MoMA: What’s in a Name?

MoMA: What’s in a Name?

“Making Choices” at MoMA


Beneath the dazzle of individual exhibitions with which it is celebrating the year 2000, the Museum of Modern Art is setting in place a philosophy of Modernism that will define its agenda for the century just begun. MoMA has divided the history of modern art into three forty-year segments, to each of which it is dedicating a cycle of exhibitions. Just now, an amazing array of twenty-five exhibitions opens equally as many perspectives on the choices made by artists in the period 1920-60. MoMA has, indeed, given the name “Making Choices” to this phase of its extraordinarily ambitious year-and-a-half-long program. It was preceded by “Modern Starts,” which drew on work done roughly between 1880 and 1920, and is to be followed, from September through early next year, by “Open Ends,” which will take modern art from 1960 to the present moment. It is extremely important to the philosophy of art history that MoMA is eager to defend that these are merely stretches of time rather than distinctive historical periods; and that the divisions are therefore entirely arbitrary.

The date 1880 cannot be defended as the beginning of modern art, nor is there any consensus as to when modern art began. Nor can that question be separated from the deeper question of how Modernism is to be defined. The art historian T.J. Clark recently proposed that modern art began with The Death of Marat, completed by Jacques-Louis David in October 1793–but that is because he construes Modernism politically, as art “no longer reserved for a privileged minority.” Clement Greenberg thought it began with Manet, whose flat, thinly shadowed forms were derived from photographs–a modern technology of representation. MoMA, for its own reasons, is talking not about Modernism as such at all but about modern art, toward whose history it is taking an exceedingly nominalist stance. Modern art is simply the art made in the years 1880 to the present, whether it was in any further sense Modernist, and whether there was modern art before that or not. Indeed, it is the thesis of perhaps the most important component exhibition in “Making Choices” that art can be modern despite not being Modernist. This effort to bracket Modernism as a movement or style is connected with a metaphysical thesis toward history itself: that history is entirely plastic, in the sense that it can be given any shape whatever. Thus the twenty-five separate exhibitions in “Making Choices” merely exemplify different ways in which works from 1920 to 1960 can be grouped. MoMA means in particular to imply that there is no grand narrative of modern art. The substance of art history is simply that of individual artists making individual choices.

It is not difficult to appreciate why MoMA has taken this stand, particularly in distinguishing modern art from Modernism. Its identity is as the museum of modern art–not the museum of Modernist art. We can sense this in the defiance implied by the title of the final show, “Open Ends.” Modern art is not something that is historically finished. Modernism may be over as a period, and it may or may not have been succeeded by something called Postmodernism. These simply represent different sets of choices modern artists have made. But modern art cannot be reduced to just these sets of choices. Modern art will go on and on, and the Museum of Modern Art will be its showcase and temple long after Postmodernism has faded, if it has not faded already.

Each cycle of exhibitions draws exclusively on works from MoMA’s own extraordinary collections, and in “Making Choices,” most of the museum is given over to the twenty-five constituent exhibitions. A great many of the works on view have rarely, and some perhaps never, been seen by the public. One can imagine a museum in which every work owned is a work shown, but in practice decisions have to be made between the two sets: Even after its planned expansion, MoMA will have to select which of its holdings to display. What criteria should be used? One natural answer might be: only the greatest and the best. To have made it to the walls of modern art’s greatest museum is to have achieved the supreme accolade. And this indeed was the implication of the great narrative exhibition through which modern art was until recently presented on the museum’s second floor–a narrative of high moments. The composition of the present show seems to make it clear that a new way of presenting modern art has been adopted. The second-floor galleries in which the great narrative was unfurled have been reassigned to a plurality of exhibitions, and their works have been redistributed. The history of modern art we now see is a complex network of crisscrossing streams and streamlets rather than a single mighty river, flowing forever between the banks of time. If we wish to use the word Modernism, it must lose its capital letter. There are many modernisms: “The bulging accumulation of modernisms currently mingle, overlap, circle back, and collide with each other,” writes Peter Galassi, MoMA’s curator of photography and one of the architects of “Making Choices.” It is this revolution in philosophy that makes it, in my view, the most important show in MoMA’s recent history.

The revolution was not evident in the first cycle of exhibitions. It felt as though MoMA had laid out an overpowering show of its greatest treasures, like a display of crown jewels. There were efforts at ingenious juxtaposition–the works were allowed to “communicate” with one another–but the show was somehow unreviewable. The works were in the main too familiar for the contexts in which they were placed to release fresh perceptions. And they were drawn from the heroic years of the great movements that constitute the Story of Modern Art–Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, the Fauves, Suprematism, Constructivism and even Dada. The art felt rearranged rather than reconsidered. Nor did it greatly help to sort them into the three categories of Persons, Places and Things. That triad maps smoothly onto the three main genres of early modern art–figure studies, landscapes and still-lifes. Modern painting fell naturally into these divisions, once it was no longer “reserved for a privileged minority.” These were the subjects the affluent middle classes were willing to buy. Even so, the works in “Modern Starts” somehow resisted being assigned to one or another of the three classes. They apparently longed for their proper historical places in the story made familiar through MoMA’s official narrative.

In “Making Choices,” by contrast, we are to understand that there is no one story of modern art. History is many things happening all at once, all the time. There are the stories of individual artists, like Giorgio Morandi, Jean Arp and Man Ray, to whom three of the different shows of “Making Choices” are devoted. There are the stories of different groups, the School of Paris and the New York School, each of which receives a separate show, and the New York Salon and Paris Salon on the third floor. The kinds and number of such chronicles is limited only by curatorial imagination. There are shows that quite transcend the one-person and one-movement exhibition, as may be seen from such titles as “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor,” “Useless Science” and “The Raw and the Cooked,” all on the fourth floor, or “Anatomically Incorrect” and “The Rhetoric of Persuasion,” on the third floor. Each of these merits a review of its own. But “Making Choices” as a whole is for me more interesting than its component sections, since it forces a distinction between a pluralistic and a monist conception of modern art.

The chief proponent of a monistic philosophy of modern art has to have been Clement Greenberg, and while I have never counted myself among his followers, I have greatly admired his effort to impose a clear narrative structure on the art history of a century. Greenberg spoke of “Modernist” art, which, as said, he supposed had begun with Manet in the 1860s. He thought of Color-Field Abstraction in the sixties as Modernism’s most recent stage, but he was concerned, when I met him in the nineties, that nothing much had happened since. It was as though Modernism had been in hibernation for thirty years! In any case, it was Greenberg’s account of beginnings that was especially compelling. Modernism, he felt, started with the advent of a certain kind of self-consciousness. Modern philosophy, one might say, began when Descartes turned from an inquiry into reality to an inquiry into inquiry itself. Modernist art began with a parallel ascent to consciousness: Instead of simply depicting the world, artists became preoccupied with the conditions of depiction. Thus, on Greenberg’s account, Modernism consisted in art’s raising the “question [of] its own foundations.” The task of Modernist art was to make its own identity explicit, and “each art, it turned out, had to perform this demonstration on its own account.”

Greenberg settled for an exceedingly narrow conception of what the result of this self-inquiry was in the case of painting: He saw it in “the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface.” It was certainly true that in the 1880s and 1890s, much of the most advanced painting emphasized its own flatness–but this in the main was because painting aspired to the condition of decoration. To this end, artists aimed to liberate painting from the illusion that had been the triumph of traditional art in the West. Whatever the art-historical explanation of such flatness, it was, I thought, a brilliant achievement on Greenberg’s part to see it as but a stage in the internal unfolding of artistic self-consciousness.

In my view, Greenberg had so closely identified the history of modern art with Modernism that he was unable to recognize that modern art went on after Modernism had more or less come to an end. We were, then, in a new period of art history, in which it had become plain that there was no longer any special way that art had to look–that anything could be a work of art, that nothing external need mark the difference between works of art and anything else. This was the combined result of the thought of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys. If art could look any way at all, though, I felt that there was no longer the possibility of any special direction for art, a situation I attempted to describe in my book After the End of Art. Contrary to Greenberg, I believed that Modernism was over with rather than merely interrupted. Or better, I believed that Modernist art remained as an option–but one of an indefinite number of options, rather than the defining drive of modern art.

What is interesting about the diversity to which “Making Choices” draws attention is that even in the period of its ascendancy, Modernism was never more than one set of artistic choices. It must be conceded that MoMA’s narrative of modern art included a great deal that Greenberg would never have considered Modernist at all. Whole groups of modern artists could be described as preoccupied with the pursuit of flatness only if we apply to the history of art something of the strategy psychoanalysis applies to our individual histories–that whatever we think we’re doing consciously, what is really driving us forward is the need to overcome unconscious conflicts. But it is exceedingly difficult to see in such mini-exhibitions as “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor” or “The Raw and the Cooked” the unconscious pursuit of flatness deflected onto another plane. Included in the first of these, for example, are Robert Rauschenberg’s illustrations for the Divine Comedy of 1959 and Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit No. 014, a can of what I take on faith abides by the principle of truth in advertising. And “Making Choices” helps us realize that more was happening in modern art than Greenberg’s highly formalist account could recognize. In fact, it is very difficult to see how even the paradigm figures of modern art were Modernist in Greenberg’s sense at all. “Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Miró, Kandinsky, Brancusi, even Klee, Matisse and Cézanne derive their chief inspiration from the medium they work in,” he wrote as early as 1939, in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” “The excitement of their art seems to lie most of all in its pure preoccupation with the invention and arrangement of spaces, surfaces, shapes, colors, etc., to the exclusion of whatever is not necessarily implicated in these factors.” This seems a highly unlikely account, or at the very least an account that leaves out almost everything of significance in these artists. One could insist that what it leaves out is not part of the story, or that what really makes these works modern is that which makes them Modernist. But this is in effect to indemnify the account against falsification.

The key contribution to MoMA’s new pluralistic philosophy of modernisms is Robert Storr’s exhibition “Modern Art Despite Modernism,” which is like a Salon des Refusés for all the marvelous modern artists who can be counted Modernist only by means of extreme casuistry. Greenberg, for example, was disinclined to consider the Surrealists as Modernist at all. When I first moved to New York, my friends and I were overwhelmed by Pavel Tchelitchew’s painting Hide and Seek. We held it in the same awe as Van Gogh’s Starry Night or Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsy, not to mention Picasso’s Guernica, which we never tired of seeing and talking about when we visited “the Modern.” Greenberg had only contempt for Tchelitchew, as well as for Surrealism “of Dali’s kind.” The Surrealists, he claimed, “did not try to hide their own retreat from the difficult to the easy.” What Greenberg essentially held against them was their persistent use of deep illusionist space, which in his view Modernism ought instead to have eliminated. Storr is entirely right when he in effect says that if we attempt to include these figures in Modernism, the Greenberghian account collapses. Better not to try: They are “modern despite Modernism.” And this is true of most of Greenberg’s heroes. None of the paintings Storr included could have been painted before the twentieth century. In that respect, they are modern beyond question. Balthus’s portraits of André Derain, or Joan Miró and his daughter Dolores, are as unmistakably modern as Max Beckmann’s self-portrait or John Graham’s cross-eyed sisters or Giacometti’s The Artist’s Mother–or Philip Guston’s City Limits or the mysterious Whisk by Jim Nutt, which shows a woman’s head on what may be a landscape or may be a dress, covered in points. Whatever it is that makes them self-evidently modern, it seems to have little to do with formalist considerations. These works address us in our own modern humanity, and somehow have more to do with the modern soul than with abstract deployments of shapes and surfaces. Hide and Seek, I must concede, seems quite as shallow a work as Greenberg accused it of being, if not for the reasons he had in mind. It corresponds to the callowness of my distant youth.

The other antimonistic exhibition at MoMA is “Walker Evans and Company,” curated by Peter Galassi. The American artists who first claimed a Modernist identity for themselves belonged to the group around the photographer Alfred Stieglitz in the early years of the twentieth century. Stieglitz was Modernist primarily through the fact that he was zealous that photography be considered a high art. To achieve this status, an artistic photograph had to be developed, differing palpably from vernacular photographs–from postcards and snapshots and portraits for the yearbook–which Stieglitz would not have considered art at all. “There are two distinct roads in photography–the utilitarian and the aesthetic,” said Charles Caffin in his distinctively Stieglitzian Photography as a Fine Art in 1901: “The goal of one being a record of facts, and of the other an expression of beauty.” In photography after Stieglitz’s era, beauty was often considered a critical disfigurement, as it was, for many advanced photographers, in Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. The serious photographer instead achieved purity by aesthetic renunciation, as with what Caffin had classed as utilitarian pictures, which merely record the facts. Photography as a fine art, Caffin believed, “will record facts, but not as facts.” It was Walker Evans, primarily, who translated beauty into vernacular terms, which meant that he defined the art of photography in largely anti-Stieglitzian terms. Galassi has constructed a show based on the aesthetic of the vernacular photograph, which carries us from Evans through Pop Art to such contemporary figures as Cindy Sherman.

The history of that aesthetic did not figure in the grand narrative of Modernism, which explains the place of Galassi’s show in the new philosophy of many modernisms. “The dominant histories of modern art have been written virtually without reference to the work of Walker Evans (or of any other photographer), because”–Galassi explains–“they are histories of painting and, to a lesser degree, of sculpture and drawing and printmaking. These histories generally ignore photographers for the very good reason that painters generally have done so.” Photography began to make inroads into painting with the work of Robert Rauschenberg, and in large part it is through the Post-modernist dominance of photography that much of contemporary pluralism is to be explained. That is a story we may take up again in the third phase of MoMA 2000, when “Open Ends” goes up in September. One hopes that when it does go up, the strike that will prevent many of The Nation‘s readers from visiting the museum will be over. (Fortunately, I was able to see the two main shows on which I have based this essay before the strike began.) But it would be wrong to suppose that all there is to “Making Choices” is a conflict in the philosophy of Modernism. MoMA is packed wall to wall with wonderful art, and just from the perspective of pleasure, it should be one of the summer’s treats for everyone, once the labor dispute has been settled.

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