The New MoMA‎ Is a Work In Progress

The New MoMA‎ Is a Work In Progress

Can the newly reopened museum really achieve its aim of reframing the global history of 20th century art?

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The Museum of Modern Art is finally open again, and to great fanfare.

But you might not have noticed that it had been closed for more than three months this summer before its reopening in October. If so, I’m not entirely surprised. It’s absence hadn’t left a gaping hole in my existence either. New York’s art scene chugged along as energetically as ever without it.

That ought to be surprising. To someone like me, who basically grew up on the museum’s collection, the realization that I’d lost my emotional attachment to the place was sad. How did it happen that one of the world’s premier cultural institutions could lose so much of its relevance? Of course the magnificent collection was still there, and even seemed, little by little, to be getting more ecumenical without losing its coherence. And for sure there have been some great exhibitions. Yet the institution seems to have lost track of itself—I can even say, of its greatness.

Or maybe its greatness has simply become harder to see. The museum’s last big renovation in 2004, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, left it feeling soulless, antiseptic, and rather indifferent to the art that it houses. Back then, when it reopened, John Updike was impressed by the way it had “the enchantment of a bank after hours.” Apparently banks aroused in him emotions quite different from those I’ve experienced. I kept thinking this might be a great place to run a trade fair, and some of the exhibitions I’ve seen at MoMA‎‎ over the past 15 years felt like they were situated in one.

All the more reason why I was eager to see the museum’s latest face-lift, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. I was hoping for the best but feared the worst, all the more so because I am still irked by MoMA‎’s wanton destruction of the former American Folk Art Museum next door, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien—an eccentric and not entirely successful building, for sure, but at least, unlike the voracious next-door neighbor that gobbled it up, it had some personality.

The good news is that the museum’s new quarters are a big improvement over its last makeover. Of course, there’s no going back to the intimacy of the place I first knew as a teenager in the 1970s (Philip Johnson’s design), and which to my recollection was not lost in Cesar Pelli’s 1984 renovation. This was a place that made it feel easy to get close to the art, not only physically but also emotionally. That’s gone forever. If you want something like it, you’ll have to look elsewhere: in Houston, for instance, where I trust the Menil Collection remains as homey as ever. But in New York, there’s no getting it back. And the institution’s panjandrums would have it no other way, I’m sure, for today, a great museum needs to strike a populist note; it can justify itself only by the masses of people who troop through it every day.

This justifies, apparently, the Wall Street shark philosophy at work: Expand or die. In fact, if anything, the Diller Scofidio + Renfro version of MoMA‎, with its more than 40,000 square feet of additional exhibition space, impresses the visitor with its vastness to a degree unimaginable in its previous renditions. And the rooms are still too big for most of the works from the first half of the 20th century, indeed even more so; it takes so many items to fill each space that they end up competing for your attention. But in compensation, there is a better flow from room to room—a clear but not domineering path that revives a precious sense of exploration.

A visit to the new MoMA‎ requires revised expectations. Even in its last guise, it was still possible to go there with a hope of seeing most of the permanent collection galleries and several temporary exhibitions in an ambitious day of looking. No more. Now it’s more like a visit to an encyclopedic museum such as the Met: You should know from the get-go that you’re only going to see a small part of what’s on view in a day, and if you try to take on too much—as I did on my first trip—you’ll just run yourself ragged and end up feeling more frustration than pleasure.

So much for the building. What counts is what’s in it. The noises coming from the museum seemed to hold out the idea that what we’d encounter might be a wholesale revision of the familiar Cézanne-to-Picasso-to-Pollock lineage with which MoMA‎ has long been identified. I have to admit this prospect had me worried. Not that—for all that I love Cézanne and Picasso and Pollock and all their major and minor European and American cohorts—I don’t think a shake-up of the canon is called for; I long for it. But my suspicion was that MoMA‎’s curators wouldn’t be up to the job, that they would do it badly. Could they really all at once find a way to reframe the history of 20th century art in a way that fairly and without condescension incorporates a reasoned view of the varied modernisms of Japan and India and South Korea, of Greece and Lebanon and Israel, of Nigeria and Uruguay and even our dear neighbor Canada—a truly global art history that neither reduces everything to some single overriding narrative nor separates each place out into its own separate and noncommunicating box? It seemed far too much to hope for.

As it turns out, I was disappointed in a way that left me relieved. The permanent exhibition galleries leave the old story pretty much intact, but expand on it and fill it out a bit around the edges. In particular, women artists are now far more visible than they used to be, though they still don’t take starring roles until the galleries devoted to art from the 1970s onward. Your path through the fifth floor galleries devoted to the 1880s through the 1940s is not quite chronological—it opens with a roomful of Brancusi sculptures (1910s–30s) before starting the timeline proper with works by “19th Century Innovators”: paintings by Cézanne and Gauguin, of course, but also works by Redon and Cassatt, a sculpture by Medardo Rosso, and even, more surprisingly, ceramics by George Ohr, “the mad potter of Biloxi,” as he called himself. To a greater extent than would have been the case in the past, these varied pieces mingle on terms of equality—but not entirely: In the next room we meet “Early Photography and Film.” In two rooms, we’ve been introduced to the state of play in adventurous European and American art circa 1900, and without much concern for the fact that the selected works represent a multitude of styles and movements as well as techniques: Seurat’s quasiscientific pointillism coexists with van Gogh’s hallucinatory proto-Expressionism, Odilon Redon’s Symbolist works with Mary Cassatt’s realistic studies of domestic life, a lyrical photographic portrait by Julia Margaret Cameron with anonymous documentary images of the horrors of World War I.

The viewer has to sink or swim. Those who remember the old history may wonder at what’s been left out. It’s lovely to see Cézanne again, but where are his Impressionist contemporaries, all of whom painted, as he did, into the 20th century: Monet, Pissarro, Renoir? Are they no longer part of the history of modernism? Actually, patience; Monet gets his own room elsewhere—how else could they show his massive Water Lilies (1914–26), nearly 42 feet long?—but he might have been here too, among his peers. And even as one assents to the predominance in photography of many different fact-based modes, from a medical X-ray to Muybridge’s studies of animal locomotion, it’s possible to wonder whether pictorialism—the search for an aesthetic rather than documentary form of photography—is really quite as marginal as it’s made to seem here.

In any case, this two-room, broad-brush sketch of art up to and around the turn of the 20th century turns out to be more of a curtain-raiser as you get a closer look at what comes next: room 503, “Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” Again, the new MoMA‎ downplays the importance of movements—of collective efforts. This room essentially substitutes for what previously would have been a room devoted to Cubism, and in which Georges Braque would have been presented on equal terms with Picasso as an originator (“We were like mountain-climbers roped together,” as Braque famously described their way of working in daily contact for several years beginning around 1907). And then there would have been space for some works by the practitioners who quickly followed their lead: Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, and others. Here, instead, we have 13 Picassos, and not a single work by Braque, let alone any of their comrades. Instead, the great Spaniard’s ongoing influence is oddly illustrated by a couple of much later works that would have been better situated among other pieces of their own time, Faith Ringgold’s 1967 painting American People Series #20: Die—a blood-spattered riot scene—and Louise Bourgeois’s grouping of totemic wooden sculptures, Quarantania, I (1947–53).

The MoMA‎’s new history continues much in the same fashion. It’s broader than it used to be, in some ways, but also thinner. It’s basically the same story as before, but now it feels more arbitrary—the choices seem less reasoned. And the breaks in chronology, such as the juxtaposition of Bourgeois and Ringgold with Picasso, seem forced. Yes, those artists knew Picasso’s work, but they took account of much more besides, and anyway, so many of their contemporaries were equally influenced by Picasso; he was unavoidable. MoMA‎ seems to be asking for a blue ribbon for its effort to shine the glorious light of Picasso’s fame on a couple of his artistic granddaughters, one of them African American, but they don’t need his reflected glory. It might have been worth assembling a room illustrating Picasso’s influence—or better yet, the influence of Cubism—in the art of the 1940s through the 1970s, on the fourth floor. The room could even have included some of Picasso’s later work alongside not only Bourgeois and Ringgold but also, among others, Francis Bacon, Romare Bearden, and Willem de Kooning, not to mention artists from farther afield, such as, for instance, the German-born Venezuelan sculptor Gego (born Gertrud Goldschmidt) and painters M.F. Husain, from India, Joseph Zaritsky, from Israel (born in what is now Ukraine), or Fahrelnissa Zeid, from Turkey, showcasing the many ways Cubism continued to influence artists, both abstractionists and those more inclined to figuration, all over the world.

You won’t find Husain, Zaritsky, or Zeid at MoMA—neither in the collection galleries nor, it seems, in the collection itself; at least their works are not among the 82,000 works (out of nearly 200,000) available to view online. Their stories suggest that the spread of the idea of modern art is inextricably linked to the proliferation of new national entities in the wake of the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires following the First World War, among them Zeid’s Turkey, and the further erosion of colonial power in the wake of the Second, which led to the end of British and French hegemony over the Middle East and thus, among other things, to the birth of Israel, as well as to an independent India. New nations needed a new art, one that would be visibly modern yet also somehow culturally specific; a broadly interpreted Cubism often seemed to be a sufficiently flexible idiom to allow this. But that’s one of the many stories MoMA‎ still can’t tell.

If MoMA‎ is ever to become a truly global museum of modern art, it has far to go. You can’t get any sense of how modern art developed in Asia or the Middle East there, or even of its development in much of Europe beyond France and Germany or, for that matter, in our northern neighbor Canada—that artists such as Emily Carr, David Milne, or the Québecois Paul-Émile Borduas did outstanding work will be unknown to the museum’s visitors. (The museum owns a watercolor each by Milne and Borduas as well as one painting by the latter—none on view—but nothing by Carr.)

If not even an institution as well-financed as MoMA‎ can truly present the 20th century in an encyclopedic way, the task may be impossible. And if there can’t be a global museum, can there be a global art history? How else can the individual art lover get a feeling for the connections and differences that make for the history of the art we encounter if not through the encounters a museum makes possible? Yes, on the museum’s second floor, among the works representing the 1970s to the present, we find works by many artists from areas not included in its history of the art of the preceding century: Mrinalini Mukherjee and Sheela Gowda of India, Huang Yong Ping and Xu Bing of China, Bodys Isek Kingelez and Chéri Samba of Congo, Yto Barrada of Morocco—to name just a few. But how well can we understand their work if the museum ignores the art histories from which their work might have arisen, except, of course, the art history that flowed through Paris, Munich, Moscow, London, and New York?

To this objection, there is one great rejoinder: If you want to understand something about modernism in Latin America, MoMA‎’s a good place to get started. But not, at first, by visiting the permanent collection galleries. Start instead on the third floor, where you’ll find the exhibition “Sur Moderno: Journeys of Abstraction” (on view through March 14), which is composed of works donated by the Venezuelan art collector Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. The show gives a broad view of the extraordinarily ebullient activity of abstract artists in Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, and Uruguay from the 1940s through the 1970s. And one can imagine that—since these works are now part of the museum’s collection—they can one day be integrated into its overall history of postwar art, alongside American and European Abstract Expressionism and art informel, neo-Dada, and Minimalism. It’s a distinct development with similar sources, as underlined by the inclusion in these rooms of works by European predecessors such as Theo van Doesberg, Ivan Puni (or Jean Pougny, as the Russian Suprematist, a follower of Malevich, spelled his name later while living in France), and Aleksandr Rodchenko. Here, too, is a sculpture by the Swiss artist/designer Max Bill, whose 1951 retrospective in São Paulo is said to have jump-started the concrete art movement in Brazil. While in Europe the fortunes of the movements pioneered by such artists—Constructivism, De Stijl, and geometric abstraction—were somewhat eclipsed after World War II shook the faith in rationalism and technical progress on which their ideas were predicated, in South America they continued to find fertile soil.

Also here is one of the museum’s jewels: Piet Mondrian’s late masterwork Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43)—whose optical dynamism was an inspiration for the kinetic art that flourished in Latin America in the 1950s, and which was first owned by the Brazilian sculptor Maria Martins (whose work is not part of the Cisneros donation—her surrealism is not part of the same lineage—but can be seen among the collection on the fourth floor). Also not part of the Cisneros gift but included in “Sur Moderno” is a particularly spare specimen of the work of Lucio Fontana—ordinarily considered an Italian artist, though he was in fact born in Argentina in 1899 to an Italian father and Argentinian mother; until his definitive move to Italy in 1947 he spent long periods in both countries, so that in himself he represents the reality that Latin American art cannot be entirely distinguished from the art of Europe, despite all the nuances of difference.

A few of the artists in “Sur Moderno” have been widely exhibited worldwide over the last couple of decades, particularly the Brazilians, such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, who began in the 1950s as practitioners of concrete art—an offshoot of Constructivism—but later became known as Neo-Concretists. These artists had come to the conclusion that, as the writer Ferreira Gullar and his compatriots put it in a 1959 manifesto, “the objective notions of time, space, form, structure, color, etc.” on which concrete art has relied “are not sufficient” to an effort to address “the eye as an instrument and not as a human way of grasping the world and of giving oneself to it.” They would look for a more intuitive, phenomenological, and above all participatory art.

The “modern south” of the MoMA‎ exhibition is still very much the progressive, rationalist south on which artists like Oiticica and Clark first placed their hopes. In Venezuela, following the overthrow of military dictatorship in 1958, abstract and kinetic art even became something like an official emblem of the new democratic polity . This art was a child of the Bauhaus, one might say, and undoubtedly in part a result of the European emigration that came as a result of the war and the Shoah—Gego is only one of those who arrived on a new continent for this reason; Mira Schendel, a Swiss-born Brazilian sculptor and painter. Here, Clark and Oiticica are represented only by work from the 1950s and 1960s, which means that the wilder works that followed, such as Oiticica’s “Parangolés” (wearable sculptures) or “Cosmococa” installations (multimedia environments incorporating sound, slide projections, and drawings made with lines of cocaine), or Clark’s “relational objects,” meant to be used as instruments for psycho-corporeal healing. Nor are such works on view in the permanent collection galleries, except for a single parangolé, which is a shame because they might have helped viewers understand the strange vicissitudes by which abstraction led not only to more abstraction, but also to conceptual art, performance, and installations, so salient in the second and fourth floor collection galleries: from Senga Nengudi’s sculptures made of sand-filled pantyhose to a sound installation made of everyday objects by David Tudor or a video installation with sculptures and drawings by Joan Jonas.

The new MoMA‎ is a work in progress—and knowingly so: We’re promised a re-hang of one-third of the collection galleries every six months. That sounds like a massive effort, and I can’t help suspecting that the rhythm of change will soon become much slower. More important would be an expansion of the collection: You can’t show the Husains, Zaritskys, or Zeids, et al., if you don’t have them. MoMA‎ has long had an interest in the art of Latin America, but it’s notable that the recent ambitious expansion of its collection in that area has been dependent on the efforts of a single patron. That’s encouraging in one way: It could expand its collections worldwide in a similar way, with no more than a few patrons around the globe. But of course, that would also put the museum’s future squarely in the hands of its deep-pocketed supporters, rather than its professional staff. I don’t find that a terribly appetizing prospect.

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