It feels like much longer ago, but the most recent addition to the Museum of Modern Art, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfrew, turns out to have opened in October 2019. As was much discussed at the time, the more than forty thousand square feet of well lighted, handsomely proportioned permanent collection galleries, west of Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2001–04 addition, were conceived to eliminate a preferred path through the works of art on display: all had multiple doorways, none on axis. The initial installation, spurred by moma’s new mantra “there is no single or complete history of modern or contemporary art,” was intended to expand our (inadequate) linear conception of that history, and disturb our (even more inadequate) parochial notions of the relative achievements of various artists. Works by previously ignored or “marginalized” practitioners from all over the world, many recently acquired, were put on display.
Ideas about chronology, influence, and that much maligned concept “quality” were deemed restrictive and largely ignored. The only concessions to more or less traditional hierarchies were the broad, somewhat unbalanced, sometimes broken, top-to-bottom divisions of the collection: 1880s–1940s on the fifth floor; 1940s–70s on the fourth; 1970–present on Floor 2. While many of us wondered about the wisdom of moma’s downplaying its magnificent, celebrated collection of “historical” modernism in order to become yet another museum of trendy global art, we had to admire the effort to echo the often messy, contradictory, and illogical development of art from the late nineteenth century to the present with this open-minded, wide-ranging approach. But if we hoped that the museum would help us to make sense of this baggy monster, we were notably disappointed. Visitors were obliged to find their own way, clutching small maps or their cell phones. (Now it’s just cell phones.) Even my graduate students, who were enthusiastic about seeing “so many different things,” confessed to being confused and sometimes disoriented by the new installation.
Whatever our reactions, we were urged to be patient. The opening installation, we were told, was a beginning, a work in progress. It would be altered and reconfigured at regular intervals. (No one, as far as I know, mentioned how visitors who came specifically to see moma’s legendary collection might react if the Mona Lisas of modernism were not on view in a coherent relationship.) The shutdown that began in March 2020 played havoc with all museum and gallery scheduling, but in mid-November we were finally rewarded for withholding judgment. “The Fall Reveal” gave us twenty “transformed” galleries throughout moma’s three collection floors, characterized on the website as “new art from wall to wall.” Those listed as responsible include a remarkable number of staff members, although things being how they are, the itemized names may acknowledge the admittedly invaluable contributions of preparators and security personnel, as well as curators. We are told that because the museum recognizes that—wait for it—“there is no single or complete history of modern or contemporary art,” the Fall Reveal was designed to “offer a deeper experience of art through all mediums and by artists from more diverse geographies and backgrounds than ever before.” There’s no doubt about the variety of mediums and the diversity of geographies and backgrounds. A deeper experience? I’m not sure.
Some things have not changed. The galleries devoted to the 1880s–1940s on the fifth floor still begin, as they did in October 2019, with classic, well-known works by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, and their peers, along with a glorious Medardo Rosso sculpture. It’s an impressive selection guaranteed to satisfy all visitors. In the gallery otherwise devoted to moma’s exemplary collection of Pablo Picasso’s work, that enormous 1967 Faith Ringgold provoked by a street riot still takes up a lot of real estate. (The point has been made. Is it heresy to suggest that the story might now be enhanced by more of Georges Braque’s paintings and collages, made when the two pioneers of Cubism were “roped together like mountain climbers,” as they described it, rather than by an unrelated canvas chosen to address issues of diversity?)
In the dazzling Henri Matisse gallery, a reasonably strong painting by Alma Thomas is still cruelly placed beside the unassailable Red Studio. Thomas is a fine painter, but even her loyal fans—I am one—have to admit that she would be better served by integrating her work with that of her Washington School colleagues, inventive painters who, like her, used radiant color as the main carrier of emotion and meaning. Yet those artists, while represented in the collection, are conspicuously absent from the current installation. On the plus side, the delightful tribute to the poet and former moma curator Frank O’Hara, on the fourth floor (1940s–70s) is still intact.
What’s new? Occasional signs indicating routes to exits and to the collection. Selections from the generous Patricia Phelps Cisneros gift of Latin American geometric abstraction, initially isolated in a special exhibition, have been integrated with contemporaneous works, most conspicuously in a fifth-floor gallery titled “Circle and Square: Joaquín Torres-García and Piet Mondrian,” subtitled “abstraction above and below the Equator.” The installation commemorates the two men’s meeting in Paris, in 1929, and their founding of Circle et Carré—circle and square—an organization and publication that attracted an international group of artists committed to geometry, order, and rationalism, in opposition to Surrealism’s courting of the illogical. Torres-García kept the principles of Circle et Carré alive and created a Spanish-language version of the magazine after he returned to his native Uruguay in 1934 and created his Bauhaus-type school and workshop, the influential Taller Torres-García. Four important paintings by Mondrian, including Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43), are shown with significant examples by Torres-García that range from a canvas of stacked glyphs, to a bare-bones, fictive grid, to a generously scaled, rough-hewn construction in wood. Also included is a miscellany of South American works and constructions by a British artist and a Belgian founder of De Stijl. Whether they were associated with either the French or Uruguayan iterations of the group is not stated.
Nearby, “New York City, 1920s” offers a satisfying assembly of works by Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ben Shahn, and Florine Stettheimer; photographs by Walker Evans and James Van Der Zee; and sculpture by Elie Nadelman and John Storrs, plus an atypical but strong José Clemente Orozco painting of the New York subway. Cumulatively, the selections summarize many dominant concerns of the decade. There’s also a tantalizing film clip by Oscar Michaux, an excerpt from Ten Minutes to Live, a thriller apparently about a lovely young black woman being stalked by a handsome bad guy. The film is dated 1932, but the views of a now-vanished New York make up for the discrepancy between the date and the gallery theme.
Focused as these individual installations are, we still, as before, experience staccato rhythms and chronological disruptions as we move from gallery to gallery, overwhelming any hints of continuity. “Circle and Square” and “New York City, 1920s” are interleafed with “According to the Laws of Chance,” mainly about Marcel Duchamp, and “Ornament and Abstraction,” a terrific overview of architectural decoration and textiles. The former, subtitled “What happens when artists give up control?,” is one of the few galleries that suggests the depth of moma’s collections. Elsewhere, apart from the very welcome, unchanged concentrations on Matisse and Picasso, and a fourth-floor gallery given largely to Nam-June Paik—not that I’m equating the three artists—works are treated as isolated examples, the way provincial institutions display their often limited holdings. “According to the Laws of Chance” confirms how broadly Duchamp is represented at the museum: an early Cubist canvas; a painting based on “standard stoppages” (the results of dropping meter-long lengths of string); a smallish work on glass, now shattered, with a machine-like image; a bicycle wheel ready-made; and much more, including an extraordinarily annoying sound piece. Works by Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Jean Arp contextualize the Duchamps, along with a witty Francis Picabia and a surprisingly accomplished Cubist-inflected painting by Katherine S. Dreier, Duchamp’s friend, patron, and, with him and Man Ray, a founder of moma’s ancestor, the Société Anonyme.
“Ornament and Abstraction” is a feast of architectural fragments from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when progressive architects and designers rejected academic classicism in favor of geometry and motifs from nature, and modernism had not yet rejected ornament. There’s an undulating wrought-iron window grille by Antoni Gaudí, from the Casa Milá, Barcelona; a gorgeous spandrel—all swirling tendrils and burgeoning leaves—and a dizzyingly elaborate stenciled frieze panel from Louis Sullivan’s Gage Building and his Chicago Stock Exchange, respectively; geometric stained glass windows and bits of the extravagant geometric ornament of some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s early houses; and a length of railing by Otto Wagner. Drawings, textile designs, and textiles by contemporaries enrich the installation. The whole is a fine portrait of an era, but since chronology is out of favor, there’s also a prototype for a façade panel with stylized foliage from a project by Herzog & de Meuron, from the 1990s.
Apropos this disregard for chronology, “new art from wall to wall” on the fifth floor (1880s–1940s) includes Gerhard Richter’s suite of fifteen paintings, October 18, 1977, a meditation on the unsatisfactorily explained deaths, on that date, in a Berlin prison, of members of the violent, radical left-wing organization often called the Baader–Meinhof gang. The blurred images translate photos of the youthful gang members, dead and alive, and related settings, into subtly modulated, mysterious expanses of grays. Painted in the late 1980s, the series was a kind of personal exorcism for the artist, who described himself as haunted by the gang’s actions, their trial, and its aftermath. The less explicit, more ambiguous paintings of half-glimpsed horizontal figures and vague interiors seem more potent than the somewhat sentimental transcriptions of headshots, especially when the images are repeated, at different scales, on multiple canvases, further abstracting them, but the series as a whole is unquestionably among Richter’s strongest efforts. Couldn’t moma have found a more informative context for it? One of the new installations on Floor 4 (1940s–70s), “Gordon Parks and ‘The Atmosphere of Crime,’ ” includes, in addition to selections from Parks’s searing 1957 photo essay on crime, justice, and incarceration in America, vintage mug shots, newspaper photos of crime scenes, an image of the bullet-riddled car in which Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow died, and a graphic shot by Weegee, made in 1942, of elegantly dressed men in a police van, hiding their faces with their top hats. Surely that gallery would have made a provocative segue, to or from Richter’s series.
Yet that kind of relationship among adjacent or even proximate galleries was evidently never desired at moma, neither in 2019 nor in the Fall Reveal. Nor, despite the stated intention of providing “a deeper experience,” is there any indication that visitors should be encouraged to spend extended time with the works on view. The effort to present “works in all mediums” means many galleries include film clips, videos, and other sound-producing art forms—see Marcel Duchamp on Floor 5. The films and videos are usually relevant and enrich the installation as a whole (apart from a puerile anti-American effort by the Canadian Joyce Wieland on the fourth floor), but there’s no sound isolation; the result is an inescapable cacophony. It’s a toss-up as to whether the insistent Duchamp piece, with its random, piercing notes, is the most intrusive or whether that title goes to Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s Cinematic Illumination, on Floor 4, a room-filling, animated construction that all-too-vividly evokes what we are told was “an immersive moving image event . . . in the Tokyo discotheque Killer Joe’s, as part of the Fluxus-associated Intermedia Arts Festival,” in 1969. The enormous ring of constantly changing, dizzying projected images and the sound level are effectively and distressingly reminiscent of the disco experience. I guess you had to have been there. On reflection, the Duchamp sound piece wins “most irritating.” We have a choice about entering (and leaving) the space where Shuzo Azuchi Gulliver’s contraption is installed. We can’t avoid Duchamp.
The most memorable addition to the second floor (1970–present) is Carrie Mae Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried, made in 1995–96, a moving disquisition on the way black people in this country have been perceived by white Americans. Weems’s appropriated images, from the past to the near-present, include the horrifying portraits of African Americans, treated not as people but as ethnographic specimens, made for the Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz, and the sympathetic portraits of black soldiers in Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s memorial to the heroic Shaw Regiment. Each image has been tightly cropped by a circular mat and tinted red; Weems’s comments, sometimes laconic, sometimes accusatory, always thought-provoking, are superimposed. Black-and-white portraits of what we learn is a royal Mangbetu woman, with an elegant neck, a magnificent headdress, and the elongated skull once characteristic of the people, bracket the red images, serving as witnesses. It’s powerful and disturbing work and needs to be taken in slowly, without distractions. The sound from a nearby video by the Chinese artist and acute social critic, Cao Fei, no matter how worthy, is not an enhancement.
Is the Fall Reveal an improvement over the reconfigured moma’s initial installation? It may be even more wide ranging. Works such as a seldom-exhibited canvas by the influential Indian abstract painter Vasudeo Gaitonde are now on view. But works by other significant artists are not. We look in vain for Marsden Hartley and Bay Area figuration, for example; Martin Puryear is represented only by the cover of an illustrated book. As in the opening installations, some artists seem to have been systematically written out of the canon, as if politics rather than aesthetics had driven the choices. Many of the notably absent, then and now, are those whose work was acquired and exhibited by William Rubin, moma’s distinguished curator and director of the department of painting and sculpture in the 1970s and 1980s. Rubin’s legacy is being erased. We would never know, in the “new” moma, that the collection includes major works by Milton Avery, Anthony Caro, Gene Davis, Sam Gilliam, Hans Hofmann, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, or Frank Stella, or that moma staged illuminating exhibitions of their work. Like most institutions, these days, moma is attempting to redress their neglect of women and artists of color, and to reduce their emphasis on white males, such as those on the list of ignored artists. I applaud the much-needed effort to broaden our vision, but why does that require eliminating important contributors to the culture? How can an exclusionary, Maoist revision of recent art history coexist with moma’s often repeated assertion that “there is no single or complete history of modern or contemporary art”?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 6, on page 42
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