The Art Wrld

John Haber
in New York City

MoMA QNS: The Opening

The art world may not have shipped out to Queens, but the Museum of Modern Art has. I hope it stays a while.

Real art and real estate

At least for now, with the museum's fabled midtown building shut for expansion, MoMA QNS hangs onto a fraction of the collection. Exhibitions, such as a 2003 face-off between Picasso and Matisse, will have a home in New York's borough for small home-owners. MoMA QNS (Museum of Modern Art, photo by Eric van der Brulle, 2002)The building plans to revert to storage space in 2005, after a gala Manhattan reopening. The midtown site will balloon up yet again, as much for a luxury residential tower and the destruction of anything that stands in its way as for gallery space.

One can try to forget about real estate, at least for a while. One can immerse oneself in the opening exhibitions, as I did. Or one can look to MoMA QNS itself—as both a symptom of museum empires and a delightful break from them. I think of this meditation as merely an inescapable aside in a review of the work. Like real empires and global neighborhoods, expansion adds fissures and complexity. It would take a serious sociologist to see what that means for MoMA QNS—say, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy?

Queens lacks the casual chic of Brooklyn restaurants, but no one out here is complaining. Opening-day lines stretched around the block, surprising even MoMA staff prepared for crowd control. Yet for once, locals packed the Modern. The woman behind me on line had checked her book out from the Queens public library, and her mother used the time as an excuse to head off shopping.

For once, on opening day, I actually wanted to cope with a museum mob. Tourists tend to hit the sights first thing, but this truly New York gathering picked up momentum over the course of the day. By mid-afternoon it felt less like an opening than a block party. I did a double-take when I found no one holding a drink. I should have brought my own.

The building itself plays with its site, in both the proximity to Manhattan and the isolation in a seeming industrial wilderness. Only summer sculpture "Between the Bridges" in Brooklyn, facing the urgency of New York's changed skyline after 9/11, can compare. For the Modern, Cooper Robertson & Partners converted the former Swingline Staple factory. Almost in the shadow of the elevated subway, it has a suitably breathtaking view of nearby Manhattan. Most notably in Michael Maltzen's lobby and exterior, it offers a knowing twist, too, on the history of museum design.

Overall, like its name, the temporary space offers a terse and very contemporary take on modern art. It makes a strong case for stretching the Modern—and the art world—conceptually and geographically for good. Artists have been doing the same for some time, simply to survive.

Heading out

One can actually walk from Manhattan, as I did that very day, past Bloomingdale's and over the 59th Street Bridge. The contrast of upscale shopping to functional steel and onrushing automobiles introduces Queens all by itself. Alternatively, a free weekend bus runs from the old MoMA. Another shuttle amounts to a Queens art tour, including the Noguchi Garden Museum and Socrates Sculpture Park a few miles north.

A hardy soul can combine MoMA QNS with a trip to P.S. 1 (before it becomes MoMA PS1). The alternative space, in the Modern's possession since 1999, definitely has a life of its own, even encompassing a "Greater New York." The former schoolhouse lies across a confusing mess of railroad tracks, but only a few blocks away. Afterward, on the way to dinner, one can adjust to what artists might call real life, in the relatively affordable streets of Astoria or the ethnic mix of Sunnyside and Jackson Heights.

Best of all, though, is the approach by subway, only a few stops from Grand Central on the number 7 line. As the elevated train turns its sharp corner, the Manhattan skyline comes into even better view. Below on the roof, shifting alignments of block letters sometimes spell MoMA QNS. The blue, unmarked façade stands out discreetly as the only fresh paint around.

Basically a one-story, block-long building, MoMA QNS has exhibition space of perhaps two floors at many another museum. Think of the Whitney's cramped look at its own collection, plus one changing exhibit, but no more. Ramps lead one in, from a side street, past the front desk, and up to an isolated, dead end for architecture exhibits and touch-screen tours of the collection. A mezzanine tries gallantly to hold both cafeteria and gift shop. I had wondered why the Modern had planned on just ten tables. Now I know it does not simply prefer displaying art to selling pastry.

It makes a strong statement nonetheless. The space may play with the modern museum, but it lets shifting perspectives on art have their say. Sure, moveable walls remind one of Marcel Breuer's Whitney. Sure, ramps recall the Beaubourg or the Guggenheim. But they do not set the conditions for the display. They strive to keep up with it.

Instead of an entrance and an exit to the exhibitions, one has a choice of entrances. An inviting turnoff from the midst of one show leaves one well into the permanent collection. The open architecture allows the curators to suggest a larger area than they have at their disposal. The pathways also imply further connections beyond any one gallery's time lines and narratives. Most museums, like department stores, dazzle, direct, or confuse visitors, in the interest of more sales for headsets and gifts. Here, the curators are happy to stir up and empower art and its viewer.

Playing with blocks

The architecture also knows its place in the outer boroughs, amid warehouses and lofts for art's next generation. It does not represent factories and lofts in quotes, as with Postmodern celebrity designs. Rather, it accedes gracefully to them. From storage it was born, and to storage, alas, it will return.

That triumph and transience returns one to questions beyond architecture. An elite museum has dropped into unfamiliar territory its convenience, like any other big company in search of cheap resources. In fact, critics have increasingly seen museums and the art world exactly that way.

The avant-garde became the norm long ago, and the Modern helped to set that norm. Its choice of art defined an exclusive, strikingly linear tradition. Along with its very mode of display, the shoe boxes with white walls, this tradition then defined the way new artists and audiences had to look at art. Its marketing of exhibitions and real-estate ventures alike suggest conformity to the status quo. One sees the same combination of unchecked growth and utter exclusivity in many another museum or, even more, in Chelsea. Can the multiple passageways of MoMA QNS possible offer an escape from this nexus?

The postmodern critique of art institutions is valuable, but it is also strangely behind the times. It sees institutions as monolithic, just when markets themselves have become too efficient for that, often to the point of disarray. They look less and less like white walls and more and more like the shifting blocks of letters on a roof in Queens.

In Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offer their take on capitalism and culture in an age of globalization. In a provocative mix of Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, they describe power as "decentered," leaving nation states—and, yes, Manhattan—far behind. Even economic power, they argue, no longer turns on a central bank in Geneva or Wall Street.

As I write, the scandals of the Bush administration are turning the idea of free markets on its head. One can see how real markets turn on government actions and use resources belonging to others. One can see how concentrations of power benefit powerful individuals and their institutional connections. One can see supposedly private initiatives grow vulnerable to failure, change, and unanticipated success from the range of people, nations, and cultures they absorb. When it comes to art as well, one should ask who takes what, who gets what, who suffers, and who still hangs on to something like hope.

People and places

The Whitney expands its Biennial to overtake Central Park, but it dissolves into the chaos and conservatism of art schools and shopping malls. The Guggenheim adds branches and pushes for another right off Wall Street, but that just boosts the profile of Thomas Krens, its flamboyant director, while dropping exhibitions and losing visitors. From Giotto to Artemisia Gentileschi, the Met shamelessly uses exhibits to control scholarly debates and to promote the curator.

The press easily becomes part of the game. A few fine critics can express the nuances of art as revealed in a strong show. Fewer still can then question, place, or even notice a curator's agenda. Conversely, people make good copy. When a top curator moves to the Studio Museum, reviewers gather to marvel at a museum's new life. Their attention soon shifts, and one year later art in Harlem stands surrounded by silence. Once every five years or so, the New York Historical Society rearranges its permanent collection, and one gets to read virtually the same story of its revival.

These moves may diversify art, but they reinstate the same old exclusions. "Contrary to the way many postmodernist accounts would have it," Hardt and Negri come to much the same conclusion for their kind of communications empire, too. "Far from eliminating master narratives, [it] actually produces and reproduces them." They should drop in at the museums.

As New York cuts key retrospectives, it loses its exclusivity as an art center. However, that means forgetting Eva Hesse, a woman who helped conceive Minimalism. In her hands, too, Minimalism looks foreign to the official history of late modern art—soft, tactile, threatening, approachable, disgusting, and even wearable.

If free markets are, at best, a fiction (especially free markets for art), the art world, in the singular, is a comparable fiction. Like a Web site saturated with pop-up ads, Chelsea may have begun as an informal respite from Soho's commercialism. Yet the strip mall of galleries no longer gives one time to reflect on art. As museum "evil empires" grow, they look less like faceless, white boxes and more like human acts.

In other words, art really is big business, only business as it is now. To Serge Guilbault, the Modern plays the loaded gun in America's "theft" of the avant-garde. He puts it down to America's need for heroes back in the days of Jackson Pollock—and a Cold War propaganda machine quite ready to create them. I admire his insights into the time and his ability to weave art into its historical context. Yet it means that even postmodern critics, or especially them, are sometimes still fighting the Cold War.

Passages

Then again, a word like institution always claimed far too much for its own good. Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century, the gallery that did so much for Abstract Expressionism, hung works every which way but on the wall. The Museum of Modern Art really did help the promise of an avant-garde take flight and survive. Part of a critic's job is to locate its survival and to call its bluff.

I started by asking about the art world, then, because the Modern all but embodies it. With most museums, one quickly starts gossiping about the director and curators. How have they left their stamp on art this time? With the Modern, one still thinks first about a curator long gone by now, Alfred Barr. One thinks of the institution that he created as modern art itself. However, the incursion into Queens shakes up the whole idea of an arts institution.

Those passageways in MoMA QNS lead within, like the nexus of markets. They also preserve the chance for multiplicity and fresh choices. The building brings the Modern's great and mighty collection to Queens, but it also breaks up the collection. So far, too, it hangs that collection to point in as many different ways as the passage, away from Paul Cézanne and toward contemporary art.

People cannot always foresee what their actions will mean. Real people lie behind art's images, and their history and the work illuminate each other. Yet a work has a life of its own. A museum empire begins with artists and curators, and it takes the same risks.

Long before globalization, empires once showed all that they ignored by white spaces on the map, but eventually the blanks spoke up for themselves. Modernism once had a comparable encounter with African art. One cannot boil that moment down exclusively to understanding—or exploitation. Perhaps Queens will continue to speak up for both black and white in New York City.

So is the move to Queens a boon for modern art or one more museum empire? Is it a sign of something beyond art-world limits? Or does it prove once again the death of the avant-garde, swallowed by growing art institutions and the real-estate market? Has it struck a blow for artist lives or for gentrification? No doubt all of these at once, which is why I hope that MoMA QNS will survive longer than anyone could have planned.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

MoMA QNS, by Cooper Robertson & Partners with Michael Maltzen, opened June 29, 2002. Its final exhibition closed in March 2005, following a "grand reopening of MoMA in Manhattan."

 

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