Caring for the Modern

John Haber
in New York City

Mark Dion's Rescue Archaeology

Jed Perl on the Museum of Modern Art

How can anyone describe, much less review, the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art? It stands as not just a building but a collection, a museum, and a conception of modern art as well. Even the structure and its site have a history, with incarnations under multiple architects, museum directors, and moments in the history of art.

Nor can one easily separate those issues, not with an institution that can fairly claim to have defined them all. How could one separate them, now that Modernism and Postmodernism have so complex and problematic a relationship to contemporary art and culture. Not surprisingly, then, reviewers of the new Modern have had a difficult time finding a focus, myself included. Jed Perl, however, seems to struggle more than most. That's probably why I enjoyed his review so much—and why I wanted so much to argue back. Mark Dion's Rescue Archaeology (Museum of Modern Art, 2004)

When the museum was about to close, it took as its parting gesture a survey of itself. That exhibition was called "Making Choices," and Perl, too, believes in making choices. However, he means that as a moral imperative, not the Modern's affirmation of subjectivity and multiplicity. But what choices would a conservative make, and what hope do they leave for a museum or for artists now? An opening exhibition by Mark Dion puts the very idea of conservation under scrutiny.

Taking custody

The New Republic always allows reviewers admirable space and depth, but I suspect that Jed Perl himself feels his article meandering. He notes that one's assessment cannot turn on judgments of particular works, artists, or galleries, at which point he promptly unleashes a torrent of them. Naturally some resonate with me, and some do not. Since Jed Perl is a sensitive cultural conservative, if that is not already a curse, and since even a left liberal like me can have a soft spot for the usual dead white males, more do than do not. Yet can they account for his consistent distrust of contemporary collectors and museums?

Barnett Newman's sculpture has never looked better, but the old galleries hardly removed one's freedom to wander and to rethink modern art after all? The museum never fully appreciated Juan Gris, and the new galleries nearly submerge Georges Braque more than the Pompidou Center, not to mention an entire floor of contemporary art? Last year's pairing of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso had some phony premises, Elizabeth Peyton has a ways to go even after a Whitney Biennial if she is to impress one for her realism rather than her casual chic, etc., etc., etc.? Fine. Renewed attention to Diego Rivera and his circle is mere political correctness, "Matisse Picasso" was a real "disaster," and Balthus is "central" to modern art? Count me out, although I did wonder where Balthus's surreal street scene had gone.

For all the length and all the nits, however, Perl has a decided agenda. You must have spotted it already. It centers on how little the expansion helps the museum's core years. I myself would have sworn that even more goes into storage than in the past, while others look as lost on those semi-detached walls as textbook illustrations. The result is to turn Alfred Barr's family tree of Modernism into a great man theory of history. Whatever happened to Jackson Pollock's competition—including not just a lesser-known drip painter like Janet Sobel or such mainstream women artists as Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell, but simply enough of Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning?

So far so good, but Perl is assembling these judgments toward a challenging conclusion: he wants to rescue Modernism by saving it from its modernity, just when a new textbook by Hal Foster and others is using present and past to confront one another. He asks that the Modern get out of the contemporary-art business, in order to fulfill its role as a "custodian" of modern art. Once the Modern sold off older work to stay financially healthy and in touch with the present, note Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner in The New York Review of Books. Should it take precisely the reverse course? And Perl should ask. It comes down after all to how those initial questions in reviewing do or do not hang together.

The place of the museum and the status of contemporary art really are worth questioning, especially when the Modern plans to inaugurate its main space for temporary exhibitions with promised gifts from the UBS corporate collection and later fills its contemporary wing with gifts from Edward R. Broida. Chelsea itself can easily seem to have grown so large as to replaced a modern museum. But should the new Modern serve as a custodian of modern art, and can it? For starters, one has an obvious problem—a custodian of what? Perhaps not coincidentally, Perl falls silent here, but he leaves some troubling clues.

He cannot mean a custodian of the museum's old choices, which he finds so neglectful of European masters and, one suspects, of realism and good taste. He cannot mean a custodian of the museum's last decade or two, which he sees as a pursuit of foolish trends, culminating in MoMA's quirky millennial exhibition. Most of all, he cannot mean the museum's own historical vision, as a determinant of the art of its time.

Post-modernism without Postmodernism

That could still make sense. It would require Perl's admitting that "its time," the time of Modernism, is no longer his time—or mine. It would require swallowing a bitter pill, turning the once central institution of contemporary art into something more like period rooms at the Met. Museums do not easily survive unless they describe a connection to a broader culture, which is why catch-all institutions such as the Met have recent art, too. The rare exception, the d'Orsay, stays packed because is period refuses to slink away into the past. The public still feels most at home in Impressionism—and the d'Orsay's collection can still claim to lead to the threshold of the now.

The Modern's relationship to the present will not change easily either, although its $20 price tag may do plenty to kill off its relevance. That relationship will not change so long as artists who contributed to the core collection are still alive. It will not change, too, while younger artists still love, deride, toy with, and play against a canonical sense of the past. I know artists who grow bored when I mention the Renaissance and Baroque. I know none who cannot summon up anger, delight, and affinities with the last fifty years or so.

Rosen and Zerner worry that no other museum is up to the task that the Modern would abandon, and they should. The Whitney, too, for example, is trying to reconcile a canon and the present as it approaches its seventy-fifth birthday. No one has created a compelling enough narrative to replace the Modern's for the sprawling mess known as contemporary art. And art desperately needs that new narrative, along with the institutions to nurture it.

I have argued for a postmodern paradox: the more Modernism threatens to become a museum piece, the more it serves as a target and stimulus to the present—and the more the target practice adds interpretive depth to modern art. That conforms to how artists actually work and how the public actually responds, but how long will anything resembling Postmodernism make sense? How long can it make sense, now that ardor and irony have given way to the multiplicity of the art market? How long can the old world keep dying before a new one is born? And will it leave any place for a cultural conservative's estheticization of the avant-garde in politics, literature, culture, art history, and art?

I have no idea, which is why I keep returning to the puzzle. However, the difficulty of resolving it suggests the deepest problem of all with Perl's point of view. A productive, custodial vision of Modernism—and of the Museum of Modern Art—will take more than reverence for either one. It will take more even than modesty about the museum's function, closer to the perspective of its current curators than to Alfred Barr. Quite as much or more, it will take custodial care for the present. Perl's advice that MoMA disdain contemporary art cannot hold water as long as he and the defenders of high culture insist on doing just that.

In a debate over whether the Museum of Modern Art should accept its place in history and its custody of the past, it helps to remember something else as well: expansion along 53rd and onto 54th Street sacrificed a serious chunk of twentieth-century New York. Amid scrutiny of the museum's reopening and its place in the present from one installation to the next, it helps, too, that the museum is devoting its projects room to remnants of its former neighbors. One can easily overlook Projects 82 by Mark Dion—or despair of finding it. But deep within the subbasement, the past refuses to fade into memory.

To the rescue

The ironies accumulate rapidly. The museum calls its installation Rescue Archaeology, as if it had uncovered something of fossil tales from the distant past, although it in fact records an act of destruction. It documents a city shared by the old Modern, and it fills the only dedicated temporary exhibition space in the old wing. It begins with Mark Dion in a hardhat, back in 2000, working in the pit, and it gets a gallery two stories down, like a geologic stratum of modernity. It accompanies the grandeur of new architecture, and its chance discoveries feel lost even in this one remaining small, low-ceilinged room. It occupies the lobby to the museum's theaters, and its celebration of old-fashioned decorative touches recalls an age before MoMA turns into a multiplex.

Modern art drew its ironies from lived, visual experience, and the poignancy here does, too. Dion finds insight in objects and in their numbers. He sees the displacement implied by an object alone, like the bar of soap from an old hotel. He sees the sense of communion in two objects side by side, like the pair of metal doorplates from a lost town house. He sees a larger array as the accumulation of unspoken narratives. In a display case, its glass front as harsh as natural history, each all but identical brick bears the imprint a different manufacturer, as if each testified to a living name.

Dion is neither maudlin, precious, nor humorless, however. (I do not want to tell you the name on one of those doorplates.) He stages an even smaller room within the project room, a recreation of the urban archaeologist's laboratory. No doubt that chamber has an educational purpose, somewhere in the intersection between art and science, but it, too, carries layers of irony. I mistook it at first for installation art, a testimony to absence piled upon absence, a restoration of the very act of restoration. Of course, one cannot go inside.

Dion's interests have ranged from an archaeological dig of the Thames riverbank and a "department of tropical research" to a rural "curiosity shop" and its "strange travelers," and here he combines those disparate ideas meaningfully. He makes one want to cry out at the whole idea of the museum as custodian, with all the lifelessness that implies, all the remoteness from anything truly alive. He makes one want to examine again the birth of the modern museum, the moment at which collecting art became at once something akin to a civic function, a public transaction, and a science. He reminds one of the limitations of any collection and the embededdness of the modernist canon in institutions. In short, it makes one want to head back upstairs to care for present and past anew.

He also makes me think of another kind of documentation, one whose history, too, is tied up with that of modern art. Photography, some have argued, gave birth to Modernism. It took over some of the traditional functions of art, pushing art into other territory. Its sheer proliferation of imagery stimulated artists to quote from one another and to reexamine the innocent eye. It put the creative act in the hands of everyone, challenging modern art to navigate between the demands of a new elite and the urgency of ordinary life.

Then again, photography's pretense to realism depends, paradoxically, on its being a ghost, a trace of something now and forever past. That, I think, quite as much as photography's habits of belief, explains the continuing strangeness of photographic distortions. It also helps to account for the continuing hold of the Modern on the imagination. Like Picasso's masked musicians, Modernism draws its continuing presence from needs still unfulfilled—an art beyond recovery and, at least so far, beyond custody.

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Mark Dion's Project 82: Rescue Archaeology ran through at The Museum of Modern Art through March 14, 2005. Jed Perl's review of the reopened museum appeared in December 2004 in The New Republic. Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner wrote in the January 13, 2005, issue of The New York Review of Books. Follow-up reviews consider the admission fee, architecture, and changes in the installation after one year.


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