When the new MoMA building opened in 2004, one of its many peculiar features was a sixty-foot-tall atrium space rising from its second floor. It was thought of as an “indoor sculpture garden,” but it really served two functions: to be a piazza where those who survived the ticket lines could gather and gab, and to be a display space for some of MoMA’s largest pieces, including Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk and, against its east wall, one of Monet’s Water Lilies paintings. The space was designed so that visitors could look down on these works at sharper and sharper angles from each of the five gallery levels and, vertiginously, from an opening in the floor of the sixth level–a grand view to a space disposed only to demoralize whatever art was placed there.
At the new building’s opening, the atrium’s height–a mere eight inches lower than the Sistine Chapel–famously reduced Monet’s canvas to a shriveled painted rag. Since then, the atrium has given temporary residence to works by various artists that, while strong enough to hold the wall in most other spaces, are here somehow dwarfed by the weight of all that emptiness above them. One cannot but recall the dread with which the thought of infinite spaces filled Blaise Pascal. Quite the most exciting feature of the current MoMA retrospective exhibition of American sculptor Martin Puryear (on view through January 14) is the way he has used the unprecedented opportunity of having the entire atrium to himself to infuse bare height with meaningfulness and to turn this shaft of hostile emptiness into something aesthetically breathtaking.
The bulk of the show consists of about fifty works, from the mid-1970s to the present, artfully distributed to give each piece the room it needs. The main components of the atrium installation are built to a scale substantially larger than Puryear’s typical pieces and in a way that does not diminish but rather glorifies their virtues–craft, beauty, intelligence, invention, wit, depth, meaning and a spirit of lightness. Much of what Puryear made before the ’70s was destroyed in a studio fire, and everything he has made since fuses an unmistakably modernist vision with anthropological references to what one might call the aesthetics of everyday life in black Africa. Puryear, an African-American, spent time in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in the ’60s. His materials, in the works on the sixth floor and in the atrium, are characteristically wood and fiber; but more than that, he makes a sophisticated use of what Claude Lévi-Strauss calls bricolage (“improvisation”) in his masterpiece, La Pensée sauvage. Like Robinson Crusoe, Puryear appropriates whatever objects come to hand.
The whole second floor of MoMA, including the atrium, was planned for and built in a misled effort to anticipate the future history of modern art, which MoMA’s curators believed was bent on the creation of ever larger works. That view was widely shared, though it has not exactly been borne out in the radical pluralism of twenty-first-century art, which comes in all sizes, including no size at all. It was also the justification for converting a complex of vacated factory buildings in North Adams, Massachusetts, into the huge gallery spaces of MASS MoCA, which had the benign consequence of turning a decaying mill town into the home of “America’s largest contemporary art center” (as the museum’s website puts it) in 1999. It had been the vision of curator Thomas Krens too, and it earned him the directorship of the Guggenheim Foundation in New York, which he has held since 1988. Krens found even greater success with essentially the same vision in Bilbao, where, with help from architect Frank Gehry, he transformed the drab industrial Basque city into a site of global aesthetic pilgrimage. Guggenheim Bilbao came equipped with an interior as capacious as a hangar and fulfilled its destiny with an exhibition of Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses in 2005–“Surely one of the most wonderful exhibitions of [Serra’s] work,” according to MoMA curator Kynaston McShine. So electrifying was Krens’s formula that I once heard a poignant lecture by an Ecuadorean curator asking whether a “Bilbao effect” was possible for Quito. The difference between the Guggenheim Bilbao and New York’s Museum of Modern Art is not just the difference between New York and Bilbao, however. It is that Bilbao has no collection to speak of, whereas MoMA’s collection has been traditionally committed to a philosophy of art history that presupposes an evolving canon, and hence an obligation that its architecture be able to hold the gigantesque works that the unfolding spirit of modernism was believed to promise.