MoMA the Contemporary

John Haber
in New York City

The New Modern, One Year Later

Maybe art no longer has exhibitions. It has events.

The Museum of Modern Art's late 2004 reopening certainly counts for one. Its new wing alone designed as the backdrop for a gala. I felt the rush myself that chilly November evening, from the moment I saw from across 54th Street its glass wall and the crowds inside. And I felt the letdown when I actually had to look at art. Sound familiar? Now you know why the bars in Chelsea and Williamsburg are always full.

MoMA always gets to play the proverbial elephant in the living room. No other museum can simultaneously alter historical practices, the market for contemporary art, and the shape of New York City. Just as notably, it can sometimes decide what not to alter. Think of how it breezed through Queens, swallowing P.S. 1 whole and temporarily transforming a nondescript block into the home of a world-class museum. And then it left the scene entirely, passing on a role in Long Island City's future. Think, too, of the permanent collection. Charles Ray's Family Romance (Museum of Modern Art, 1993)

As the Modern's first full year back in midtown comes to an end, however, it seems determined to go about its business, sometimes with hardly an event in sight. "Take Two," its first reinstallation of contemporary art since the opening one year ago, alone offers signs of hope.

Events and nonevents

Surely event rather than art suits the exclamation point in the Guggenheim's "Russia!" It suits that institution's substitution of unfocused surveys spanning centuries—or, at times, a nearly empty museum—for a vision of modern art or of itself. It suits, too, the museum crowd pleasers everywhere these days, such as Leonardo or Vincent van Gogh drawings at the Met. It suits the endless streams of Armory Shows, art fairs, biennials, and other shows uncovering the latest thing, as well as Chelsea's own fall opening extravaganza. One might even include certain nonevents, such as culture at Ground Zero.

Smart people still make art, however, and smart dealers still show their dedication to it. Among museums, the Frick maintains an integrity that still amazes me, and even the Met can combine exhibitions with interesting scholarship—if too often disguising a curator's agenda. The Whitney has turned itself around since Adam D. Weinberg replaced Maxwell L. Anderson as director, with exhibitions that do not confuse scale with substance. Such smaller, quieter institutions as the Studio Museum, SculptureCenter, and Exit Art seem hardly to care where the crowds have gone, and P.S. 1 at least keeps me laughing. By comparison, P.S. 1's senior partner back in Manhattan has the air of a multinational chain. Yet the Modern, too, is acting like more than another corner of the art entertainment world.

True, Yoshio Taniguchi's new wing cannot change the large rooms and open sightlines that diminish encounters with the permanent collection, but I am slowly growing used to them as I reacquaint myself with the origins of modern art. It cannot remove the apparent gap between walls and floor, but plenty of other visitors will not even care. It will not lower the exorbitant cost of admission, which now has trickled down to the $18 fee at the Guggenheim. Worse still, it seems determined to display less than in ages past, leaving an odd cross between a great man theory of history and occasional assaults on that bromide, especially from Latin America. I continue to find one critic's hoped-for solution, an exhaustive look at a single year in the past century, meaningless and uncritical—an invitation not to a deeper understanding of Modernism, but to one more round of academic revisionism.

MoMA has been slowly renewing itself as best it can all the same, starting with its changing exhibitions. Even apart from Paul Cé and Camille Pissarro, the first year survived a sop to corporate giving, the UBS Collection. Surveys of Thomas Demand, Lee Friedlander, and Odilon Redon have shown a dedication to making media beyond painting and sculpture central to the collection. Displays devoted to park spaces and the High Line have taught me to value architecture's role in urban renewal. The current look at Elizabeth Murray could stand all by itself for the museum's dual purpose. It suggests continuity with the Modern's past view of art history, culminating in 1960s formalism, but also renewed attention to women artists and contemporary art's free play.

No doubt any special exhibition marks an event, but much else that first year has not. Changes in the collection since November 2004 demonstrate a true responsiveness to criticism. Water Lilies by Claude Monethas left the atrium for a room of its own, just as in the old building, so that one can lose oneself once again in an imagined environment. Besides, if the five-story atrium resembles a hotel's, as the pioneer at Louis Kahn's Yale Center for British Art did not, maybe that better suits Cy Twombly's calm take on Western culture. Smaller works, from Dada and other movements, have moved to a display case suited to their scale and closer to a typical museum-goer's circuit.

Call me dubious still, but call it progress. Best of all, the curators are dealing with the most refractory element of all. A new display of contemporary art, which actually opened with little fanfare in September, divides and tames those huge second-floor walls. "Take Two" also responds resoundingly to doubts about contemporary art's place in the Modern—or in modern art. Like a day in Chelsea, it contains its share of trendy, earnest clunkers. And like the rest of MoMA's gradual rehanging over the course of 2005, or the Whitney's self-examination of its canon coming up in 2006, it may not be changing the world all at once, but consider that the kind of nonevent art needs most.

All in the family

Even with every work of art replaced, the changes may sneak up on you. Entering the contemporary rooms the most direct way, at the very end, one faces four childlike mannequins—side by side, holding hands, face front, and stark naked. Oh, dear, you may think, not the Young British Artists again, parading the usual easy shocks. A similar display in London placed the Chapman brothers' naughty children in their own room, with a warning outside. In Brooklyn the only "Sensation" lay in Chris Ofili and his combustible mix of race, religion, and elephant droppings. Apparently, America takes sex in stride at any age.

Oh, dear, you may think—and you will be wrong. The sculpture does reflect American values, but not the ones I had in mind. In fact, not the Chapman brothers but an American, Charles Ray, made it, and he made it a sly insinuation about American stereotypes. Rather than children with adult private parts, he has the archetypical two-child family, but all somehow the same height and all nude. As a poor relative, I chose to pose with them unbowed and fully clothed. I may never become trendy myself, but I appreciate the reminder that Ray had been there long ago.

Here at MoMA, the American family proves decidedly hard to pin down, and so does a frontal encounter. On a wall not far behind, Nicholas Nixon photographs another family of four, The Brown Sisters. Over the course of thirty years, ending—or not ending—in 2005, they, too, sometimes touch and sometimes pose for the viewer. From their changing appearance, including hairstyle and weight, one can speculate on the choices that make lives diverge. Nixon's black and white emphasizes the temptations of photos as documentary evidence.

Further behind, seventeen men stand side-by-side without the least acknowledgment of one another and with only the most awkward and imperceptible of changes. The wall-length video by Gary Hill suggests a police lineup, but also an ordinary street scene enacted full scale. The awkward moves may suggest the discomfort or innocence of its subjects, day laborers in Seattle, or of the viewer. The slow pace made me think of Bill Viola, but without the pomp and circumstance. Viola now turns up everywhere. I felt glad to see the Modern giving Hill that well-earned room to himself.

From the Brown sisters one may also look above, where Marina Abramovic obsessively tends her hair while repeating "art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful." Alternatively, one might look across the room to another evolving female self-image. Tomoko Sawada, a Japanese artist still in her twenties, compiles a grid of tiny head shots, all in pairs. For four years starting in 1998 she, too, changed hair style, dress, and weight, all as a form of role play ironically titled ID400. Instead of Cindy Sherman and her Untitled Film Stills, one might call it Untitled Two for a Quarter. The grid itself, like Sherman's more evocative reference to old movies and more creative changes, defeats any attempt to read her transformations as a narrative.

From here, too, one might look to the next side room, for another obsessive self-portraits. Dieter Roth uses dozens of cheap TVs, perhaps even more than Jon Kessler can muster, to record his final years. They provoke thoughts on the border between the transient and the mortal. They ask when an artist's dedication to everyday reality becomes mere narcissism. I may find that moment coming all too quickly, but at least he has me asking. Interestingly, too, I had forgotten seeing them in Roth's MoMA QNS and MoMA PS1 retrospective.

Riffing past the theme

The curators, Klaus Biesenbach and Roxana Marcoci, call "Take Two" a succession of "cross-generational groupings" and "thematic ensembles." However, that suggests riffs on a theme or two. Instead, one gets to watch each riff develop into its own theme, each in turn with its own succession of riffs. One can hardly object either, when so many themed shows tell one more about the curator than about the art. An absurd and very funny thirty-minute video, by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, could stand for the whole. In the course of half an hour, their Rube Goldberg apparatus keeps coming up with new tricks—most notably new ways to explode in one's face.

I could continue riffing for some time. From obsession with the everyday, I could pass through a battered wooden door to an empty chair facing a plain, white wall, thanks to Ilya Kabakov. Framed text beside it narrates day-to-day pressures to act and to perceive. The whiteness, like the grid of Roth's monitors or of the photographic series, in turn takes me to more meditative forms. They include Félix González-Torres's silkscreened footprints in the sand, Vija Celmins's waves, and Janet Cardiff's surround-sound motet by Thomas Tallis, with forty voices on forty speakers. They extend all the way back to the exhibition entrance—with a late, gray Mark Rothko and, in a room to the side, a wall of light by James Turrell not unlike his Turrell's ceiling of light at P.S. 1.

Alternatively, all that role playing could lead me to a third announced theme, along with "shifting perceptions of identity" and "dematerialization of the art object." (Never mind that formalists would deem Rothko as material as art gets.) Several artists lend a political context to identity, as in Yinka Shonibare's Victorian dresses in African-inspired fabrics. Not far away lies William Kentridge's animated short on his usual subject of race and class in South Africa. Chéri Samba, a Congolese artist, similarly draws on cartoon strips and frightening circumstances, for her painting Condemnation Without Judgment. I find each of them unduly schematic, but I like how they work together.

An equally cartoonish but more evocative burial scene on canvas hovers nearby, by Dana Schutz—years before the brutal shock of Schutz's Open Casket. One can see it as shifting the focus on Africa from politics and terror to Western notions of the primitive. Then again, her ritual's long view on life and death leads back to meditation on the sublime in its own way.

I had every reason to expect something else, just as one may mistake someone as familiar as Charles Ray for someone trendier. The first year's installation reeked of such art, including Ofili's elephant poop. It played throughout to expectations about the kind of fashionable artists already entering museum collections. This year's choice of roughly fifty works has its own conservatism, as with Rothko, and its own trendiness, as with Shonibare. However, that kind of conservatism connects more fully to the Modern's history, while that kind of trendiness often gambles on relatively young or emerging artists, such as Schutz. I had never heard of several of them, such as Sawada or Samba.

The installation plays to something that perhaps only the Modern can bring to the table, art beyond England and America. More important, it responds to exactly what many hated about the gallery's first incarnation. Let me itemize the charges.

Still growing and still modern?

First, the 2004 choices indeed went down far too easily. This time, one can say not them again, but only by seriously embarrassing oneself. Second, the sampling looked arbitrary. Why those and not others from the collection? I have my doubts whether the Modern can continue a not quite thematic approach indefinitely, without its growing arbitrary itself. For now, however, it answers the charges well.

Third, the cavernous space appeared to be storing work more than displaying it. Now, indeed better than in the permanent collection floors above, the spaces suit the work. The layout—roughly clockwise but with the many side rooms—provides closer encounters, frequent stopping points, more useful juxtapositions, and the occasional delayed recognition. Its very departure from the linear says something useful. Even Janet Cardiff for a moment abandons her usual marching orders, allowing the viewer to wander freely through her simulated Salisbury Cathedral.

Last, the gallery's opening display largely perpetuated the Modern's old division between "major" and "minor" media. Once, that division sent a powerful message of inclusion, when the museum first gambled on design, architecture, photography, and the movies, apart from painting and sculpture. Now such institutional divisions seem harder to justify, especially when it comes to contemporary art. True, the second floor still has its own dark gallery for video showpieces—currently two entertaining Pixar illusions. However, Abramovic hangs down from above "Take Two," while its many side rooms act out new media as a riff on the old.

One must face up to it: no second-floor gathering, however predictable or unpredictable, however fine or perplexing, will resolve many a misgiving. The rooms must change from season to season or from year to year. They cannot unfold a systematic view of the Modern's holdings or the state of contemporary art itself. The complete a chronological display of the permanent collection, but only after an intervening floor. Nor do they function as an ongoing series of special exhibitions, although in 2006 it will devote the space to gifts from Edward R. Broida. The Modern has other galleries for that.

Moreover, their very changes emphasize that the painting and sculpture two floors above pretty much stays put. The superfluity of choices for contemporary art inevitably calls attention to gaps in the older displays. Holdings in artists both dead and alive do grow, as with the fall 2005 acquisition of Rebus, a combine painting by Robert Rauschenberg. However, no doubt price, availability, and the continued unfolding of art will favor change on the second floor rather than above.

Not even the Modern, then, can resolve the meaning of Modernism or its relevance to art today, and it will not create a truly "democratic" museum—or compete with Chelsea. Perhaps one should say especially not the Modern, with its literally top-down structure and its implications for the art world's metaphoric one. A narrative that starts with Post-Impressionism and refuses to quit still stands as the museum's very premise, even as embalmers and critics of the avant-garde alike find it untenable. For now, all one can say is that the Modern is making a good case for the necessity of an evolving collection. It does so by its quality, but also by stressing the mutual relevance of past and present. Perhaps future displays can more explicitly enter and encourage the debate.

BACK to John's arts home page

"Take Two," art since 1965 at The Museum of Modern Art, ran through March 2006. A related review looks at plans for yet another MoMA expansion in 2013.


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