The Bug in Modernism's Ear

John Haber
in New York City

Modern Starts: MoMA's First Sixty Years

If anyone has a Y2K problem, it ought to be New York's Museum of Modern Art. The institution born to chart the twentieth century must somehow face the next. If the Modern cannot quite face up all at once, a two-year series of exhibitions helps deaden the shock. It offers up rare pleasures, but also an unsettling insight into the shock itself.

A post-modern?

History books date Modernism in America to New York's legendary Armory Show, back in 1913. Paul Cézanne's Bather (Museum of Modern Art, 1885)Maybe, but the Modern changed the course of Modernism far more, starting sixty years ago now. Along with Betty Parson's "Art of This Century," its exhibitions spurred Jackson Pollock, American abstraction, and its tradition lives on even today.

Parsons died long before her gallery's name could confuse my computer's search engine. Meanwhile, the modern museum turns itself into a commercial institution. So now what? Simply to ask gets at the puzzle of Modernism today. Has it really stayed modern?

Stubbornly, the Modern keeps collecting. With P.S. 1 in Queens, it has even taken over (and risked spoiling) the best contemporary-arts space I know.

The Modern can hardly stop now. To become merely the old-master galleries for a past century, as Jed Perl urges, it would have to define an era once and for all. Defining Modernism, however, amounts to the Modern's original project, and it would throw the museum back into its prime after all. If Modernism and Postmodernism survive by feeding off one another, that postmodern paradox, the Modern's future provides one more example. In a sense, there may always be a post-modern. Or will there?

Fittingly, the year 2000 offers yet another attempt at self-definition, but now as big-time celebration. The Y2K bug demands major reprogramming. For once, the Modern is clearing out all its galleries devoted to the permanent collection. Over three years, the entire museum fills, bit by bit, with a look back at the last hundred or so.

This fall and winter manage barely the opening decades, to roughly 1920. They hit every medium, from paintings to posters. If the obsession with detail were not enough—not to mention part of the museum's conception of Modernism—the Modern relies entirely on its own holdings. To celebrate the century, the Modern has first of all to celebrate itself.

A random access to modernity

For this first segment, each of the museum's three main floors gets a theme: People, Places, and Things. Gee, that about covers it, right? It sounds vacuous enough, like the Guggenheim's distressing reduction faith in early Modernism as genre painting. Within each floor, one finds in turn half a dozen subdivisions. Of two to three rooms a piece, they sound just as artificial. By the time I got home, I had already forgotten all their titles. I looked them up online ten minutes ago, and I have forgotten them again.

Maybe I should wrack my brains more. The best way to spot the museum's importance is to look for ideas behind the labels. People, places, things—they may turn out to suggest limits of Modernism. More interesting still, Postmodernism may not know those limits so well after all.

Start with a trivial matter: one can take the concentrations in any order. Hear an echo of random access on the Web, like a disconcerting version of a true digital community and exhibition space? The museum in fact scatters about the joint some helpful computer monitors. By contrast, the Met would be pushing print catalogs alongside brightly lit souvenirs.

Call it sane curating. Call it yet one more insistence on the century's relevance at the end of the century. Either way, if the Modern has a bad Y2K problem, this exhibition will definitely find out.

Like the whole, each concentration ignores chronology. Works sit side by side according to theme, comparing subjects and styles. In addition, a handful of works from later decades slip into the mix. A contemporary photo of a standing male bather hangs near Paul Cézanne in oil. Another image of man, Vir Hiroicus Sublimus, the 1951 abstraction by Barnett Newman, even greeted me on the way in. Well, in line with random access, make that one way in.

Timelessness, a sense of play, an openness to technology, and an urge to document itself—all go into the Modern's latest act of self-definition. If the Met cannot distinguish two centuries in its nineteenth-century galleries, the Modern claims the future entirely for itself. If the Whitney's two-part millennial drowns first art and then American history itself in cultural values, the Modern tosses historical narrative out the window.

Play and self-understanding

A sense of playful self-discovery never leaves. Today one thinks of Modernism as wrapped up in fine art. Here, one instead finds alternative media and fresh cultural representations. Forget that image of overblown males, soberly pursuing the limits of abstraction and old media. The Modern mixes fun and self-analysis with the best of them. It just has this way of getting self-involved.

In fact, I am hard pressed to say into which camp photography falls, high or low, but it practically runs the show. Berenice Abbott's photo of hands hangs next to Oskar Kokoschka's double portrait in oil. Thanks to her, the Austrian couple's gestures come thoroughly alive. They carry all the fragility of emotion, human flesh, and paint. Yet one owes the insight to a different kind of portrait, from an American woman.

Along with chronology, the Modern attacks an old story, of Modernism as a march from realism to abstraction. Categories such as people, places, and things have little to do with either, as if art could become all-inclusive for an age of globalization. Realism would demand a genre—like portraiture, landscape, still life. Abstraction would look elsewhere, to extend experience rather than represent it. Modernism hinges on the extension, but as fresh examination of the real.

Rather than a forced march—or, in the case of Russian abstract art, a forced march backward—one sees restlessness, a continual urge to recreate experience. That same urge underlies every stage of Modernism, from Cubism's manic reality to Surrealism's unseen one. There it is again, from Dada and its institutionalization of the ordinary to Minimalism's break with the old sites for art. There it is yet again, from Abstract Expressionism's erasure of symbols to Pop Art's erasure of brand names.

Of course, one expects an extraordinary collection, and one gets it. To me, it looks better taken off the old walls, too. Les Demoiselles d'Avignon certainly had an impact before. Centered on a free-standing wall, it became a gateway to the century, policed by angry women. Now I felt comfortable getting closer, to appreciate the figures as part of my self-understanding. Yet the work lost none of Picasso's challenge either—to himself and to the viewer—because this art can never separate self-awareness from free play with paint.

Henri Matisse, too, has more room than in those old, oppressively tight, low-ceilinged galleries. For a famous colorist, it left me more aware of the range of grays in Matisse's seated woman. I focused on the rough brushstrokes near her stool. For all her rigidity, she has no visible means of support. I could see the apparent puritan become more playful than even Matisse's fabrics and his bright-red dancers.

Modernism's lightness of being

From the start, the century had a lightness of being, a rapidity, and a reaching for the sky. For places, the show takes the unfinished Eiffel Tower as emblem. After the Whitney's gloomy hanging, I can only look forward to another twenty-five years, when Jackson Pollock's works will literally leap off the floor.

As a textbook on the walls, the hoary old collection risked announcing its obsolescence. The finer it looked, the more Postmodernism had won. And naturally the more Postmodernism had won, the finer Modernism looked. At the century's end, the two sustain each like Matisse's dance partners. With this exhibition, the dance has picked up the pace.

The show's pace has a way of backfiring badly, however. I found myself moving through the galleries more quickly than usual, with a glance for photos and old favorites. The breakneck speed picks up Postmodernism's worst feature, in fact. Meaning has a way of vanishing here, almost as on TV. Once again, the two concepts seem destined to live with off other into the Y2K, but not as a happy couple.

Works hang apart that depend on one another for sense. Sometimes a dizzying placement helps. One turns in surprise between Brancusi and Rodin. Yet one can become a dervish spinning about to compare the Picasso and Braque guitarists, awkwardly facing each other. In the Matisse room, that seated woman hangs on the wall as one layer of reality within many.

A loss of chronology takes away the sense of things, as both history and art history. It all but admits Postmodern the attacks on formalism. That wall of human hands, for example, covers way too much—a search for optical reality, formal variation, and a backdrop for other concerns. One sees the limits of any step outside history. One subdivision pairs the expressionist fantasies of James Ensor with political posters by José Guadelupe Posada. It means to rescue a forgotten voice of protest, but it makes him instead look twice as cute.

Perhaps the show's casual air will only add to arguments over what gets left out. I missed my own favorite "person," Picasso's Ma Jolie. Women appear almost solely as photographers. However, the loss goes beyond questions of taste or a shameful sexism. Modernism's lightness of being really has grown unbearable.

Modernism, hypothetically speaking

Without history, I had to remember the Modern's immersion in the present. With the purchase of P.S. 1 and the entry to Queens soon, it enters anew the age of museum empires and museums as subject for art. The dazzling shift of the permanent collection comes with a closing of several galleries to permit a construction project, yet another big-money museum expansion, to return in 2004.

I think again back to P.S. 1, where Mike Bidlo has wallpapered a bathroom with Marcel Duchamp's urinal. Bidlo means to criticize how museums incorporate, repeat, and numb protests against them. By the playfulness of theft, he hopes to revitalize Duchamp after the Modern's age-old institutionalization of tradition. In restoring Fountain to the bathroom, he restores the kick of Duchamp's gesture. On top of that, when he worked, P.S. 1 was still an alternative space. It was actively coping with institutionalization.

What happens now that the Modern has bought P.S. 1 and begun its millennium? Can a museum empire sprawl over greater New York? Maybe one should ask Duchamp. He understood that he could not create an object that would function forever as anti-art. Today, one calls it art, dignified as conceptual art, and he went along with the retrospective transformation of his work without complaints. He could find no response possible to the end of Dada and the birth of our museum space.

In Duchamp's hands, hypothetical art grew fluid enough to chart historical changes while accepting the power of an artist's gesture. Each one creates a reality—and so posits a fiction. Is that fiction straining to be heard during this mammoth exhibition? Whadya bet that "Things" will not include a single movie monster?

The notion of fiction suggests another undercurrent of Modernism, an exploration of the human. People, places, things—they describe the world but from a human perspective, as if held between one's hands. That humanity corresponds to Modernism's turning of nature inward, from eternal truth to patterns of the mind. Postmodernism only confirms the old prejudice. Today, one sees even raw perception as colored by cultural limits and human understanding. Does the color show through enough in this colossal exhibition?

Perhaps the museum is not quite so happy after all. Faced with the Y2K, it looks back instead at the start of the previous century. Like an adult dealing with recovered memories, it is obsessed with its roots. Like a badly corrupted computer, it resets to 1900 or, as with Windows programs and Modernism's critical orthodoxy, to 1980. The fascination of the installments over the next two years, starting with puzzle of "Making Choices" for the years from 1920 to 1960, and then onto "Open Ends" for the century's end, will be to see how much it has learned.

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The three parts of "Modern Starts" at The Museum of Modern Art had staggered openings, so that "People" would run through February 1, 2000, "Places" and "Things" through March 14.


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