The New Museum of Modern Art Opens on Monday, the critics early visits suggest we’re in for a big shock of the new.
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With a week still left to go before the public gets to see the newly renovated, expanded and re-conceived Museum of Modern Art in New York, the world’s pre-eminent reference point for what is viewed as Modern and Contemporary art, most of us have been learning about the new institution through a series of narratives, walk-throughs and critiques published in major newspapers and magazines.
MoMA’s public relations team did their job well. Most of the accounts, pro or con, hit the same major themes and use the same signal set pieces to make the point of what is happening on West 53rd St. The museum’s ur-modern work, Picasso’s Desmoiselles is now displayed in a gallery across from works by two women artists that echo its themes and counter its force.
To many, the diminution of the Desmoiselles is nothing more than a parlour trick. Facing off against a massive work by Faith Ringgold both inspired by and drawing from the Desmoiselles, one reviewer complained that “the Cubist works are upstaged and all but drained of impact.” One might wonder how a reviewer could be so willfully blind to the fact that the point of the juxtaposition is to blunt the previous impact of Picasso’s invocation of atavism and sexual aggression. But it takes a special kind of obtuse to splutter against the use of Ringgold to “problematize” Picasso, as the Wall Street Journal’s Eric Gibson does with no evident self-awareness, by claiming Ringgold’s inclusion is “nothing more than a naked play to the racial and gender politics of the moment.”
Dismantling the racial and gender politics of Picasso’s time (not to mention Gibson’s time), is obviously the point of MoMA’s debut exhibition. Nonetheless, it isn’t just middle-aged guys who feel disoriented by this. Alexandra Peers, writing in Architectural Digest, shared a bit of cultural historical vertigo from the dismantling of MoMA’s former didacticism:
No ancestry.com–type family tree tying Cézanne to Picasso. Precious little geographic breakdown and only broad buckets of chronology. And in this core alteration, it loses perhaps not so much cohesion, but an air of suspense and feeling of grace. This is a choose-your-adventure history of art, and one without clear turning points and climaxes. You wander galleries with titles like Machines, Mannequins and Monsters and At the Border of Art and Life, turning onto gorgeous thing flanked by gorgeous thing surrounded by other gorgeous thing (Matisse! Picasso! A chapel of Brancusi! Cool people you’ve never heard of!) and say, “tell me a story.”
Providing a narrative is one of the central functions of culture. One can argue that attempting to subvert the already frayed narrative of Modernity, its belief in progress and ambition to make everything new, doesn’t really give us much to hold on to. New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson discovered that some connected to this new MoMA aren’t as exhausted by Modernism as the culture might suggest:
“Modernism isn’t over,” [architect Elizabeth] Diller remarks. “We’re still living it, and constantly rethinking it. We’re wiser and more cynical about some of its utopian aspirations, but there are some grand objectives that we’re still working out.”
The tension between the Modern (the museum) and modernism’s relentless destruction of everything in its path, including the idea of Modernity itself, is a curious irony identified by Phillip Kennicott in the Washington Post:
When the museum was founded in 1929, it put forth a militant face, arguing by example for a modernist view of the world that eventually encompassed art, architecture and design. But it was always an establishment property, loyal to wealth and wealthy donors, and though the public embraced it, the museum often did things that felt like a betrayal of its larger, public mission. It became a bastion of exclusion, and artists and curators who were not welcome there often worked and organized in opposition to what MoMA stood for, pushing the art world forward even as one of its greatest “modern” institutions held things back.
You would think that might make Kennicott sympathetic to MoMA’s new emphasis toward creating a less didactic, more eclectic museum where art history is de-emphasized in favor of the art itself. Surprisingly, though, Kennicott pulls back from this idea:
But there’s a difference between complicating narratives and abandoning them. MoMA seems to want to do the latter but can’t quite bring itself to do so. The rough narrative in the galleries remains broadly chronological, with the stars of its collections still pretty much where you expect to find them. The danger is that the museum will end up with a two-tier system, still dependent on the iconic pieces that visitors demand to see, supplemented by the occasional guests brought in temporarily to complicate things. Even more worrisome is the stated goal of abandoning the didactic function. No one wants a cultural organization that hectors, but they do want to learn. It’s a question of tone.
The museum is adapting to the massive upgrade in importance that art has in 21st Century global culture. Art’s popularity can be measured in the groaning attendance figures and the variety of faces that walk through the door. Ann Temkin put it better to Jason Farago in his excellent preview piece:
“Nobody in 1970 could have imagined, in their wildest dreams, that level of general audience,” Ms. Temkin said. “It was such a narrower demographic that was coming to MoMA, and it was fairly safe to assume a certain level of familiarity with cultural history from the last century. You look at our visitors today, and you know that’s not the case.”
That success has made MoMA a rickety “machine for viewing art,” as Justin Davidson puts it in New York Magazine:
[T]he success of this latest incarnation will be gauged by how many visitors the facility can process in any given day. The new architecture expresses the logic of perpetual growth. Denser crowds bring more money, which buys more art, which requires more space, which demands more money and bigger crowds. It’s no coincidence that the “blade” staircase hangs in the air above another theatrical coup: the store. A double-height wall of books soars from the basement level, past a bridge and up to a scalloped ceiling that catches the eye as well as sucking up sound. Here, facing the street, is a space that declares the museum’s enthusiastic embrace of retail. What is an artwork after all, if not the ultimate consumer good?
That might be a bit of a cheap shot. MoMA isn’t culprit in the art and luxury conflation. It seems clear the museum is doing everything it can to combat that trend. The auction houses have found ever more heroic ways to display their art; but nothing about this new MoMA embraces that. Peter Schjeldahl grapples with this a little in his New Yorker review:
Decisions to stitch works of formerly segregated mediums, such as graphic art, photography, design, architecture, artists’ books, and film, into the historic course of painting and sculpture come off pleasantly—the museum owns gems in all fields—though you sense the strain of the forced equivalencies of art and artifacts. moma laid the groundwork for this dilemma nine decades ago, when the founders envisaged an encyclopedic approach to products of modernity, eliding bohemian studios with commercial industries. That mandate, though still guiding new acquisitions, has devolved from evangelical avant-gardism to the preservation of multitudinous brainstorms of yesteryear. The adorable 1945-vintage Bell helicopter, acquired in 1984, yet hovers above the stairs to the second floor, gamely signifying something epochal, or not so epochal, or bizarre, depending on your predilection. So vast is the frame of reference adopted at the museum’s outset that, by now, no survey of the collection can amount to more than a walk-through brochure of choice examples. Obligatory breadth renders depth moot. There’s no help for this.