works using serial repetition paralleling the role of collage earlier in the century, eventually making distinctions among mediums irrelevant. The pivotal contributions of postwar European and South American artists to this process are also acknowledged, but with too few examples. Single works by Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana, and Jesús Rafael Soto can only be hints of the full story.

It is regrettable that, above all, the next great wave of art’s transformation exists in these galleries as awkward residue. Joseph Kosuth and Marcel Broodthaers are boxed into a small side room, reducing Conceptualism to a minor cul-de-sac. Minimalism amounts to little more than wall (Judd) and floor (Carl Andre) decoration, although these works are leavened by the unusual inclusion of a sculpture by Anne Truitt. Something labelled “Postminimalism” animates the last two spaces on this floor. Some fine works by Fred Sandback, Lygia Clark, and Hélio Oiticica look lost, and Robert Smithson shrinks into a corner. The disturbing dialogue set up among these works and among those by Eva Hesse, Joseph Beuys, and Bruce Nauman arrives too abruptly, too late, and without explanation.

This collapse prefigures the great failure of the contemporary-art display, which is sprawled out in three large, high-ceilinged galleries on the second floor. As you enter the first of these, a wall text announces:

The second-floor galleries present a selection of artworks made since approximately 1970. They include not only paintings and sculpture but also drawings, prints, photographs and videos. More than in the Museum’s other galleries, they juxtapose works from the six curatorial departments: Painting and Sculpture, Drawings, Photography, Prints and Illustrated Books, Architecture and Design, Film and Media. This mix acknowledges and celebrates the interdisciplinary spirit that governs the art of our time.

This is the language of an institution that knows art has changed categorically since early modernism—and beyond the classifications that museums have evolved to collect, preserve, and display—but cannot bring itself to change. It knows that other museums have had great popular and largely professional success in making significant shifts in their practices to accommodate these changes. For all its confusions, the Tate Modern in London has parlayed its lesser historical collection and its better contemporary collection into a site unafraid to try out multiple stories, often many at once. Its free-flowing, building-inside-a-building design permits experimentation in a way that the new MoMA does not. In upstate New York, Dia Beacon has massaged art consisting of antimuseum installations and site-specific environments into a suite of singular encounters that makes each work look fresh from the studio. While the Tate is a museum of the same scope as MoMA, Dia Beacon is clearly a specialist space, affording only a partial comparison. Nevertheless, it has set the standard for displaying the most powerful current in contemporary art, a benchmark that no serious museum can ignore.

At MoMA, the 1970s gallery is dominated by several sections of a large slab of house cut by Gordon Matta-Clark (not a Dia favorite, as it happens). The impact of this work, entitled Bingo, is somewhat muted by the mininarrative established by the paintings and photographs hung near it: a Gerhard Richter Cityscape, a gray, surveillancelike image of an urban city seen from an airplane; Thomas Struth’s deadpan photograph of a Parisian street; An-Ming Le’s prospect of Ho Chi Minh City, complete with billboards advertising Western products; and a black-and-white photograph by David Goldblatt showing a tract house in the Transvaal in what seems to be a Lewis Baltz/Grant Mudford manner (but is not, when you recall his trenchant, stunning group of color images at Documenta 11). When the next thing you see is a view out a window, the criteria for the selection of these particular works become clear: less their value as art, more their ability to aid in the coy suggestion that New York City is the greatest artwork of all.

The remainder of this room toys with process and performance art in a largely token way. An exception is the wall holding Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, a mixed-media work devised by Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vrisendorp, and Zoe Zenghelis in 1971 that is devoted to what amounts to an extraordinary fantasy of modernity gone seductively dystopic. Exodus imagines north central London slashed by a zone of architectural forms so beguiling that the city’s inhabitants clamor to enter it, leaving the old city a distant spectacle, lapsing slowly into ruination, while inside the sector creative architectural forms are generated daily. This zone is also an area of respite, which looks uncannily like the garden-style plots that some Londoners (among others) still maintain. The brilliant text that accompanies each frame ends as follows: “Time has been suppressed. Nothing ever happens here, yet the air is heavy with exhilaration.” This is contemporaneity to a T. Irony like this is hard to find in architectural thinking, but desperation is not—it is appropriate that a third-floor gallery devoted to a temporary exhibition, Envisioning Architecture, begins and ends with the Terrain Project of 1998–2000 by Lebbeus Woods.

Perhaps one cannot expect a room devoted to the art of the 1980s to be anything other than a disappointment. On one wall, one can obviously see Warhol’s legacy: his large, golden Rorschach painting accepts the homage of the works by Sigmar Polke and Francesco Clemente that flank it, although it is a long and erudite stretch back through the early 1960s to include Richter’s final painting in the Baader-Meinhof series nearby. But what, apart from “Oh, look! They all respond to pop culture!” connects a Cindy Sherman film still, Jeff Koons’s vacuum cleaners, Elizabeth Murray’s goofy Dis Pair, two sculptures by Robert Gober, a Christopher Wool inscription painting, and Nauman’s neon piece Human/Need/Desire? If this is the theme, then where are the YBAs, the Sensationalists? What keeps Damien Hirst out of the collection?

Superficial curatorial connections also prevail in the room dedicated to art of the 1990s. Most blatant is a pairing of sculptures with physical resemblances but that differ wildly in content: Dolores Salcedo’s Untitled, a work in which plaster “bleeds” from architectural forms, allegorizing the all-pervasiveness of social violence in an excruciatingly material way, with Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Room), a cast of the interior of a room that she built for the purpose of casting its void, of making solid an abstraction, of showing space to be palpable. The depth, subtlety, and pertinence of Jeff Wall’s After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue and Andreas Gurksy’s Rhein II make them both masterpieces of large-scale photography. Elsewhere in these galleries, “contemporary art lite” is the prevailing tone.

In the Media Room, Warhol’s filmed Screen Tests face off some of their recent progeny, notably Eve Sussman’s video 89 Seconds at Alcazar, an enchanting re-creation of the moments before and after the tableau painted by Diego Velázquez in his celebrated Las Meninas. yet new media is conspicuous by its total absence. The contemporary-art gallery brochure offers us this solace:

A word about what is not on view. Many works of art made during the last few decades must occupy an entire room of their own. On the occasion of the building’s opening, we decided not to subdivide the new contemporary galleries into separate chambers. In the future that will certainly occur and this new art will be explored.—indeed, anything digital—does not, it seems, even enter into this pale apology.

Ten years ago, in his Andrew W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, Arthur C. Danto put his finger on the underlying problem. Musing on the “very strong distinction between ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ ” that became evident in the New York art world in the 1970s and early 1980s, he noted that this development had placed MoMA—and, we might add, all other such modern-art museums—in an unanticipated bind. It was a shock to discover that art that “remained under the stylistic imperatives of modernism” was no longer contemporary, except in the trivial sense of being still churned out, anachronistically. “But today,” Danto observed, “as we near the end of the century, the Museum of Modern Art has to decide whether it is going to acquire contemporary art that is not modern and thus become a museum of modern art in the strictly temporal sense or whether it will continue to collect only stylistically modern art, the production of which has thinned down to perhaps a trickle, but which is no longer representative of the contemporary world.”2 The suggestion here was that MoMA might stick to its area of high competence, become a historical museum of modernism, and leave the contemporary to others.

The museum’s answer came in 1999, just as it began closing for the five-year long renovation. In the introduction to the book that accompanied one of the millennial exhibitions, Modern Contemporary: Art at MoMA since 1980, then chief curator Kirk Varnedoe explained:

There is an argument to be made that the revolutions that originally produced modern art, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have not been concluded or superseded—and thus that contemporary art today can be understood as the ongoing extension and revision of those founding innovations and debates. The collection of The Museum of Modern Art is, in a very real sense, that argument. Contemporary art is collected and presented at this Museum as part of modern art—as belonging within, and responding to, and expanding upon the framework of initiatives and challenges established by the earlier history of progressive art since the dawn of the twentieth century.3

A softer version of the same stipulation appears in the introduction to the book Modern Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present, which accompanies the museum’s reopening. Current chief curator John Elderfield returns more than once to a distinction made in the museum’s founding statement by MoMA’s first director, Alfred J. Barr, Jr. For MoMA, genuinely modern art was “the progressive, original and challenging rather than the safe and academic which would naturally be included in the supine neutrality of the term ‘contemporary.’”4 Elderfield explains in detail the evolution of the collections, primarily those in the Painting and Sculpture Department, and patiently sets out the forces—especially those internal to the museum—that shaped the arrangement of the historical collections. Despite his statements to the press that his goal in the current renovation was “to make familiar things strange again, as they once were,” the gentlemanly caution that attends each sentence of his introduction attests to the powerful persistence of MoMA’s past.5 It is a modernist history that swamps the perception of the present. Even the aforementioned advertisements use quotations from earlier MoMA campaigns and reports.

In Elderfield’s book, recent art is included under the coy caption “Untitled (Contemporary).” A cute word play that is also acutely revealing of MoMA prejudices, for it labels everything after Pop as a parenthetical supplement to Minimalist sculpture—which habitually used Untitled as a title. This echoes what is happening on the floors of the contemporary galleries: the museum’s curators seem incapable of seeing (and certainly incapable of displaying) contemporary art as anything other than paintinglike or sculpturelike. At best, this stretches to drawinglike or cinemalike. To the New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, a huge booster of the museum, these rooms are “sparsely scattered with eclectic sculptures, paintings, photographs and drawings that look washed ashore––the costly remains from a sea of curatorial indecision.”6

Where does such indecision come from? MoMA today cannot cope with the paradox that much of the most successful and attention-getting contemporary art is conservative, derivative, and safe because it seductively updates modernist procedures and tastes, whereas the contemporary art that is “progressive, original, and challenging” disputes those procedures and tastes. In its reopening exhibitions, MoMA has chosen to show, mostly, contemporary art that remains modern—modern in style and look. At the same time, the display manages to reduce most of those works that are not so conformist to nearly total ineffectuality. MoMA has yet to embrace the recent global shift to art that is “progressive, original, and challenging,” that emerges from the new senses these values have, today, in the conditions of contemporaneity. Perhaps it never will do so, because it cannot. In the meantime, its only option is to celebrate its past, and to wait out the future.

1 Nicolai Ouroussoff, “Art Fuses With Urbanity in a Redesign of the Modern,” New York Times, November 15, 2004.

2 Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 10.

3 Kirk Varnedoe, Paola Antonelli, and Joshua Siegel, eds., Modern Contemporary: Art at MoMA since 1980 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2000), 12. For a critique of MoMA’s millennial exhibitions, particularly ModernStarts: People, Places, Things, see Franco Moretti, “MoMA2000: The Capitulation,” New Left Review, second series, 4 (July–August 2000): 98–102.

4 Cited John Elderfield, Modern Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2004), 12.

5 “New York Arts Report,” PBS, Channel 13, New York, November 27, 2003.

6 Michael Kimmelman, “Racing to Keep Up with the Newest,” New York Times, November 19, 2004.