in Opinion | 02 FEB 05
Featured in
Issue 88

View from the Bridge

New York's Museum of Modern Art has been transformed into an elegant Modernist museum. But what happens now?

in Opinion | 02 FEB 05

It is the white cube cubed, an exponential enlargement of the ori-ginal Modernist box. Even now, some of those charged with filling it up and making it run wonder out loud what it will become. That is not necessarily a bad thing. MoMA has always been a work in progress. If last-minute improvisations result from fresh responses to the options now available to the museum staff, then MoMA at 75 will have beaten the odds and earned an extended lease of life as the best place for figuring out what it means to be modern – whether or not we have already become Postmodern.
Many sidewalk supervisors doubt that is happening. Already a crescendo of public relations releases has been met by a drone of criticism of the architectural traditionalism and giganticism of Yoshio Taniguchi’s building as well as the sharp rise in the admission price, combined with rumours of dissension in the ranks and suspicious mutterings about the direction the museum’s programme will take. Having worked at MoMA for a dozen years and been party to the discussions that paved the way for its transformation, I am not surprised by any of this – Kremlins invariably attract Kremlinologists – nor, in a spirit of Schadenfreude, am I secretly hoping that MoMA will stumble. Quite the contrary; as big as it has become, I am convinced the museum is well positioned to make the leap from the 20th century to the 21st. Only a failure of aesthetic vision or institutional nerve will prevent that.
Although it has disappointed trendsetters, the building is not the problem but rather part of the solution. Ignoring a cavernous lobby and canyon-like atrium, the virtue of Taniguchi’s formal reticence is its large, unencumbered rooms, within which smaller spaces may be specifically tailored to suit the art they are destined to contain. Unlike some museums, which, as a false economy, try the one-size-fits-all approach to installation, so far MoMA has not stinted on fundamentally reconfiguring galleries for its collection and exhibitions. A little like the designer of an opera house, Taniguchi has given the museum an elegantly conceived stage on which productions ranging from Claude Debussy (Post-Impressionism) to Paul Hindemith (Geometric Abstraction) to Richard Strauss (Expressionism) to Philip Glass (Minimalism) can be mounted without trademark architectural flourishes intruding. While other competitors for the commission made star turns rife with stylistic distractions, Taniguchi studied the programme carefully, listened to the curators and then gave them a structure they could use: in short, a Modernist museum where form generally follows function.
The answer to the question of how those spaces will be used lies not only with the curators but also with patrons and management. When the first serious discussion of MoMA’s future took place over a decade ago, the issue was what to do about ever-increasing holdings of post-1960s art, for which no permanent galleries existed. One solution that was pursued was a second location in midtown Manhattan along the lines of LA MoCA’s Temporary Contemporary. It was soon apparent that few adequate alternatives were to be found, but in the meantime it became still more obvious that separating modern from contemporary art would have other profoundly negative consequences. After all, with unrivalled holdings of classic Modernism, and far deeper reserves of contemporary art than the public was aware of, MoMA was uniquely equipped to grapple with the problems of relating the old ‘new’ to the new ‘new’. So, rather than geographically divide the present from the past and demographically split the public, it was decided that everyone involved in remaking the Modern would go the distance to create a venue in which Robert Ryman could be seen with Mark Rothko and Kasimir Malevich, Bruce Nauman with Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp, Cindy Sherman with Claude Cahun, Joe Ando with Mies van der Rohe, the Quay brothers with Georges Méliès.
It was the right conclusion to draw. Now comes the test. Given that the square-footage allotted to pre-1960s art is smaller than it was before the move to MoMA Queens, while that devoted to post-1960s is enormous, to what extent does the installation of the old modern art reflect evolving critical and scholarly rethinking of the canon – as opposed to mere tinkering with a contracted variant on the mid-century conception of the ‘mainstream’? Moreover, to what extent does the installation of contemporary art put into play the actual diversity and contentiousness of current production while drawing connections to and thereby highlighting the diversity and contentiousness of its historical antecedents on other floors. In other words, can a gracious white-cube presentation that honours individual works also accent the different ideas, contexts and cultural moments they bespeak, or will it mute them?
Another key sign of what lies ahead will be the fate of the ‘Projects’ programme, which has hovered in limbo since the closing of the Cesar Pelli version of MoMA and so far has no dedicated, much less centrally located, area in the new one. Starting in the 1970s with auspicious early efforts by Alice Aycock, Mel Bochner and Chuck Close and continuing into the 1990s with challenging entries by Paul McCarthy, Karin Sander and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, ‘Projects’ has been the linchpin between the innovative and the established. Furthermore it has been an invaluable proving-ground for curatorial talent. Yet there is some danger that the line of least resistance will be to let ‘Projects’ discreetly disappear on the subway back from Queens or to consign it to P.S.1, MoMA’s affiliate in Long Island City, along with the more cutting-edge contemporary exhibitions on a larger scale. However, this would be to reinstate the very division between past and present that – at a cost of nearly a billion dollars – the new MoMA was intended to avoid.
But there is more to the story … [To be continued in issue 89]