A reminder of what is still good about being in New York during this post-election mind-numbing funk. With images of macho Marlboro smokin’ soldiers on every street corner, nothing less than the prospect of a large helping of comforting modern masterpieces and stuffed turkey will do the trick. With all the trimmings, thank you.
After more than two years in temporary facilities in Queens, the Museum of Modern Art reopened in NYC with a new gallery building and renovated spaces that nearly double the capacity of the former facility. A much-anticipated event for many New Yorkers, the line for free admission on opening day wrapped around two city blocks. The following day, the new admission price of twenty dollars per adult would kick in – a whopping 66% increase from the last time MoMA opened its doors in Manhattan. This has prompted a lot of grumbling, and even a Free MoMA protest with police and all. (Again, the civil liberties thing!) Director Glenn Lowry keeps mentioning initiatives like the free Friday evening program, sponsored in a brilliant marketing move by Target; a slightly upscale K-Mart-like store chain that does not cater to the cultural elite.
International Style Revisited: Horizontal and Vertical Connections
Admission price aside, based on a slew of reviews and a smattering of public opinion, the response to Tokyo architect Yoshio Taniguchi’s design has been overwhelmingly positive. The architect and his locally based architectural team, Kohn Pedersen and Fox, have managed the daunting feat of both articulating and bringing aesthetic order to a complex of heterogeneous buildings and a rat’s maze of galleries that visitors have moaned about for decades. This sense of cohesiveness was accomplished, Taniguchi explained, not through imposing a dominant new order, but by making subtle architectural connections that imperceptibly merge the diverse parts into a harmonic whole. These include creating a horizontal line to connect porticos and rooftops of the different facades at street level, and exposing volumes and elements of existing buildings that the new gallery building could seamlessly incorporate, mirror, and build upon.
In a daring move, the new street level lobby cuts through the city block to physically connect 53rd and 54th streets, and then visually connects with a spectacular view of the renovated sculpture garden. An adjacent, monumental stair then leads from the lobby to the new gallery building, which is organized around a 10-meter high atrium on the second floor. The scale of the atrium is broken up architecturally with carefully balanced penetrations onto stairwells, bridges, and gallery spaces above. The atrium does not quite succeed in creating the intimacy needed for viewing works of art, however, and even large scale works like Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c. 1920) and Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk (1963-69) seem dwarfed. The contemporary galleries are located on this lower floor, along with the prints department, and film and media department. However, like most MoMA visitors anxious to visit old friends, I headed for the permanent collection first and made the ascension to the upper floors.
The sixth and uppermost floor will house special exhibitions, but the enormous space was strategically vacant for the opening save two works by Ellsworth Kelly and James Rosenquist spanning facing walls, and an installation by German photographer Michael Wesley that depicted MoMA’s construction process. Here and in the adjacent reception area are skylights that filter natural light into the galleries and the atrium below. Taniguchi has designed over half a dozen museums in Tokyo, and he is known for his use of natural light. This is in keeping with current trends in museum lighting and the move away from the kind of dramatic highlighting frequently seen in blockbuster shows from the 1980’s and 90’s.
The variable character of natural light from the skylights, and the many large windows facing onto the streets on the other floors, is felt throughout the building, while the primary lighting in the gallery spaces is straightforward miniaturized halogen track lighting. In contrast to museum skylights from the late nineteenth century, typically supplemented by chandeliers, contemporary architects often incorporate sophisticated solutions to control natural light and problems like glare, such as Louis Kahn’s intricate system of cove reflectors in Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth (1972), Rafael Moneo’s rooftop lanterns for The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (2000) or Renzo Piano’s baffled coves for capturing northern light at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta (2005),
The Permanent Collection (1880-1970)
Down the escalator to the 5th floor, and directly across from what someone pointed out will be the sound of clinging change from the restaurant cash register, is the entrance to the painting and sculpture galleries. These spaces bear little resemblance to the previous linear, structured arrangement of boring rooms that Caesar Pelli gave us in his renovation in the 80’s. The design and mounting of works on the 5th floor in particular is – I hate to gush – aesthetically ravishing. The architecture’s generous and well-proportioned volumes allow just the right feel of space for viewing familiar works indelibly associated (in typical American fashion) with the “best collection of modern art in the world.” The movement through the galleries of early modern art on this floor is as clear as the canons of early modern art history that Chief Curator John Elderfield unapologetically presents to the public: comprehensible, chronological, opening onto other contained spaces to provide juxtapositions of related historical “-isms,” and only occasionally penetrated by views onto the sculpture garden and cityscape of midtown Manhattan. It is hard to imagine the story of early modern art being told in a more seductively conclusive manner, in other words, exactly what the public wants.
In an interview with The New York Times Magazine _weeks before the opening, Elderfield spoke of the new mounting of the collection. He explained that although attempts were made to experiment away from a chronological hanging, “it became very clear that if anything was drastically out of sequence, it seemed wrong.” Elderfield perhaps also remembers the largely negative uproar about the _Modern Starts exhibition in 2000, a show he curated that presented a thematic organization of the collection: people, places, and things. A fascinating and messy exhibition that essentially belied MoMA’s authoritative narrative of modernism as a progressive linear development, works were loosely grouped by subject matter and conveyed a sense of the actual chaotic and conflicting trends in painting and sculpture during the period 1880 – 1920, most of which had nothing to do with tidy “-isms.” Disoriented and dismayed by the emphasis on subject matter over medium, one of the basic tenets of modernism, the MoMA public once again voiced its strong opinion about the way this narrative was supposed to go.
An internal stairwell, which is surprising adorned with Matisse’s Dance (1), 1909, leads to the 4th floor, where the story picks up around 1940 and stops around 1970. Art is presented chronologically on the 4th floor as well, but reads more as a “favorite hits” experience for MoMA enthusiasts, with “Oh good, I was hoping they’d still keep the Pollocks next to the Rothkos”- kind of comments heard. And while lesser-known artists are included here and there, it seems that the curatorial staff has found it hard to begrudge wall space to exploring art historical juxtapositions when the collection’s masterworks are so numerous, and of course, enormously popular. The tightly choreographed presentation of the 5th floor begins to fall apart by the time Minimalism and Post-Minimalism arrive on the scene, and given the caliber of works, I can’t really think of any good reason for why the same kind of dynamic can’t happen here, other than there just isn’t enough space for the kind of experimentation with lesser known artists that the tweaking of art historical canons requires. After all this money and effort, what a shame that would be.
The contemporary galleries, a first for MoMA, are on the second floor off of the atrium; works from the past thirty years are presented by decade in a cavernous two-story, column-free space that breaks not only with the architecture of the upper galleries but with their curatorial assuredness as well. Although MoMA was founded in 1929 on the principle of showing the art of its time, what Alfred H. Barr envisioned as a laboratory, the institution has historically tended to move cautiously, with new movements making an appearance in the museum’s galleries or collection only when their progressive, modern developmental character could be documented. Perhaps this, combined with inexperience in breaking with modernism’s narrative and presenting newer works, explains the hit-and-miss effect of this exhibition of contemporary art. Works by Vito Acconci, Gordon Matta-Clark, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall and Rachel Whiteread are interspersed with but a handful of the many (rumored around 1,000) new acquisitions made by MoMA in the past decade, such as Julie Mehretu’s Empirical Construction, Istanbul (2003) shown earlier this year at the Whitney Biennial. But relationships between the works and between the scale of the space seem hollow. The configuration of the new media gallery for this exhibition is also disappointing, with poor sound and viewing spaces. More benches! Eve Sussman’s video Inside 89 Seconds at Alcazar – another highlight from this year’s Whitney Biennial and new MoMA acquisition – and Warhol’s silent Screen Tests with Dennis Hopper and Baby Jane Holzer were on the program and deserved better.
In the art world, the development of the entire second floor will undoubtedly become the new focus of interest, especially now when the contrast with modernism’s history, however eloquently told, seems more or less hermetically sealed in the floors above. The architecture of the new MoMA confirms its historical roots as an institution that wants to be both forward looking and the definitive narrator of modern art. The latter is inevitable, not only because of the quantity of high caliber works comprising its permanent collection, but because the historical process that defined both modern art and MoMA are inextricably linked. It is clear that the greatest upcoming challenge for MoMA’s curatorial staff lies in making the modern “contemporary,” a temporal state that may have been rejected by founder Alfred H. Barr for being “too inclusive,” but will be essential to making the museum relevant in the present.
See also http://palmyre.blogspot.com/