or so said Picasso: “…and the people who make art their business are mostly imposters…. We have infected the pictures in museums with all our stupidities, all our mistakes, all our poverty of spirit. We have turned them into petty and ridiculous things.” He said that in a 1935 volume of Cahiers d’Art. Alfred H. Barr, Jr. included this quote in his 1946 book on Picasso, published seventeen years after he founded the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
When I was but a wee Barnard lass in my formative years as an academic, one of my favorite places in New York to go and work was the garden at MoMA. As an undergrad at Columbia I was allowed free entry to all of the museums in town, so any given afternoon, when I felt like taking the 1,9 downtown, you might have found me at a table off in the corner, next to a huge coffee, nose buried in a book, pen moving in a notebook, copying out critical estimations and interesting passages out of whatever I was reading. Background noise was faint; there were a few limpid fountains, I seem to recall, and some manicured older women sitting together and discussing the art, their travels, their younger days. There was a healthy amount of outdoor sculpture here and there, and the ground was a series of pathways crisscrossing over a pond. The garden was not very large, but suprisingly was never that crowded, and I sort of wondered if it wasn’t one of New York’s best-kept secrets. Really, no one must have known about it, or you would think it would have been overrun with museum-goers taking a break in between German and Abstract Expressionism.
I would never leave without running upstairs to wander through the collections, no matter how briefly. Then, as now, I stuck mainly to the pre-1945 art. After WWII my interest in painting and especially in sculpture takes a nosedive… the photography I love, but everything else leaves me cold. Shocker! I actually don’t like Andy Warhol! Thanks to a rigorous background in Art History, I have the requisite critical skills to talk about late twentieth-century art and what makes it so. I just can’t get into it, is all.
I was crushed, but luckily out of college, when, in 2001, MoMA shut its doors and temporarily relocated to Long Island City, Queens, to renovate the original 1930s structure into something a little more cutting edge. By the time this happened, I was also no longer living in Queens. Schlepping from Manhattan to LIC was not an option. So I bid MoMA goodbye. And now, finally, it’s reopening on November 20th! It’s been redesigned by Yoshio Taniguchi, and there’s a writeup in yesterday’s NY Times assessing the new building. Nicolai Ouroussoff writes, “The galleries, stacked one on top of the other like so many epochs, reinforce a hierarchical approach to history that will bolster the Modern’s image as a ruthless arbiter of taste…It reinforces the notion – in a way not sensed at the Met today – that museums are as much about the stamp of legitimacy as about aesthetic pleasure.”
I don’t agree with his observation about the Met, but I see what he means about the layout. It would be interesting to compare MoMA with its British counterpart, the Tate Modern, which is organized by theme rather than by chronological period. There, the works are grouped into the following themes: History/Memory/Society, Landscape/Matter/Environment, Nude/Action/Body, and Still Life/Object/Real Life.
For a public accustomed to having Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, et al grouped within a few meters of each other, to organize the works according to their thematic content interferes with the traditional organization of art history and our traditional methods of appreciating artistic achievement. But really, who says things have to be in chronologial order? who says a linear perspective makes more sense than a nonlinear? Why be traditional when you can be innovative? Isn’t that the idea behind modern art anyway?
The new MoMA is not a stranger to the values of mixing it up a bit– Ouroussoff mentions several “startling” juxtapositions– but for the most part, apparently, the new design confirms the power of the institution as author and coordinator of art history. Back to the Times: “This may irritate people who believe that a 21st-century museum should take a more populist approach. It runs counter to the idea that art, in a democracy, is a messy, open process. And it exposes the design’s overwhelming assertion of control, beautiful yet chilling. But that is what powerful art institutions do: they set standards, they make evaluations. You could argue that Mr. Taniguchi is stripping away the egalitarian pose and exposing the museum for what it is.”