in Opinion | 03 MAR 05
Featured in
Issue 89

View from the Bridge

Part two of his discussion of the new MoMA asks how, with its vastly expanded galleries, the museum will mine the riches of its unparalleled collections

in Opinion | 03 MAR 05

‘You can be modern or you can be a museum, but you cannot be both.’ So said Gertrude Stein when told of Alfred Barr’s project, and, like most of Stein’s bons mots, her words frame a problem with biting concision. At the beginning Barr shared her view, insofar as MoMA was conceived not as a collecting institution but as what we would now call a kunsthalle. The decision to accept the bequest of one of its founding patrons, Lillie P. Bliss, changed that, leading to the creation of a comprehensive collection of classic modern and contemporary art. But Barr’s concern that the mission of introducing the ‘new’ to the general public would be slowed down, if not arrested, by the burden of caring for the old ‘new’ abided. Consequently he negotiated an elaborate, ultimately unworkable arrangement for offloading this burden by giving works that had ‘stood the test of time’ – set at 50 years – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today, according to that scheme, not only would there be no Monet’s Water-lilies (1916), Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889) or Cézanne’s The Bather (c.1885), but there would also be no Picasso, Matisse, Miró, Mondrian, Duchamp, Brancusi, Pollock or David Smith (nor, very soon, any Giacometti or Yves Klein). Neither would there be any of the singular works by a host of minor masters that together with the first, second and third-tier examples by the greats have made MoMA’s collection the most richly textured visual account of modern art ever assembled in one location.
Many of these works have slumbered in storage for considerable stretches. Individual curatorial preferences or ideologies and broad-based shifts in interest explain these hibernations. However, taste has its seasons, and enthusiasms that lapse in one generation but may reawaken in the next. The most telling instance of this is the changing status of Latin American art, which, thanks to Barr’s genuine aesthetic engagement and the hemispheric geopolitics of the 1930s and 1940s, is better represented in MoMA’s holdings than in the major museums in most of the countries where that art was made. New patrons are updating and filling in blanks in the original selection, but the fact that these works were not given away or sold off when they were unfashionable in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s means that MoMA’s unrivalled representation of the wide array of artists and tendencies can be completed and extended rather than begun from scratch with a few emblematic pieces, which is the prospect facing other institutions now entering the field.
To say this is not to boast of the riches of my alma mater but to take note of a fact – that only one museum is in a position to integrate fully the multifarious, multinational, multi-generational artistic production of South America into the broad fabric of Modernism as it developed elsewhere – and to defend a principle. That principle is that the function of any museum that sets out to write art history in objects is to be daring in its acquisitions and profoundly conservative in its deacquisitions. The business of one museological team second-guessing the wisdom of its predecessors combined with the short-sighted temptation to treat museum collections as piggy banks to pay for things that current patrons aren’t prepared to pay for themselves – in the process toying with the good faith of earlier benefactors – is fraught with problems and perils. That said, the fundamental issues are scholarly continuity and aesthetic commitment to works that may have meant one thing in the period when they were made, another, perhaps lesser, thing in an intervening period, and – this is the unpredictable factor – a great deal in a period we have not yet reached or imagined.
The very revisionism that characterizes our ‘Postmodern’ moment is replete with such reversals; the downgrading of second-string Abstract Expressionists – take Bradley Walker Tomlin and Robert Motherwell – and the upgrading of temporarily obscure European Informel painters – say Jean Fautrier or Wols. Then there is the growing importance of mid- to late Francis Picabias and Giorgio De Chiricos, which were anathema to most American curators of the post-war era but looked very different to post-war European artists from Sigmar Polke to Francesco Clemente. Who will some day speak for Pavel Tchelichev, represented at MoMA by some 90 works? Or Lee Bontecou, who hovered in the wings for 30 years? Well, of course, somebody already has. In this spirit, the spirit of the times, MoMA’s vast new building is the place where its collection – wider and deeper than any other in the world – can, to real effect, be rethought and reinstalled for decades to come, provided it stays intact, and that less than canonical things are not cashed in for the not yet canonical or all too canonical works that gleam in the institution’s eye.
Still Stein’s paradox remains. The only answer is for MoMA to be two things at once – uncompromisingly – rather than one thing at the expense of another. That is to say, it must be true to its past and alert to the present, miserly with regard to what it has and quick off the mark with regard to what is coming its way. For, as Barr told his last assistant, the job of a curator at MoMA is like that of an editor at a big city paper: to keep the flow of news moving across one’s desk, while being open-minded but decisive about what makes it into print. That’s how you create a paper of record, and how he created the first modern museum of record.
Robert Storr is the first Rosalie Solow Professor of Modern Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University.