Change at MoMA

Hal Foster

The Museum of Modern Art in New York is Modernism Central, so when it makes a major move, such as the recent expansion (the doors reopened on 21 October), the entire field shifts with it. Funded mostly by Rockefeller money, a fledgling MoMA appeared in 1929 in rented rooms on Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. In 1939 it received its own building, an International Style box clad in white marble designed by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, on 53rd Street. A significant extension has followed every twenty years or so, each coolly modernist in style – totally abstract, highly engineered, fiercely refined, elegantly branded. The first was conceived by Philip Johnson in 1964, the second by Cesar Pelli in 1984, the third by Yoshio Taniguchi in 2004, and the latest by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R), a vanguard New York studio, in co-operation with Gensler, a global design firm.[*] Thus in ninety years MoMA has grown from a discreet cluster of salons into an institutional colossus that occupies most of its block. The American Folk Art Museum fell in its march west to Sixth Avenue, and only Saint Thomas Church has blocked its access east to Fifth.

MoMA has added 47,000 square feet of exhibition space, a 30 per cent increase for a new total of 165,000 square feet in more than sixty galleries, at a cost of $450 million. Roughly half of this great sum came from the late David Rockefeller, longtime chairman of the board (his mother, Abby, was a co-founder of the museum), and the other half from just four people: the hedge fund billionaires Leon Black, Kenneth Griffin and Steven Cohen, and the media mogul David Geffen (a new centre is named after Cohen and his wife, and an entire wing after Geffen). They responded to the call of MoMA’s director, Glenn Lowry, to recapture the idea proposed by Alfred Barr, its first head, that 20th-century art be seen as one great experiment or ‘work in progress’ that continues into the 21st century. Of course, MoMA also needed more space for its permanent collection and temporary shows. It already has more modernist masterpieces than any other institution, several of its trustees are major collectors of contemporary art, and it accepts additional gifts and makes new acquisitions all the time, as, under political and aesthetic pressures, it seeks to diversify its Eurocentric holdings in terms of gender, race and region. The new presentation includes an impressive number of pieces by women as well as major exhibits by African American artists such as Betye Saar and William Pope.L, and Indian artists such as Sheela Gowda and Dayanita Singh. A sequence of rooms is devoted to an important donation of Latin American art, and a large gallery is given over to contemporary Chinese work.

MoMA also has to accommodate its myriad visitors, about three million per year, split equally between international and domestic points of origin, with more to come (at least until the market – or the sea – crashes on New York once and for all). Even after the 2004 extension the galleries were often as crowded as coffee bars, and the escalators as jammed as subway cars. Artworks and people alike breathe more easily in the expanded galleries, which can absorb as many as a thousand additional objects. More important on the curatorial front, MoMA intends to use the space to pursue three goals. First, it allows the curators, long siloed in territorial departments – painting and sculpture, drawings and prints, architecture and design, media and performance, photography, and film – to collaborate more fully and therefore to stage the intermedial complexity of 20th and 21st-century art more effectively. The departments still have galleries dedicated to the presentation of concerns specific to each discipline, but sometimes photographs and films appear with paintings, architectural models are presented almost as sculptures, and books are found in vitrines and posters on walls. Second, more space enables the curators to complicate the usual stories of modernist and contemporary art with a deepened attention to different cultural traditions as well as key technological transformations. This account is both more accurate and more attractive, especially to young people of diverse backgrounds and media competencies who might be new to much of the work on display. (Such changes attest to the influence of an in-house think tank called Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives, or C-MAP. Rather than franchise internationally, as other museums such as the Guggenheim have done, MoMA has decided to globalise in place.) Third, the expansion allows the curators not only to complicate narratives about the past but also to push them towards the present, and so to set up new encounters between modernist and contemporary art. This is a novel gambit for MoMA, at least within the galleries of the permanent collection.

The DS+R design gives a new coherence to the amalgamated building: a central canopy pulls its multiple façades together, and a main staircase with windows onto 53rd Street orients visitors in relation to the city. As before, we can head straight after we enter, and turn right towards the Sculpture Garden, up to the vast atrium, and on to the galleries of the 2004 extension above, which is where most of the temporary shows will now be held. Or we can turn immediately left, towards the new Geffen wing, which includes galleries at street level free to the public; this will be the more beaten path as it leads directly to the permanent collection. The collection is spread out on the fifth, fourth and second floors, with special exhibitions located on the third and sixth levels. Although the basic divisions in artistic chronology haven’t changed much since 2004 – 1880s to 1940s on five, 1940s to 1980s on four, and 1980 to the present on two – there are now multiple circuits to take and many attractions to linger over, some of which are unexpected: Russian publications from the First World War, the model ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ from 1926-27, outsider art and folk painting, amateur photography, Latin American mail art, an archival dive into the New York poet and MoMA curator Frank O’Hara, and so on.

For the most part art-historical terms – Fauvism, Cubism and the rest – are avoided in wall texts in favour of general rubrics like ‘Abstraction and Utopia’ and ‘Design for Modern Life’, and inclusive settings like ‘Paris in the 1920s’ and ‘In and around Harlem’. Sometimes the galleries are punctuated by New York moments: an early film of a subway car appears in the second gallery and hometown heroes Louise Lawler, Cindy Sherman and Dara Birnbaum open the contemporary presentation. Amid the international mix of the overall display, this helps to locate us in the city; at times, though, it can seem parochial. (A Frank Stella abstraction from 1964 is one hinge between floors five and four, and though his ‘deductive structures’ counted as a crux in the old Paris-New York narrative of 20th-century art, they hardly do so now.) Finally, the new layout invites us to think vertically too: it takes a while to figure it out spatially, but Monet’s immersive Water Lillies (1914-26) float exactly three floors above Equal (2015), four great stacks of two steel blocks each by Richard Serra (for obvious reasons neither will be moved anytime soon).

Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic at the New York Times, calls the new design ‘smart, surgical, sprawling and slightly soulless’. I would take ‘slightly soulless’ over ‘aggressively spectacular’, and given the political controversies visited on other museums due to their problematic mega-donors (the opioid Sackler family, the anarcho-libertarian Koch brothers, the police-weapon magnate Warren Kanders, and other bad actors), such a review counts as a rave. And by and large the new MoMA is a success. Of course, there are some missteps. The walls darken in the Surrealist galleries, as though to warn us, through mood control, that here modernism plunges into the unconscious. The new MoMA is more open to campy artists like Florine Stettheimer, brutish figures like Jean Dubuffet, and erotic fantasists like Hans Bellmer, but it is still rather reserved about overtly political artists, whether of the right or the left (revolutionary Russians stand in for many others). And though the intermedial presentation of film and photography is an advance, the lived history of these media, as registered in a noisy projector or an old magazine, is mostly lost – the contemplative rituals of painting still predominate, albeit not as much as before. Apart from a magnificent array of Brancusi sculptures, which introduces the fifth floor, a forceful mix of Post-Minimalist objects, which opens the fourth floor, and the Serra installation, which lends needed gravitas to the contemporary galleries, sculpture is still treated as secondary. Fair enough, it is subordinate throughout modern aesthetics too, and sculpture, especially in the postwar period, is often difficult for museums because of its size, weight or fragility. One old solution at MoMA was to place it in the Sculpture Garden, but that only suffices for garden-variety work. A recent fix has been to house it primarily in the contemporary galleries, but these super-tall spaces produce a scalar problem for other media – drawings, photos, old videos and even paintings often suffer there.

The new MoMA gives extra room to large works, and one effect surprised me. In the 2004 expansion the American sublime of Abstract Expressionism went flat; it seemed a thing of the past. Not anymore: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman come to life again, and this reanimation is charged by the female company they now keep, once overlooked peers such as Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell. At the same time, in these bigger spaces the Minimalist installations by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and others fail to pressure the ambient architecture as they once did. Such work looks classic in the good sense – the achievement is clear – but also in the bad: it no longer serves as an active touchstone for contemporary practice. Then again, the disconnections between all three period levels, which appeared acute in the 2004 extension, seem less severe in the new one. In the old MoMA the rupture produced by the Second World War, the Holocaust and the Bomb was passed over in hushed tones; at the new MoMA the fifth floor ends with works that evoke a Europe in flames and the fourth with images that protest against the Vietnam War. That said, even though MoMA now evokes more of the entanglements of 20th-century art with social evils like racism and economic regimens like Taylorism, its socio-political history is still on the thin side. Extraordinary examples of Bauhaus furniture by Marcel Breuer and Soviet posters by Gustav Klutsis are lumped together, along with other works, as ‘modern design’, and the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’ are absent.

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The plan is that the collection will rotate: about a third of the galleries on each floor will change every six months, with a full cycle taking 18 months. This is in keeping with both the old idea of MoMA as a work in progress and the new imperative to foreground diversity, and who could be against it, except for old-timers who want The Starry Night to be fixed for ever in the artistic firmament? Yet such complaints do have a point: a museum is both a memory palace and a pedagogical theatre that tells us cogent stories about art and history alike. To want it so is not merely nostalgic or elitist; historically MoMA has turned a whole host of young people of different kinds into autodidacts of modernism (I was one once). This is simply to say that all the change is good, but not if we lose the plot altogether; there is no need for MoMA to mix and match to the extent that Tate Modern does. So, too, all the collaboration is good, but not if the voices of the various curators drown each other out. A protean display in frequent circulation might also be a prophylactic against criticism– Proteus shape-shifted in order not to answer questions, after all. There may be another, unintended consequence: if iconic works like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are almost always on view, the flux elsewhere might render them more monumental, not less. Then there is this unkind thought: uncertainty and disruption are capitalist values too; they are normative principles of what today passes as postmodernism. The not-so-novel spirit of capitalism thrives on ‘artistic experiment’, and donors have lined up to fund new MoMA spaces called ‘Studio’ and ‘Creativity Lab’ (a.k.a. ‘The People’s Studio: Collective Imagination’).

Alma Woodsey Thomas’s ‘Fiery Sunset’ (1973)
Alma Woodsey Thomas’s ‘Fiery Sunset’ (1973)

The current presentation plays with two great banes of traditional art history: anachronism, the confusion of works from different periods, and pseudomorphism, the assumption that lookalikes are alike in other ways too (this is the visual version of faux amis across languages). Now that social art history, which stipulates that the meaning of a work is strictly bound to the milieu of its making, is no longer so dominant, some scholars have experimented with these ‘mistakes’, and the MoMA curators do too. In this way they behave as artists might, and the results are as mixed as the methods: the connections range from the inspired to the whimsical. An instance of self-aware pseudomorphism is a gallery curated by the American painter Amy Sillman; titled ‘The Shape of Shape’, it is a mélange of 71 works, some old, some new, by 71 artists, some familiar, some not, that feature mostly abstract forms suggestive of body parts. An example of effective anachronism is the inclusion of the revolutionary Russian Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko among postwar Latin American Neo-Concrete artists such as Lygia Clark, or the placing of outsider ceramics by George Ohr, the ‘Mad Potter of Biloxi’, near prized paintings by Symbolists like Gauguin (I suppose on the basis of a shared ‘primitivism’). More suggestive still is the ambiguous pairing of Fiery Sunset (1973), a red and blue wonder by the African American painter Alma Woodsey Thomas, with the equally colour-mad Red Studio (1911) of Matisse. Debate about such curatorial interventions has however already focused on its boldest instance: the hanging of American People Series #20: Die (1967), a recently acquired painting by the African American artist Faith Ringgold, in a large gallery otherwise devoted to Picasso and dominated by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. As a young artist Ringgold studied Picasso at MoMA, and this pairing was tipped by the sexual and racial violence imaged in both canvases: Les Demoiselles is a phantasmatic superimposition of two encounters, one in a Barcelona bordello, the other in a Paris museum of African and Oceanic art, while Die is a supercharged imagining of an interracial shootout prompted by the urban uprisings of the mid-1960s. The pairing is a provocation to customary visitors and a callout to new ones, but the association is overstated – it doesn’t hold up for long, and Ringgold can stand on her own in any case.

Where an art-historical association isn’t well supported, explanation often defaults to a vague sharing of setting, sensibility or Zeitgeist, which isn’t much of an explanation at all. Some rooms restage milieus that were tight, like ‘In and around Harlem’, which samples the great Migration Series (1941) by Jacob Lawrence, while others like ‘Downtown New York’ are sketchy at best (I know less about it after visiting this gallery than I did before). This attempt to use the vernacular is a valiant one for scholarly MoMA curators to make. Chief curator Ann Temkin told the New York Times that most visitors to the museum ‘did not sign up for an art history course’; hence the avoidance of art-historical language, which is outsourced in part to the web. Yet it might be that more art history is needed here, not less, and sometimes populism has an unconscious undertone of elitist condescension, as if to suggest that people just don’t care enough or wouldn’t get it even if they did.

This leads to the most troublesome issue at the new MoMA and many other museums today: the contradiction between public mission and private interest or, more nakedly, between democracy and plutocracy. A democratic ethos runs through the discourse of the new MoMA, both in its internal operations – collaboration between departments, diversity in presentations, undoing of old hierarchies of high and low art and media – and in its external address: ‘The clear glass façade, new street-level galleries, and a ground floor free and open to all offer increased transparency and bring art closer to people on the streets of midtown Manhattan,’ a press release tells us. This association of architectural transparency with egalitarian society was a shibboleth for progressive designers in the interwar period, but it hasn’t held up well in the decades since. Moreover, once you enter the permanent collection, you are in a space apart; absorbed by the art, you might not notice that you pass into the lower floors of the corporate tower 53W53 designed by Jean Nouvel for Hines, a global development firm to which MoMA sold the land several years ago. Eventually you pick up on all the funders’ names attached to spaces both new and old: David Geffen, Jerry Speyer, Ronald Lauder, Kenneth Griffin, Donald Marron etc. Ambitious ventures obviously need outsize support, the realists among us say, so why question it? Would you prefer the money spent on bigger yachts or better islands? And wasn’t it always this way? Why pretend the fossil-fuel fortune of the Rockefellers is any cleaner than these financial ones? It’s just older new money. In any case, what’s the alternative, with federal support gone and local government stingy? There’s also the competition to think about, and they’re all-in too (during the MoMA campaign, five other major museums in New York alone were also in expansion mode: the Frick, the Met, the New Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Whitney).

One hears this talk everywhere, and what strikes me about it is how natural the rationale has come to sound, not only the corporate logic of ‘expand or die’ but also the neoliberal order that subtends it all: more than natural, it appears necessary. Usually that is a sure sign that an ideology has won. Yet cracks have begun to show in the post-Occupy, high-Trump era. We know that funding patterns follow wealth distribution, that fewer and fewer people give more and more. But why bow down to them for the tax break and the journalistic love that they receive in return? Why not tax them up the wazoo, redistribute accordingly, and spread some joy to cultural institutions too? Or simply make admission to museums free, as it is in other countries that are far poorer? MoMA, for one, might be resented less. In any case, the tacit truce that many of us have made with such museums – if you deliver impressive shows in beautiful galleries, we won’t ask pesky questions about funding – is under pressure. The worm has turned on toxic philanthropy, and many want to call trustees out. ‘MoMA Board member and CEO of BlackRock, Larry Fink, is the second largest shareholder of prison companies GEO Group and Core Civic,’ one open letter states. ‘With over $2 billion in contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), these companies have been responsible for 70 per cent of all immigration detention.’ I wonder which of the great modernists in the MoMA collection, brought back from the dead, would leave the museum in protest. Not many, I imagine, but some. Most of the Russians, many Dadaists, maybe Diego Rivera, Fernand Léger, and even Picasso (at least for the gesture), some Latin Americans, a few others.

MoMA deserves kudos for internationalising its modernist collection and globalising its contemporary presentation, and for adding women artists to the former and artists of colour to the latter. It has also diversified its staff somewhat, if not its board. But what would it be to truly decolonise MoMA? Certainly it would mean more scrutiny of its patrons, and more study of the formation of the collection and the development of the institution. Some of this work was begun in the 1960s and 1970s, but to continue it requires committed artists, activists and academics – more ‘fishermen of social absurdity’. That is how William Pope.L is described in the survey of his work now at MoMA. ATM Piece (1997) shows the booted artist clothed only in a skirt of dollar bills, with his wrist tied by an eight-foot Italian sausage to the glass door of a branch of Chase Manhattan Bank near Grand Central Station. Pope.L performed this action soon after panhandling was outlawed by ‘America’s Mayor’, Rudy Giuliani. His idea was to hand out dollars and so to turn as many pedestrians as possible into panhandlers. A video of the piece ends when a cop approaches Pope.L, asks him for identification, and declares him ‘EDP’ –an emotionally disturbed person.

[*] Hal Foster reviewed the third extension in the LRB of 16 December 2004.