The Rebirth of the Modern

The Rebirth of the Modern

The letterhead of Columbia University, where I taught for four decades, reads in full “Columbia University in the City of New York,” not because there is much likelihood that anyone will wonder w

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The letterhead of Columbia University, where I taught for four decades, reads in full “Columbia University in the City of New York,” not because there is much likelihood that anyone will wonder which Columbia University the letter comes from but because its location is part of its identity. I have always felt the same thing should be true of the Museum of Modern Art and the City of New York, since they together embody the spirit of modernity. “The Modern,” as those of my generation referred to the museum, exemplified modernity through the late Art Deco style of the original 1939 Goodwin and Stone building. As a piece of architecture, it mirrored those parts of the collection that were moderne in the strictest aesthetic sense: as heady, clear and swanky as a gin martini. Its emblematic work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with its jazzy art nègre figures–like African fetishes in the salon of a Parisian couturier–had found the museum and the metropolis to which it really belonged. Nothing like this could be said for the 1984 reconstruction by Cesar Pelli, which was modern not in terms of style but only in being of its moment, and which expressed MoMA’s uncertainty about its artistic direction. It was, moreover, a defensive piece of architecture, which closed itself off from the city, drawing walls around its collection, as if to preserve Modernism’s embattled purity. Only its bookstore windows opened onto the city. When Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik installed their vilified exhibition “High & Low” in 1990, it was barely noticed that they had uncovered one of the windows that had been walled up, enabling passers-by to see the art that Claes Oldenberg had shown in the display window of his “Store” on East 2nd Street in 1962. Those inside the exhibit could see the street life of the city–taxis, trucks, dog-walkers, people pushing strollers–and for a brief moment the barrier between the art and the city all but vanished.

What immediately strikes a visitor to the 2004 museum, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi to coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of MoMA, is the way in which the museum is now literally open to the city. The lobby is, in a qualified sense, a pedestrian passage, which one can freely enter and exit; and the upper galleries allow views of New York to enter through generously proportioned windows, as well as the glass-curtain wall facing east. It is as if New York were, as the engine of modernity, acknowledged as an integral part of what the museum exists to show. But one is made conscious of art even if one merely traverses the lobby from one cross street to the other. Upon entering the walkway from 54th Street, one sees Barnett Newman’s great sculpture Broken Obelisk, designed as a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., standing on the second floor of the immense atrium and rising to a skylight four floors up. Ordinarily, one encounters this deeply moving work standing on the same level. Seen from below, the inverted shaft of the obelisk seems to descend to earth like a stalactite–or to point downward like a stylized index finger–rather than rising upward from the point on which it is balanced. The shaft thus acquires an astounding weightlessness, as if it were floating in air.

The people standing around Broken Obelisk are dwarfed both by it and by the engulfing space. The disproportion between the sculpture and the human throng reminded me of a device employed by Piranesi in his engravings of ancient Rome. Seeking to bestow the ruins with even more grandeur than they possessed, he reduced the scale of the human figures that stood about them. This is the effect of seeing Broken Obelisk together with its viewers. And yet, paradoxically, one does not feel diminished but rather exalted by the space when one ascends into the atrium and becomes a part of it. When Jean-Paul Sartre visited New York City in the mid-1940s, he was overwhelmed by the feeling of great space, which reminded him of the American West. Taniguchi has somehow brought that spatial feeling into the museum, as part of the project of integrating the building with the city.

Thanks to its location in Taniguchi’s design, Newman’s sculpture stands poised to become one of MoMA’s emblematic works–a bit ironic in view of his well-known put-down of sculpture as something you bump into when backing up to get a better look at a painting. Another emblematic sculpture is Rodin’s looming figure of Balzac, familiar to most of those who have seen it as an outdoor sculpture, either in the Sculpture Garden of MoMA or in the center of Boulevard Raspail, just before it intersects Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris. Balzac has been brought indoors, where it faces the entryway to the collections, with its back to the Sculpture Garden, seen through the glass wall behind it. One of The Nation‘s critics, Elizabeth Robin Pennell, reviewed this work for the magazine in 1898, when it was, as she archly put it, “a standing joke in Paris.” Today we are blind to Modernism’s scandalousness, and I admire Pennell for not writing it off, though she was uncertain how it could be considered a finished work. A talisman of Modernism’s struggle for acceptance, Balzac is just the right work to mark the beginning of one’s visit. Aesthetically, the burnished bronze looks radiant in the natural light of day and luminous at night. Posted at the base of the grand staircase to the collection whose spirit it encapsulates, Balzac is to the new MoMA what the Nike of Samothrace is to the Louvre: a symbol of the triumphant history the museum itself enshrines.

Mounting Taniguchi’s staircase, one is conscious of the helicopter, suspended above one’s head like a menacing mobile, not only proclaiming the museum’s interest in modern industrial design but making a punning reference to the Calder mobile that used to hang above the Bauhaus staircase in the Goodwin and Stone building. In fact, Taniguchi has re-created the brilliant black-trimmed Bauhaus staircase, now between the second and third floors. There indeed is a Calder mobile, as well as a Mondrian painting, both of which, together with the staircase, evoke the Modernist aesthetic of the original museum. The wonderful Oskar Schlemmer painting of Bauhaus students on the stairway–which used to hang where the Mondrian is now–has regrettably been transferred to one of the galleries on the fourth floor, deprived of its earlier meaning. There is one other referential staircase, between the fourth and fifth floors, both of which are given over to painting and sculpture. It alludes to the staircase of the Shchuchin mansion in Moscow, on the landing of which Matisse’s La Danse once hung. Shchuchin was one of Matisse’s early patrons, and his collection one of the few sites where Russian avant-garde artists could study the kind of modern art that they aspired to create. Each of the staircases in the new building, functional and evocative, thus reflects the aesthetic and historical intentions of MoMA at their best, when architecture and art act as one in imparting Modernism’s lessons. The escalators, which dominated the Pelli building’s lobby, have been discreetly set to one side.

One also sees La Danse through an opening high in the atrium wall. Indeed, there are balcony-like openings at each level onto the atrium floor, through each of which one sees across to La Danse, with more and more of the gallery stairway revealed the higher you ascend. The museum is a cat’s cradle of crossing sight-lines, so one keeps seeing what I think of as the defining works from various angles. When one stands on the level with the helicopter, one can see Balzac below. And of course from one opening onto the atrium, one can see across to the others, as well as people looking over the barriers. As with the view from the lobby into the atrium, other viewers are always part of the scene, which gives the place a tremendous sense of animation. I have never been in a building with so optical an essence, and in which other people by their very presence contribute to its aesthetic impact. In most museums I think of Sartre’s famous line from No Exit: “Hell is other people.” In MoMA, the consciousness of others moving from stage to stage and space to space is so much a part of the experience that one feels one is always part of a constantly changing work of art. That too makes it feel like New York.

The atrium is clearly the spiritual core of the building, and its floor a kind of piazza, with Broken Obelisk destined to become a meeting point, the way Picasso’s Guernica used to be. But what works for monumental sculpture works less well for the paintings, however large they are. The fact that one is always aware of people on every level somewhat reduces the unequal struggle in scale between the immense height of the atrium’s walls and the paintings hung at viewing height from the atrium’s floor. It was a huge mistake to hang Monet’s Nympheas in this space. Even though Monet lived and painted into the 1920s, even though the great paintings of his lily pond, with clouds and their reflections interacting with the floating flowers, influenced–or at least had some affinity in their all-over composition with–Abstract Expressionism, the painting is out of place as well as out of scale. Monet’s water-lily paintings were designed for a circular, relatively low-ceilinged room in the Orangerie, as a kind of diorama; and though any one of them is a great treasure, treasures have to be treasured, and not abused. I am sure the wall display is temporary, but space must be found for this work that is consistent with the mission of aesthetic education that La Danse serves, and in which the work can yield a meaning without losing a fight with scale. None of the paintings currently on view there really stand up to the pressure the atrium exerts, even if they fare better than the Monet. Brice Marden’s calligraphy and Jasper Johns’s Untitled look drab and drained by all that space and light, and Willem de Kooning’s Pirate, for all its bright hues, is outmatched by the architecture. Even worse, they become reduced to rectangular patches when seen from the upper openings.

The theory, as I understand it, is that the high ceilings of the museum’s second floor were dictated by the anticipated scale of the contemporary work the museum expects to acquire, as it copes with the future of modern art. But very little now displayed, either in the atrium or the side galleries, justifies the height of the spaces. In one of the side galleries off the atrium, there is a marvelous work by the late Felix Gonzales-Torres, called Perfect Lovers. It consists of two quite ordinary kitchen clocks, set at the same hour and keeping the same time. One of them will finally stop–will metaphorically die–before the other. Contemporary work like Gonzales-Torres’s is capable of dealing with the greatest of themes–love and death–without requiring immense space. Perfect Lovers, a physically small work, is exhibited in a space designed for something as imposing as one or more of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipse series.

It is extremely chancy, moreover, to anticipate the future of art architecturally, or to presuppose that modern art will continue to be shaped principally by painting and sculpture, albeit on a larger scale. Performance, installation and video don’t necessarily call for the kinds of spaces required bythe classical Modernism so successfully displayed on MoMA’s fourth and fifth floors. This is even more true of computer art, which is almost certain to play a significant role in the future. An artist I admire, for the moment without a gallery, makes his work on a laptop, which he recently carried with him to the Art Basel fair in Miami to show to potential collectors. The high ceilings on the second floor boldly project a future that may never come to pass.

The artistic core of the new MoMA consists of the galleries on the fourth and especially the fifth floor, which display the works everyone missed while the museum was undergoing reconstruction: Starry Night, Sleeping Gypsy, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, La Danse, White on White and the many others that define Modernist sensibility. The openings I attended were like family reunions– everyone was moved by these familiar and deeply loved pieces, and the meaning of MoMA for New York was palpable in the joy expressed in seeing them again. When I revisited the museum as part of the throng, I was impressed that clusters of people gathered spontaneously in front of certain early Modernist favorites, as they do in front of the Mona Lisa or The Raft of the Medusa. This did not quite happen on the fourth floor, where the art still raises the questions that Modernism always raised, even if everyone knows them. Warhol, Johns, Twombly and Rauschenberg have entered the canon, and from college courses in “Art Since 1945,” everyone is familiar with the late Modernist movements–Abstract Expressionism, Pop and Minimalism. Of course, this art can be seen everywhere now, but its presence at MoMA means that it has become part of a canonical history and taken its place in a narrative of Modernism. Modern art goes on being made, of course, but the story of Modernism as a period has come to an end.

What has not yet come to an end (or so it would seem) is the idea of a canon, so central to the histories of Modernism and MoMA under Alfred Barr and William Rubin. When Barr purchased one of de Kooning’s “Black” paintings in 1948, the message was not only that de Kooning had entered the canon but that the canon had been opened up to American art. Until this acquisition Barr, who personified MoMA, tended to identify Modernism with European art, with rare exceptions like Calder. De Kooning, a Dutch-born American, broke the ice. Even Pollock, whose art Barr at first disliked, was accepted into the canon and now has a gallery to himself on the fourth floor, an entryway to which frames one of Newman’s largest paintings, Vir Heroicus Sublimus. The South African artist William Kentridge told me that one of the high points of his career was seeing his prints displayed at MoMA with those of the German Expressionists who inspired him. Being in MoMA has really meant something to artists sensitive to their place in history, and one can see why the museum would want to give its authoritative vision of Modernism’s narrative an architectural embodiment. But as that vision of art history loses some of its authority, younger artists may no longer feel anointed when their work is acquired by MoMA. If this is true, the galleries devoted to contemporary art would no longer carry the meaning of the upper galleries. The concept of a canon may itself be dated as an art historical reality.

Meanwhile, the light and amplitude of the museum’s first five floors establish an aura for the modern art that has made it into its privileged precincts. For whatever reason, Taniguchi’s vision deserted him in creating the sixth floor, which is to house temporary exhibitions. The space is wide, low and graceless, and one appreciates by its absence how important to the overall feeling of the museum the atrium is. The glass-curtain wall is blocked by the elevator bank, so one appreciates that it does more than flood our consciousness with the surrounding city. There is some compensation for the space’s soullessness in the fact that the panels of James Rosenquist’s gigantesque F-111 can be displayed all on the same wall, the way one now realizes must have been the work’s original intention. (Usually it is bent into angles to fit spaces too small for it.) The sixth-floor gallery perhaps communicates the feeling that what will be shown is really not part of what Hegel would call the idea of the modern embodied in the grand architecture below. The five and a half stars it merits make the building well worth a visit in anyone’s architectural Michelin. There are not enough stars in the critic’s firmament for the art. That is one more thing the Museum of Modern Art has in common with the City of New York.

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