It’s Modern but is it contemporary?

Hal Foster at the new MoMA

‘Manhattan is Modern Again!’ the advertisements exclaim, as if this status depended on the new Museum of Modern Art alone. ‘A transcendent aesthetic experience,’ the New York Times gushed.

You might not recognise the museum after its redesign by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. In the New Yorker John Updike likened its presence to ‘an invisible cathedral’, but it is closer to an abstract palace. The main access is now nearer Sixth than Fifth Avenue, and you enter from either 53rd or 54th Street into a lobby, paced with white columns, that cuts all the way through the block. (The fitting into the city is graceful, and throughout the museum Taniguchi provides unexpected glimpses of nearby buildings.) You then turn to mount a grand stairway where you are greeted, on the first landing, by the bluff Balzac by Rodin – not an obvious host except that here you first see, through a gorgeous glass curtain-wall, the Sculpture Garden below, which Taniguchi has spruced up with pools, trees and terraces. You turn again – suspended above you now is a green helicopter from the Architecture and Design Department – and climb to a great atrium, 110 feet high, punctuated by the huge Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman in the centre (it looks like a rusty exclamation point from God) and a panoramic Water Lilies by Monet on the wall opposite (unfortunately, it shrinks in this vast space). The second floor also contains the cavernous Contemporary Galleries, including a Media Gallery for film and video, yet the atrium prompts you to look up, through vertical cuts in the white walls, to the four floors above, where you are enticed to go directly by elevator or escalator.

At this point you might run out of synonyms for ‘grand’, yet you never feel overwhelmed by the space, as you might in the Guggenheim Bilbao or Tate Modern: MoMA is about tasteful uplift, not in-your-face awe, and the new building adds only 40 per cent more exhibition space to the old (now 125,000 square feet). The expanse of the top floor, reserved for special exhibitions, seems more suited to ballroom dancing or roller-skating than to art (it is hung, somewhat lazily, with a few giant works such as F-111 by James Rosenquist), but it will be divided up for future shows. It is on the fifth floor that Taniguchi scales the architecture down, proportions the galleries nicely, and allows the collection of the Painting and Sculpture Department (P&S) to take over.

The selection was made by John Elderfield and his team – Ann Temkin, Joachim Pissarro and Anne Umland (the first two are newcomers to MoMA).[*] Elderfield has worked in P&S for years, under the directorships of both William Rubin (1973-88) and Kirk Varnedoe (1988-2000). Yet Elderfield’s final show in the old building, Modern Starts (2000), was cause for concern: a post-historical hodgepodge of disparate works placed together in lookalike groupings under such generic titles as ‘People’, ‘Places’ and ‘Things’, it was a critical bust. Such thematicism was at odds with the principal motives of Modernist art – its attack on meaning, its commitment to abstraction, its rigour about its own development. Tate Modern, which opened a little later, also took the thematic route, but its sketchier collection made mix-and-match a plausible default; not so at MoMA. In retrospect, however, Modern Starts seems a calculated move by Elderfield to air out the collection and to break with the presentations of Rubin and Varnedoe. For Rubin the first concern was stylistic coherence, and after the last redesign in 1984 by Cesar Pelli, he mostly alternated masters with movements: Picasso with Cubism, Matisse with Fauvism, and so on. Under the pressure of Postmodernist art, Varnedoe brought in more Dada (especially Duchamp) and Surrealism in his hang of 1996; though less rigorous stylistically, his version was more stringent chronologically. In fact he sometimes broke up the isms in order to juxtapose different works of the same moment.

Elderfield has not strayed far from stylistic or chronological ordering (‘if anything was drastically out of sequence, it seemed wrong,’ he told the Times), yet his team has sought a way between the chronos of Rubin and Varnedoe and the post-history of Modern Starts, with a hang that moves forward at a good clip but allows for conversation, even contradiction, along the way. On the fifth floor, devoted to 1880-1940, the collection still begins with Post-Impressionism, Cézanne and van Gogh in charge. (It is no accident that the museum is less strong in Seurat and Gauguin: it has always directed art history as much as represented it.) ‘The path of structural innovation’, we are told, leads primarily from Cézanne to Picasso, the Cubists, and abstractionists like Mondrian, while ‘the path of expressive colour’ runs chiefly from van Gogh to Matisse, the Fauves and the Expressionists. Although this is not wrong, it is restrictive; and yet by the room called ‘Crossroads: 1914-28’ figures as disparate as de Chirico, Léger and Brancusi appear together; and, in the next space, Dadaists like Picabia, Suprematists like Malevich and Constructivists like Rodchenko vie with one another. There is some affiliation and much difference in these rooms, and sometimes the combinations test our sense of coherence. A final gallery on the fifth floor gathers an allegorical triptych by Max Beckmann and a Bauhaus painting by Oskar Schlemmer with engaged work by the Mexicans Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The juxtapositions are provocative, but the rationale not clear (unless it is merely that the new MoMA is not hostile to committed figuration).

The fourth floor, which covers only 1940-70, also begins in an expected way, with late Surrealist and early Abstract Expressionist paintings that prepare for the great de Koonings, Rothkos, Newmans and Pollocks to come. (Like Cubism, Ab Ex is set up as the benchmark of its epoch: this too is conventional.) A gallery devoted to Rauschenberg, Johns and Twombly is so deserved that it is a surprise one did not exist before, and the presentation opens up further in rooms devoted to 1960s abstraction, Pop, Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Some artists in this suite of spaces were not stamped with MoMA approval until now: neither established ones like Dan Flavin and Robert Smithson or rediscovered ones like Yayoi Kusama and Lee Bontecou; and others were rarely seen at all, such as Romare Bearden, Richard Hamilton and R.B. Kitaj in the Pop gallery, and Eva Hesse, Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica in the Minimalist and Post-Minimalist rooms. Some practices are still not an easy fit: an alcove of Conceptual and institution-critical work by Robert Morris, Marcel Broodthaers and others feels like an embarrassment, as if it were a bathroom in the first plan. Whether you regard canonicity as the kiss of grace or of death, it is still not guaranteed here: ‘The installation will frequently be refreshed,’ the curators caution, ‘so that the larger history set forth will remain vital and open-ended.’ This flexibility will prove handy, for, while Abstract Expressionism is surely a thing of the past, advanced art since 1960 is not so settled; for artists and historians alike, it remains an archival threshold, open to creative misreading and critical re-evaluation.

So the Elderfield team has loosened the canon of P&S slightly. Now there is room to show greats like Picasso struggle, and less-greats like Paul Signac shine. (The decision to begin with his wild Neo-Impressionist portrait of the debonair critic Félix Fénéon caused much consternation: that’s how fetishised the presentation had become.) One effect is to ease the expectation that every work be world-historical: though MoMA still believes its story to be definitive, it does not feel so deadly-final here. And (who knows?) the institution might be eased in turn from the burden of its own authority. For a long time ‘MoMA’ was too maternal a nickname: more fitting would be ‘NoPe’, as in nom du père, so severely did the museum lay down the law about Modernism. It still does so in this version, yet with less patriarchal force. Its story remains one of heroic individuals, mostly male, but they appear linked not so much by an Oedipal narrative of fathers and sons (the contest first with Cézanne, then Picasso . . .) as by sibling rivalry and cousinly attraction (perhaps the recent show focused on the testy give-and-take of Picasso and Matisse nudged the curators in this direction).

A partial opening is also evident in the other departments – Photography, Drawings, Prints and Illustrated Books, and Architecture and Design. Although each has its own space, the presentations are not so categorical. Photography is sequestered in the old building, but some of its procedures can be found in the P&S galleries, and a painterly quality has returned to photographic work today (primarily through digital composition and the use of grand scale). Conversely, some collages that one might expect in P&S are found in Drawing, and Architecture and Design juxtaposes many sorts of object. In short, medium-specificity is put under pressure here, and the complexity is truer to Modernist practice, not to mention its contemporary aftermath.

Yet this slight loosening produces a few problems of its own. Extended coverage might thin out emblematic work: however welcome, the new invitees to the Pop room, for example, might weaken the impact of Warhol, who appears a little dispersed and diminished (you wouldn’t know he is to the generations of the 1970s and 1980s what Pollock was to the generations of the 1950s and 1960s). Conversely, emblematic work might suffer from concentration: Matisse and Pollock are given their own galleries, which are glorious, yet they are also left to compete with themselves, and they don’t always meet their own high standards.

A more serious concern is the pedagogical efficacy of this presentation. Since its foundation in 1929 MoMA has always been as educative in mission as elitist in tone. Its first director, Alfred Barr, spread the gospel of Modernist art as generously and clearly as he could, given the different limitations of trustees and viewers. Rubin narrowed the story but strengthened the argument, and some of his shows were provocative dissertations on the walls (the 1984 Primitivism and the 1989 Picasso and Braque come first to mind). And Varnedoe was a gifted advocate in his own right. Moreover, you could learn the MoMA story almost on your own, figure out where you stood, and agree or disagree accordingly. Its very Oedipality called out to you – first to absorb the tale, then to complicate it, and perhaps to challenge it – which was key to the great success of the museum as an investment machine. Also very seductive was the sense that its art history was infinitely more coherent, progressive and refined than the horrific century at large (such is one attraction of the aesthetic in general, but here it was extreme); you could feel, in a mystified way, a bit player in a grand piece. For better or worse, the new version might not serve in these same ways, or interpellate people as effectively. That its account is more complex is obviously a good thing: by the same token you need to know more to get started, and the egalitarian reach of the place might not be as great. The controversial entrance fee – $20 – won’t help here. It is what you pay for some entertainments, and so places the museum more in the consumerist world than in the public sphere (however mythical): come for a big show, check out the new building, have lunch, hit the store – that’s the ticket.

So much for nostalgia for the ancien regime: the greater problem is that the new order does not break enough with the old. The MoMA narrative is still dominated by P&S, by painting especially. To be sure, sculpture is the weaker medium in Modernism, and more significant models of its art are defined in (often antagonistic) relation to painting, but not to the extent that is still implied here. Apart from Brancusi, even the prominent sculptors included in the upper P&S galleries (like David Smith and Donald Judd) are mostly pictorial in orientation; others that are not (and some that are) are placed outside in the Sculpture Garden or cast into the Contemporary Galleries. In fact most work to do with materiality and corporeality, let alone the formless and the entropic, is cleaned up or not present: for the most part Dada is placed behind glass and Surrealism in vitrines (the taming of these two is an old story at the Modern), and except for Dubuffet, the brut-ish aspect of 20th-century art is not much on display, nor are the nastier bits of Cobra, Fluxus, Nouveau Réalisme, Arte Povera and so on. For that matter, political art – from Vladimir Tatlin and John Heartfield to Hans Haacke and Barbara Kruger – is scarce, which cannot be ascribed to the limits of the collection alone. This is all to say that the MoMA story is still very affirmative: in its major dispensations – Barr the evangelist, Rubin the professor, Varnedoe the humanist – MoMA was always go-go, and in its advocacy it tended to (dis)miss the critical, the subversive and the scabrous. The same remains mostly true of the Elderfield account, where discernment sometimes seems sacrificed to taste.

MoMA still offers little sense of the great events of the 20th century, or of the entanglements of Modernism with Fascism, totalitarianism, Fordism, mass culture and capitalist spectacle. Perhaps the first task of such a museum is formalist – to highlight the intrinsic properties of each work and the internal development of each art – but that needn’t be the only task. Like some others, I had hoped (even expected) some space to be used to evoke more context: why not a presentation that points to cultural problematics and historical conjunctures, and brings other kinds of objects, images and documents into play? (Such a plan would require more co-operation among the departments and – God forbid – more texts on the walls, but who’s afraid of a little discourse today? Concern about didacticism often disguises a condescension towards viewers and/or an apologia for aura.) As it is, an old pedagogy is weakened and a new one has not yet emerged.

Two further concerns strike me. Between the fifth and fourth floors the P&S presentation breaks at 1940, as do most courses in 20th-century art; this break tacitly accepts the hiatus produced by Fascism, World War Two and the Holocaust – repression, exile and death – and the brochure for the fourth floor does cite Adorno on the near impossibility of lyric poetry after Auschwitz. Yet, again, you wouldn’t know these events had occurred, and in this regard too the new MoMA is in keeping with the old. Within its affirmative story is a historical silence that might be fundamental to postwar reconstruction, in which (to put it crudely) the recovery of Modernism in the form of ‘the Triumph of American Painting’ is offered up as cultural compensation for the devastation of Europe. A strong version of this story, affirmed by Rubin at MoMA, was developed by Clement Greenberg, for whom advanced abstraction did not break with the artistic past but preserved its greatest qualities through self-critique. Such ‘Modernist painting’ served, then, not only to bracket other avant-garde practices, which indeed posited a break with tradition (the readymade, constructed sculpture, the found image, collage, photomontage), but also to paper over historical rupture as such: in effect, this account concentrated history on one medium, abstract painting, which provided a sense of continuity not to be had elsewhere. This salve also involved a sublimation of political energies into aesthetic ones, as Greenberg proudly admitted in the early 1950s: ‘Some day it will have to be told how “anti-Stalinism”, which started out more or less as “Trotskyism”, turned into “art for art’s sake”, and thereby cleared the way, heroically, for what was to come.’ Although the Elderfield account is less Francocentric in the prewar period and far less Americocentric in the postwar than previous versions, it still uses the arc of ‘Modernist painting’ – as testament to liberal democracy as well as to historical continuity – to bridge the mid-century cataclysm.

The second concern is architectural as well as curatorial. If the hiatus between the prewar and the postwar is bridged too smoothly from the fifth to the fourth floor, the gap between the Modernist and the contemporary is not bridged at all from the fourth to the second: you just drop (three of the other departments are housed on the third floor) to the Contemporary Galleries, which are large enough to contain King Kong in the next remake. The turn at 1970 also seems a little arbitrary: ‘Modernist painting’ is in trouble as early as 1960, and while some art of the decade does seem fixed now, much else does not. Moreover, how an artist might ascend to Modernist heaven, or be cast down to contemporary purgatory, is not made clear, and peers (in importance as well as in age) are separated without much rationale (Robert Smithson and Bruce Nauman are on the fourth floor, while Richard Serra and Gordon Matta-Clark are on the second). Although, to be fair, the selection is not permanent – it will change every year or so – it feels rather random. In short, the Contemporary Galleries come across as a prehistorical holding pen, a space without a story.

This might not be a problem if MoMA did not insist on the connection between the Modernist and the contemporary. ‘You can be a museum, or you can be modern, but you can’t be both,’ Gertrude Stein once remarked, but she also believed the United States to be the oldest country because it had lived in the 20th century the longest. And for the most part ‘museum’ and ‘modern’ were not so contradictory in the States – MoMA is the primary case in point. The question for the museum now is different: can it be both Modernist and contemporary? Its leaders decided that it must be, a decision that was overdetermined. In 1929 there was no divide between Modernist and contemporary, and as late as 1949 MoMA agreed to sell to the Metropolitan all work that had become established, to keep its focus on the new and the now. But the agreement was voided four years later, and a permanent collection became a central focus (the Modern and the Met have competed for 20th-century art ever since). MoMA continued to buy and to receive contemporary work not only out of its old mission but out of a new will to power: all hands (the trustees especially) wanted to stay in the hunt, to use the Modernist collection to back the contemporary acquisitions, and this holds true to this day. As long as ‘Modernist’ included ‘contemporary’ this arrangement was not too stressed; now, however, such a relation (let alone an equation) cannot be assumed. The new MoMA insists on connection but does not demonstrate it: indeed it expresses disconnection in the gap between floors and spaces. Before the new design was chosen, some onlookers suggested a period museum for Modernist art in Midtown, with another structure for contemporary art elsewhere. Essentially that is what we’ve got, but on the same site. It’s a shotgun marriage that looks like a Cinderella ball.

‘We have emphasised work,’ the curators tell us of the Contemporary Galleries, ‘that reflects the impulse to escape from the institutional confines of the museum and the traditional formats of painting and sculpture,’ and a large chunk of a shingled house cut out by Matta-Clark is there to greet you. Such is the predicament of MoMA vis-à-vis the expanded field of contemporary art: how to contain, let alone to present, work that is immense, site-specific, and/or project-based? Here as elsewhere the response is better big than sorry – big as in 15,000 square feet with walls 21 feet high. But not all contemporary artists require the room that Serra needs (he will have a retrospective here in 2007); his scale shouldn’t be the norm. Huge is not necessarily flexible; in fact it can be quite rigid. Flexible can mean a mix of large and small spaces, and no doubt that is what we will see in the future. Yet the high walls will remain difficult: not much else can hold such a white field except extreme Minimalism or painterly bombast.

For all the grandeur the architecture seems quite light. Brilliantly engineered, the atrium space is supported structurally from above, which obviates the need for heavy columns; there is also a whole lot of glass and sheetrock, again with openings like pictures in the atrium walls, which adds to the lightness. Almost all the galleries seem to float, with a separation of an inch or so from the floor (the wall base is indented): this band turns the walls into planes that levitate. In a sense, this is to update a De Stijl aesthetic, making a Gesamtkunstwerk in which the common principle that unites the arts is a planarity determined by the architect, and this effect underwrites the pictorial bias of the collection mentioned above.

Taniguchi is a true master of such ‘light construction’, and Terry Riley, the architecture curator, a great advocate: he feels such transparency is both true to the precepts of Modernist design and appropriate to the virtuality of the digital world. But a contradiction arises here: Modernist transparency purported to be about structural clarity, not light effects (again much is hidden by sheetrock), and about material integrity, not phenomenal tricks (the glass and stone featured by Taniguchi changes in appearance under different light). Who cares? Why stick to an academic notion of Modernism? Quite. But that is how the building is pitched to us, as in keeping with the Modernist tradition, and in important respects it is not: Manhattan might be modern (in a decrepit sort of way), but is MoMA?

Here ‘Modernist’ has come to mean ‘Minimal’ and both imply dematerialisation: a sublimation of material and technique, not an exposure, a fetishisation of substance and structure, not a defetishisation – in short, the near opposite of what Modernism and Minimalism used to mean. In this way, too, the Modernist and the contemporary have parted company, no matter what anyone wants. In a sense abstraction still rules, but it is not the pictorial-spiritual variety of the White on White of Malevich – it is architectural-financial. ‘Raise a lot of money for me, I’ll give you good architecture,’ Taniguchi is said to have said to the trustees. ‘Raise even more money, I’ll make the architecture disappear.’ Now that’s an excellent trick – to make $425 million vanish. Is that what all this money wants – to disappear? Is that what money always wants? But of course it doesn’t disappear; you feel it, ultra-refined, everywhere, and its rarefaction permeates everything. As Rem Koolhaas recently remarked, ‘minimum is the ultimate ornament, a self-righteous crime, the contemporary baroque. Minimum is maximum in drag. It does not signify beauty, but guilt.’ I don’t know about the last part: I sense far more pride than guilt here. ‘Transcendent aesthetic experience’ in its privileged form today of immaculate spatial effect sure does cost a lot (‘less is more’ like never before). And that is the definitive quality of the new MoMA: a sublimation that is at once aesthetic, architectural and financial. It’s heady air, and almost everyone seems happy just to catch a breath of it.

[*] Elderfield is also the editor of Modern Painting and Sculpture 1880 to the Present from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA, 504 pp., $65, November, 0 87070 576 8).