For many of us, the history of art is a complex web of interrelationships, connections, and cross-references, now direct, now oblique, that endure over time. Art, whatever else it may address, is usually about other art, even for modernists. For all their rejection of stale conventions and constricting rules, the adventurous men and women who forever changed our conceptions of art from all disciplines didn’t reject the past. Quite the contrary. (See T. S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent.) They wanted to be as good as the artists whom they admired from any era. Far from seeking novelty for its own sake, they strove for genuine newness—intensity, freshness, unpredictability, and all the rest of it. Generations of us learned to follow this evolution, at least in relation to Western art, at the Museum of Modern Art. We all know the story: Paul Cézanne aspiring “to do Poussin over from nature” and ending up inventing an unprecedented way of translating his “sensations” into images that, in turn, pointed the way for such radical innovators as Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. And so on. In recent decades, we were often reminded that this wasn’t the whole story, but it served, nonetheless, as a useful starting point, a way of orienting ourselves, a path through the constantly expanding versions of the narrative.
There are many things to celebrate, starting with the intelligently adjusted lobby, enterable from both Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth Streets, now airier, more expansive, and more welcoming.
The much-discussed “new moma”—the expansion designed by Diller Scofidio+Renfro and the reinstallation of the permanent collection—was conceived to upset this narrative and redress the accumulated wrongs generated by this kind of linear thinking. “There is,” we are told, “no single or complete history of modern or contemporary art,” an unassailable contention that has provoked what must be the most wide-ranging, diverse, non-doctrinaire telling of the story at any time since the museum was founded nine decades ago. It must be acknowledged, though, that this new, admirable open-mindedness also springs from the assumption that chronological organization and an emphasis on what were once referred to as formal relationships are not only inadequate to the complexity of the matter but also irrelevant. And since it’s unacceptable “to privilege” one approach over another, notions of influence and evolution are equally suspect. The “new moma” vividly embodies these principles. Rather than helping us to make sense of the shaggy, sometimes contradictory, multiple histories of modern and contemporary art, as one might expect this distinguished institution to do, the initial installation and, to some degree, Diller Scofidio+Renfro’s architecture leaves us to our own devises—or, these days, devices.
There are many things to celebrate, starting with the intelligently adjusted lobby, enterable from both Fifty-third and Fifty-fourth Streets, now airier, more expansive, and more welcoming. There are additional elevators, a spectacular top-to-bottom new staircase, and more than forty-thousand square feet of exhibition space added by a series of elegant, well-lit, and handsomely proportioned galleries to the west of Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2001–04 addition. Further, there are two tall multipurpose spaces accessible to the public without charge, a new upper-level café and terrace, and other useful amenities. The shop has been relegated to the lower level, visible from the main floor but not intrusive. Alas, the once-iconic garden that many years ago was key to a first impression of the museum remains best seen from the self-contained (expensive) restaurant; the public lobby faces the narrow end and the entrance doors, off to the side, are discouraging.
The new moma’s inaugural installation, a collaboration among the curators of all departments, announces that the history of modern and contemporary art is global, rather than European or American, and acknowledges that the contributions of many groups of artists have been neglected. The acquisition dates on the labels remind us that aggressive recent collecting has greatly expanded the museum’s representation of women, African-Americans, and Latin Americans, among many others, including self-taught artists (who were eagerly embraced by moma in its early days) and artists from Asia and Africa. It’s good to see a painting by Alma Thomas and an energetic work on paper by Pat Passlof featured as a result, and many works, including a first-rate 1957 Helen Frankenthaler and a terrific 1931 Stuart Davis, not exhibited for years, are now on view. Matisse’s ravishing Swimming Pool (1952), too fragile to be shown other than intermittently, is once again on display.
Works in different media are combined, sometimes in ways that remind us that potent, related formal and conceptual ideas can take a variety of forms, although there’s often irritating noise when films are included with photographs, paintings, and works on paper. (In compensation, the galleries for video deal well with containing sound.) Some thematically organized galleries are essentially well-conceived mini-shows, especially those devoted to architecture and design; they’re sometimes even witty. A generous fragment of the façade of the recently restored United Nations Secretariat Building, for example, is paired with a clip of Jacques Tati’s 1967 Playtime, an absurdist survey of M. Hulot’s baffled encounters with modernist corporate architecture.
Art, whatever else it may address, is usually about other art, even for modernists.
There’s a delightful gallery devoted to the poet, critic, friend of artists, and moma curator Frank O’Hara, complete with a portrait by his friend Larry Rivers and a series of works made to be shown with his poems by a who’s who of innovative New York artists of the 1960s. Persevere and we can find a glorious upward-thrusting, white-painted Martin Puryear sculpture from 1987. Some outstanding works, often by otherwise ignored artists, have been selected by the American painter Amy Sillman and installed to evoke either inadequate storage or a messy studio; it’s hard to see what’s there, but worth the effort. The installations by eleven artists in the sixth floor temporary exhibition spaces include one of Sarah Sze’s explorations of the coexistence of chaos and order, with what seems to be a nod at Rebecca Horn, and a creepy tableau by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, inspired, we learn, by Franz Kafka, that makes dentistry terrifying but occasionally becomes inadvertently funny. Generally, the notably mixed installations make it almost impossible to grasp the depth of the museum’s holdings of particular artists or even of particular movements, but there are exceptions. A fine selection of sculptures by Constantin Brancusi fills a single light-filled space, and David Smiths appear in several galleries. And despite early rumors that Matisse and Picasso would not receive their due, each has been assigned a gallery of his own, with occasional leaks into other spaces.
But—and you knew there was a “but” coming—the news is not all good. The collection is still organized chronologically: 1880s–1940s on the fifth floor, 1940s–1970s on the fourth, and 1970 to the present on the second. (Temporary exhibitions are still on the sixth and the third floors, including “Sur Moderno: Journeys of Abstraction—The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift,” a large selection of Latin American geometric abstraction that inexplicably ends with Piet Mondrian’s 1942–43 Broadway Boogie Woogie.) Within that rough chronology, however, you’re on your own, aided only by a map of the numbered and titled galleries, forced to try to find your own connections. There’s no sequence of “isms”—apart from “Surrealism,” no “isms” at all. Familiar names of movements have been banished, replaced by headings such as “Design for Modern Life,” which turns out to be the Bauhaus, or the catch-all “Breaking the Mold.” “Action Painting,” a term coined by Harold Rosenberg and widely disliked by the artists he applied it to, substitutes for Abstract Expressionism. “19th-Century Innovators,” the first gallery on the fifth floor, entering by the north elevator, is the Room of Greatest Hits: Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy (1897), and Paul Cézanne’s Bather (ca. 1885), flanked by Boy in a Red Vest (1888–90) and a Château Noir landscape (1903–04). And more. Pierre Bonnard is represented only by prints. (There’s a canvas opposite the elevators.) There’s no question about the excellence of the works on view. But they’re not speaking to each other in an informative way, and the immediately adjacent gallery, dedicated to photography and film, doesn’t seem to enlarge the story very directly. I suppose the point is that the proliferation of photography and the advent of the moving image (like large-scale posters, automobiles, and intensified street lighting) influenced the perceptions of the modernist artists in early twentieth-century Paris, but that’s not the first thing that comes to mind as a follow-up to Cézanne.
The next gallery, “Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” is an excellent exposition of Picasso’s evolution, from a Rose Period painting of a boy with a horse, to the robust pair of nudes in front of a red curtain, to Les Demoiselles (1907) and some related cubist paintings. But there’s also Faith Ringgold’s enormous 1967 painting of a street riot, American People Series #20: Die, with its zigzagging, bleeding figures. Supposedly influenced by Picasso’s Guernica (1937), which is obviously not on view, Ringgold’s canvas has no formal or conceptual relationship to Les Demoiselles. Even if we avoid the thorny question of the painting’s merits, it seems painfully obvious that it’s there to correct the museum’s presumed undervaluing of women and African-Americans. This tendency is not unique. Elsewhere, in the Matisse gallery, which similarly offers a reassuringly broad selection of works, a 1973 painting by Alma Thomas is made to go toe-to-toe with Red Studio (1911), seemingly for the same reason. The confrontation, alas, is not to Thomas’s benefit. She was a fine, ambitious, and dedicated painter, but placing her Fiery Sunset next to Matisse’s iconic masterpiece is just plain cruel, even if we acknowledge the obvious fact that she combined red and blue with audacity and credit her with exploring the implications of the over-all color expanse announced by Red Studio.
The wall text in the Picasso gallery tells us that we should not only think about Les Demoiselles as a harbinger of cubist formal invention but should also consider such larger concerns as attitudes toward women, painfully detailed in the Ringgold. Maybe. But quite apart from the (deeply unfashionable) questions about quality and formal ambition raised by the forced comparison, and quite apart from whatever one thinks of Picasso’s behavior toward the women in his life, Les Demoiselles is not about violence toward women. Among other things, it’s a transformative version of a Grand Manner group of nudes. It’s hard not to think that the raucous Ringgold is taking up a lot of wall space that could have been used to present the depth of moma’s cubist holdings and expand the narrative.
The second floor, devoted to contemporary art, feels relatively cohesive by comparison, despite its notable diversity of work, media, and approaches, probably because disparity and cultivated incoherence are often part of the aesthetic of individual works.
The result of such staccato sequences and purposefully disruptive inclusions is a sense of disjunction, an effect that recurs throughout the new installation, both within the individual galleries and gallery to gallery. No doubt this is intended to provoke fresh considerations, but disjunction can become disorientation when we move into the new wing, a transition signaled by sliding glass doors. The well-proportioned, neutral galleries are arranged around a dramatic void, which theoretically makes circumnavigation possible, but there is, deliberately, no sense of a preferred or even coherent route. Doorways, carefully placed off-axis, offer multiple possibilities, including occasional dead ends. Since there’s usually little, if any, overt connection between the works in adjacent galleries, the choice ultimately doesn’t matter—no old-fashioned linear narratives here—but it’s easy to become confused. And sometimes annoyed. A determined visitor can find a far corner gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s late paintings of water lilies, but it can be entered only from a room of Bauhaus furniture, typography, and a model kitchen. Granted, the Bauhaus functioned from 1919 to 1933 and Monet, who died in 1926, painted his most adventurous garden pictures in the last decade of his life, so there’s some chronological justification for the sequence, but the transition is unpleasant. Since the French master was probably oblivious of the Weimar art school, and since anyone connected with the Bauhaus was probably uninterested in Monet’s paintings, the proximity seems pointless—even if we ignore the sound spill from a Bauhaus-era film polluting the installation of the Water Lilies.
The second floor, devoted to contemporary art, feels relatively cohesive by comparison, despite its notable diversity of work, media, and approaches, probably because disparity and cultivated incoherence are often part of the aesthetic of individual works. Sometimes this is invigorating, as in the free-wheeling overview “Downtown New York,” but it’s also a relief to encounter the unity and physicality of Richard Serra’s thundering Equal (2015), eight massive steel blocks, brooding in a corner gallery, diametrically opposite the Brancusi room, three floors above. Cumulatively, the individuality of the many thematic shows and the abrupt shifts of attention required or provoked, as we move among them, destroys any lingering sense of linear relationships or connections, which is obviously intended. It also turns the museum into a kind of art fair, with its jostle of unrelated exhibitions, booth by booth. (Of course, the grid arrangement of most art fairs makes them easier to navigate than moma.) Or perhaps clicking through internet images, with its speed and random associations, is a better comparison. Whatever analogy we choose, logical relationships, slow looking, and long engagement are not encouraged, or, I suspect, even wanted, at least by a large segment of the population. Seventy-five percent of museum visitors, I recall reading, go to museums not to see art but for a “social experience.”
My first- and second-year graduate school students are enthusiastic. “It’s exciting to see so many different things,” one said. “The old installation was kind of boring,” said another. They were excited about having seen a Stuart Davis new to them, unconcerned that a painting conspicuously dated 1931 was featured in “Paris 1920s,” and only mildly interested to learn that the painting was made in New York, two years after Davis returned from an extended sojourn in Paris and reflected things he saw while working there. (There’s no information about that in the gallery.) Maybe they’re right.
We all have anxiety-driven lists of what isn’t on view, despite being told repeatedly that everything will change regularly, since there is alarming evidence of entrenched attitudes. A gallery titled “Planes of Color” includes no works by artists associated with the term Color Field but instead features paintings by Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, and Ad Reinhardt. Frankenthaler, who essentially invented the approach, is represented only by the 1957 Jacob’s Ladder, in “Action Painting II,” a gallery devoted mainly to women. It’s good to see this vigorous painting again but . . . (Note: Frankenthaler’s titles were given after the fact, suggested by configurations that developed in the course of working. She didn’t set out to depict a biblical story, as the label implies.) And while I’m at it, “A Century of Sculpture,” in the garden, includes some distinctly unchallenging recent work but excludes any of Anthony Caro’s innovations. And so on. I suppose I must be patient and wait for the next iteration.
Coda: it’s worth noting that the Metropolitan Museum’s $25 non-resident ticket ($17 for seniors) gives entry to all three locations for three days, permitting visits to the Cloisters and Met Breuer or returns to Fifth Avenue. moma’s $25 admission ($18 for seniors and no New York exemption) also gives entry to ps1 but is valid for one day only, even though it’s virtually impossible to see all of the “new moma” on one visit, much less get to ps1 on the same day. I keep imagining confused visitors, maps in hand, trying to figure out which ambiguous gallery title might refer to the works they most want to see—and may not find.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4, on page 9
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com