Arrivederci MoMA

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FEBRUARY 6, 2006

Arrivederci MoMA

 I.

THERE IS A PARADOX AT THE heart of any cultural institution. It is that the men and women who dedicate themselves to these essential enterprises exert a fiscal and administrative discipline that has nothing whatsoever to do with the discipline of art, which is a disciplined abandon. I imagine that for anybody who founds or sustains or rescues or re-invents a museum, an orchestra, or a dance company, this tension between the institution and the art comes to feel like a natural paradox. There is always a balancing act involved, which helps to explain why the very greatest institution-builders (Lincoln Kirstein comes to mind) invariably have something of the artist’s temperament. And when we consider how rare such people are, we realize that there is nothing surprising about the fragility, the mediocrity, and the downright banality of so many cultural enterprises. If making art is hard, making an arts institution work may be harder still.

I believe it is important to recall the daunting nature of these challenges as we consider the deeply troubling state of the Museum of Modern Art a year after its re-opening. While the museum has failed to live up to the hopes of many of the New Yorkers who care most passionately about twentieth-century art, the defensiveness that one hears from both inside and outside the museum is nevertheless understandable, given the challenges that the museum now faces. The Modern, with its seventy-fifth birthday past, is entering that baffling stage when the visionary zeal and megalomaniacal energy of the founding generation is literally a lifetime away. Inevitably, the kind of institutional authority that was invented, almost out of whole cloth, by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the museum’s founding director and its guiding spirit into the 1960s, has lost its dramatic aura, becoming somehow bland: at best a form of institutional prestige that enables good work to go on, at worst an institutional carapace behind which anybody can get away with anything. The MoMA watchers who believe that the glass is less than half full and the ones who believe that it is close to completely full are making their own judgments as to whether the institution’s newfound fiscal and administrative discipline serves the disciplined abandon of art. And each view of the present state of the museum is related to some larger idea about what modern art was or might become, so that behind any conversation about the Museum of Modern Art there lurks a deeper conversation about the nature of institutions and, indeed, about the nature of art.

 

GLENN D. LOWRY, WHO HAS been the director of the museum since 1995, has never presented a searching account of the nature of an arts institution, much less the nature of art. Lowry’s supporters will respond that a museum director is a man of action, not an intellectual, and they may even argue that the boilerplate speeches and statements that he has frequently made about cultural matters do in fact constitute a contribution to an ongoing debate.When Lowry speaks out, however, he speaks as a CEO, and his intention mainly seems to be to stifle a debate about the transformation of what was once a chaotically creative institution into a well-oiled business-model museum. Lowry has earned his position on all those most-powerful-men-in-the-art-world lists for only one reason: he has presided over a fund-raising miracle. In the years just before and just after September 11, with the city in recession, the Museum of Modern Art managed to raise some $850 million. They moved the museum to Queens. They built what amounts to a new building. They moved back to Manhattan. And as a tourist attraction the new MoMA is, we are told, a success.

Those are the hard facts. But the future of a great institution is not shaped by hard facts exclusively, and maybe not even primarily. The question that must be asked about the Modern is at what cost its new building and its stupendous endowment have been achieved. And you might say that the question contains the answer, for the problem with Lowry’s MoMA is that the focus is on the health and well-being of the institution, rather than the quality of our understanding of Cèzanne, Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Mondrian—or, for that matter, the quality of our understanding of contemporary art. If our knowledge of art had been foremost in Lowry’s mind, surely he would not have presided over a rebuilding program that has, strangely enough, left the museum with only marginally more room for the display of its unparalleled collection of painting and sculpture from the first half of the twentieth century.

But then the artists and avid museum goers who yearn to see more of the collection are not Lowry’s constituency. Never before has this museum’s attention been so insistently fixed on what are perceived to be the needs of the tourists and the trustees. One of the first exhibitions mounted at the Modern after the re-opening, “Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Art Collection,” was a corporate put-up job—an elaborate thank-you to Donald B. Marron, an influential member of the museum’s board of trustees. And last summer’s big show, “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cèzanne and Pissarro:1865-1885,” was the kind of blandly conceived, tourist-friendly blockbuster that you would expect to see at Tate Modern or the Guggenheim, but never at the Museum of Modern Art.

 

ALTHOUGH THERE HAVE BEEN some bright spots at the Modern this fall—in the magnificent Redon show and in the re-installation of several galleries in the permanent collection—this is now a museum where art’s mystery and magic are at best taken for granted, and at worst ignored. The new building, which I admired for its refined details and suavely balanced volumes in the weeks before the grand opening, when it was nearly empty of people, has pretty much proved to be a fiasco. The more people there are in Yoshio Taniguchi’s spaces, the less poetic those spaces feel, which is just about the most devastating thing that you can say about a work of public architecture. The fault, though, is not Taniguchi’s alone. Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, and Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, those landmarks of twentieth-century art, look lost in the new museum, because they have been torn from the moral landscape that they inhabited, with its visionary fervor and its progressivist ideals. While the curators at the Modern would have us believe that they are currently engaged in the perfectly legitimate task of rethinking that landscape—of giving its modern perspectives a postmodern overhaul—Lowry has in fact turned the whole damn landscape into a mall in which Picasso, Matisse, and Mondrian are merely what happens to be available, as interchangeable as H&M, Target, and the Gap.

The Modern—with its departments devoted to film, photography, and architecture and design, as well as to painting and sculpture and prints and drawings—always offered one-stop aesthetic shopping, and in that sense the museum was always, as some have pointed out, playing a dangerous game. As long ago as 1949, Wallace Stevens complained in a letter of the museum’s “professional modernism,” and wondered, “Is all this really hard thinking, really high feeling or is it a lot of nobodies running after a few somebodies?” Barr helped the world accept modernity, and if the museum’s “Good Design” shows of the early 1950s prefigure the low-priced elegance of IKEA, the Modern’s pioneering “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” show of 1936 is somewhere in the prehistory of Jeff Koons’s floating basketballs and porcelain Michael Jackson. To the bargain-conscious shopper who visits the Modern’s design collection today, the museum may look like a spiffier version of IKEA, while the trustee who has just paid $1 million for a Koons is certainly going to want MoMA to endorse the investment. A museum that was alive to the challenge would want to confound the expectations of both the tourists and the trustees, but Lowry seems happy to give everybody what they expect. He must imagine that this is synergy. It is a synergy that denies out-of-town visitors to MoMA what they fervently desire, which is a museum that represents the heart and soul of artistic New York, or did once upon a time.

II.

GLENN LOWRY IS THE FIRST man to guide the Modern who is not, essentially, a visionary curator. While the museum has had a director whose chief focus is fiscal and administrative for the past fifty years, up until now the leadership structure was essentially bipartite, with the director in fact occupying a somewhat less central role than the chief curatorial figure, whether that was Alfred Barr or William Rubin or Kirk Varnedoe. This unique arrangement originated in the late 1940s and ended in 2001, when Varnedoe, who was in the later phases of a long and unsuccessful battle with cancer, resigned. It was Varnedoe’s departure that ushered in the Age of Lowry. Without understanding this essential shift in the leadership of MoMA, it is impossible to grasp the absolutely changed nature of the museum—changes that many people found themselves talking about a few days ago, when Rubin, who retired in 1988, died at seventy-eight.

While the Modern has been, at least until recent years, something of an institutional madhouse, the events of the 1940s must still count as the strangest in the museum’s tangled history. Barr, who had been founding director in 1929, was by the late 1930s viewed with suspicion by some of the trustees—who, while admiring him as a connoisseur and historian, felt that he neglected his administrative duties and sometimes pushed the museum’s focus in dangerously idiosyncratic directions. In 1943 he was dismissed by Stephen C. Clark, the chairman of the board. The precipitating events were artistic, for Clark, whose taste ran to the Post-Impressionists, was enraged by what he saw as the willful eccentricity of some of Barr’s infatuations, especially his decision to exhibit an elaborately decorated shoeshine stand by a New Yorker named Joe Milone, which the young sculptor Louise Nevelson had brought to Barr’s attention and which he described as “like a lavish wedding cake, a baroque shrine or a super-juke box.” Barr was given the post of advisory director, on the assumption that he would devote himself to writing, which some on the board felt was his strong suit.

But Barr refused to leave the museum. He retreated to a desk in the library, where colleagues sought his unofficial advice on museum matters of all kinds during the mid-1940s, a period when the museum, incredibly enough, did not have a director. Eventually the trustees had second thoughts about marginalizing Barr, and by 1950 a dual leadership had developed, with Renè d’Harnoncourt as director of the museum and Barr as director of museum collections. Although d’Harnoncourt was himself a commanding figure who had organized important exhibitions of Mexican and American Indian art, the moral and visionary center of the museum was at that point firmly in Barr’s hands. And the defining figure at the museum remained a curator until Varnedoe’s departure in 2001.

While Barr’s and Rubin’s and Varnedoe’s influence extended well beyond their essential focus, which was painting and sculpture, they tended to accept the idea that the museum’s departments were rival principalities, and this somewhat decentralized organization made it possible for John Szarkowski in the photography department and Arthur Drexler in architecture and design to develop their distinctive intellectual positions and their own ardent followings. (Szarkowski’s own photographs are being seen this winter at the Modern in a retrospective that was organized at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.) Barr and Rubin (and, one imagines, Szarkowski and Drexler) took for granted a level of direct access to the trustees that would be virtually unheard-of in a museum with a more conventional managerial structure. That was true of Varnedoe as well. His supporters in the upper reaches of the museum, who were legion, embraced him as a curator who would reshape the museum in his own image, much as Barr and Rubin had done, although it was understood that Varnedoe represented not so much a celebration of high modern values as a critique of them.

 

WHEN GLENN LOWRY WAS appointed director in 1995, he was a largely unknown figure in New York, with a scholarly background in Islamic art. He was taking a problematic position, what was seen as an essentially second-string job, in which Lowry would forever play sidekick to Varnedoe, the golden boy with easygoing intellectual charisma and movie-star good looks. It is only in the past five years that Lowry has emerged as the uncontested leader of the Museum of Modern Art, as the first MoMA director who actually tells his most important curators what they will and will not do. There is some reason to believe that if Varnedoe had not become ill, he would still be the commanding figure at the museum; but Lowry, who is by all accounts a fiercely competitive and diabolically savvy man, would have probably been able to marginalize even Varnedoe. The accountants generally find a way to turn the golden boys into window dressing, and sooner or later Lowry was going to persuade the trustees that the Modern needed to go the way of all museums: toward a corporate-inspired operating model, with increasing emphasis on dramatic building schemes and a few high-profile, media-friendly purchases.

In many respects, Lowry suggests a suaver version of Thomas Krens, who in his years as director of the Guggenheim was the first leader of a major New York museum unashamedly to reject aesthetic concerns in favor of marketing concerns. Both Lowry and Krens began as outsiders, and both have the outsider’s ability to kick aside the institutional traditions that stand in the way of their ascent. Since the Modern has always had a far clearer institutional identity and a far more stable base of support than the Guggenheim, Lowry has not had to indulge in the hucksterism that was eventually Krens’s undoing. In both instances, though, the search for an authentic institutional identity, which must be an ongoing search, has been trumped by the hard-calculation business of solidifying a brand-name identity.

Of course, everybody has their own way of describing the heart and soul of a museum, and when an institution’s history is as long and as complex as the Modern’s, almost anything that the museum chooses to do now can be justified by referring to some aspect of the museum’s past. Whenever questions are raised about the Modern’s recent de-accessions, Lowry points out that the museum had originally intended to have a constantly evolving collection, and to de-accession even masterworks after they reached a certain age. And to those who dare complain that the Modern is publicity crazy, Lowry would be perfectly justified in responding that it was Barr who set up the first publicity department in a museum and almost single-handedly developed the concept of outreach to the wider community.

When Lowry decided that the first major temporary exhibition to appear after the re-opening of the museum would be “Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Art Collection,” he could tell himself that the museum had always mounted shows devoted to collections that had been created outside of the museum; those of Nelson Rockefeller, William Paley, and Florene May Schoenborn and Samuel A. Marx come to mind. Although Donald Marron, in the “Contemporary Voices” catalogue, speculates that this may be the first show at the museum devoted to a corporate collection, an argument can even be made that this is not exactly true, for “Contrasts of Form,” the great Constructivist show of 1985, was based to a large degree on the gift of the Riklis Collection of the McCrory Corporation. The main point about the UBS collection is that it has neither thematic nor artistic coherence, though nobody at the museum would want to break the news to Marron, who put together the collection at PaineWebber before it was absorbed by UBS, and who is a former president of the Modern, a current trustee, and a champion fund-raiser for and supporter of Lowry’s museum.

Even if this were a corporate collection that reflected a distinctive aesthetic, the fact that UBS was donating some of the works to the museum would not have justified devoting an entire exhibition to UBS immediately after the re-opening of the museum. Didn’t it occur to Lowry that once the new Modern becomes known as a museum that gives this kind of publicity to corporate donors, it is going to be increasingly difficult to say no to the next corporation that comes along? Well, maybe that is exactly what did occur to him. At the very point when Lowry should have been asserting some level of independence, he was sending a giant public love letter to a corporation and a trustee.

Lowry is a brilliant fund-raiser, no question about it. That is enough to earn him an aura of unassailable authority in the insular world of arts administration. The trouble is that Lowry’s authority has nothing to do with cultural authority, which is the one kind of authority that a museum director cannot do without. Anybody who runs a major cultural institution spends a good deal of time dealing with people who are far wealthier than they are and who have access to even greater sources of wealth, and money, needless to say, brings with it a certain authority. What, then, does the museum director bring to the table? How does he persuade those who are holding the purse strings to do what he wants them to do? There is only one way, which is by representing a standard of artistic authority so lofty and so unassailable that the people with the money will accept his authority. This is the kind of authority that Barr and Rubin exerted, at least a good deal of the time. It is the kind of authority that Philippe de Montebello exerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art today. But it is a kind of authority that is now nearly non-existent at the Museum of Modern Art. Nobody has any idea what Glenn Lowry stands for, artistically speaking. If Lowry had that kind of authority, “Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Art Collection” would never have gone up.

III.

ALMOST AS SOON AS THE NOISY media-drenched re-opening of the Museum of Modern Art was over, a strange silence enveloped the museum and all its doings. To be sure, its shows have been reviewed, and there have been some controversies—about its de-accession policies, about the museum’s attitude toward art taken from Jewish collectors during the Holocaust—which museum officials have responded to quickly and vigorously, as if they were making points in a political campaign. The silence to which I am referring is not the silence of the press; it is the silence of the most fervent artists and museum goers—the men and women who have for decades been the museum’s core constituency. These people still pay a visit to the Museum of Modern Art now and again, to see a new show or to look at an old favorite in the permanent collection; but they approach the museum without any particular hope that they are going to be moved by what they see, and when they leave they frequently express neither pleasure nor disappointment. The Museum of Modern Art, an institution that so many museum goers experienced so personally, is now generally regarded as a faceless juggernaut. Expectations are so low that even the Edvard Munch retrospective, which opens at MoMA this month and would have been so eagerly awaited a decade ago, hardly excites comment.

Great museums stir great debates. The Modern used to do so. Shows such as “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art,” “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism,” “High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” and the Gerhard Richter retrospective were heatedly discussed, and one knew that the museum invited those discussions, even when the curators felt that they were getting out of hand. What the museum chose to do next was in part always a response to how the museum’s gloriously discriminating and opinionated public had responded to what the museum had done before. But this, sadly, is less and less true. Otherwise, the Modern would not have made precisely the same mistakes in “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cèzanne and Pissarro,” last summer’s blockbuster, that so many people had talked about in relation to “Matisse Picasso” a couple of years ago.

The one-on-one juxtaposition of works by Matisse and Picasso in “Matisse Picasso” weakened the museum-goer’s experience of each of the artists. The problem was articulated by the very audience of scholars and artists that the museum used to hold in such high regard; Pierre Schneider discussed some of the issues on Charlie Rose, and it was reported that Richard Serra felt that the show “shortchanged” Picasso. A great curator such as Barr or Rubin would have listened to such criticism. Instead, the powers that be at the Modern, who probably saw nothing in “Matisse Picasso” but a blockbuster extravaganza, went right ahead and in “Cèzanne and Pissarro” once again pushed two masters into a face-off that undermined their work.

Joachim Pissarro, the great-grandson of the artist who is now a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, surely wanted to honor his ancestor and his ancestor’s dear friend Cèzanne. Perhaps a more seasoned curator would have known to vary a museumgoer’s experience by avoiding the mechanical contrasts between paintings by Cèzanne and Pissarro that turned a potentially revelatory exhibition into a numbingly boring game. Or perhaps he was encouraged to set up this kind of programmatic presentation, which had given “Matisse Picasso” its pseudo-educational appeal and was now expected to deliver the Modern another popular hit. As for the show’s title—”Pioneering Modern Painting,” with its obvious reference to Rubin’s legendary “Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism”—it was meant to give “Cèzanne and Pissarro” some of the let-lightning-strike-twice magic that often attaches to a sequel—or, in this case, a prequel.

When I think back from this leaden, histrionic presentation of Cèzanne and Pissarro to the heartbreakingly intimate chamber music of Rubin’s exploration of the Cubist moment, I can’t help but wonder how far the Modern has fallen. Joachim Pissarro has no idea how to create an effective installation, and unfortunately there may be nobody at the Modern who can give him any help. Far from bringing glory to his great-grandfather, he forced him into an untenable position. In the scheme of “Cèzanne and Pissarro,” which presented late nineteenth-century landscape painting as the road to modernity, Cèzanne was inevitably the winner. The exhibition undercut Pissarro’s intimate relationship with the heritage of Corot and Courbet. The show’s progressivist spirit, which explains what we now see as Cèzanne’s reach toward abstraction, tells us much less about Pissarro, whose lifelong exploration of the naturalistic tradition culminated in a series of shimmering cityscapes that are a triumph of lyric verisimilitude.

The Modern no longer appears to be a welcoming place for curators who bring a distinctive personality to their work. Joachim Pissarro’s show felt as if it had been engineered by a committee. Ann Temkin—who is, like Pissarro, a relatively new member of the department of painting and sculpture—had done distinguished work on the Brancusi retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but she arrived at the Modern only to be stuck with the embarrassment of the UBS show. While there are always any number of reasons why somebody takes a job or leaves a job, recent movements among the curatorial posts at the Modern do not inspire confidence. It is discouraging to read about the departure of Terence Riley, the chief curator of architecture and design, whose “Tall Buildings” show in 2004 balanced artistic and social concerns with extraordinary skill. And one hopes that Peter Reed, who organized the remarkable Alvar Aalto show in 1998, is not leaving hands-on curatorial work altogether, now that he has been appointed senior deputy director for curatorial affairs, acting as a liaison between the curatorial departments and the administration. One worries whether the Modern any longer knows or cares about putting the right person in the right job. When Margit Rowell, who headed the drawing department for a time in the 1990s, returned in 2002 to work on a show of Russian illustrated books with Deborah Wye (who has done some outstanding work in re-installing the print collection), the results were so magnificent that I was left wondering what else Rowell could be asked to do at the Modern.

Surely the strangest of all the curatorial stories at the Modern involves Robert Storr, who was responsible for the Elizabeth Murray retrospective this fall, which he had begun to plan well before he left his post as a curator at the museum in 2002. I was not a fan of Murray’s work back in 1988, when her mid-career retrospective came to the Whitney, and her extravagantly shaped canvases still strike me as exercises in arbitrariness masquerading as expressiveness. In general, Storr’s taste is not mine. Yet it remains a conundrum that a museum that is so anxious to embrace the art of the present should have allowed the one curator on its staff who actually has some purchase on the present to depart. While his Gerhard Richter show was in my view mostly a gold-plated vindication of market pressures and market taste, Storr himself is a man with a from- the-ground-up grasp of the New York art world. He understands the lives of younger artists and he is familiar with all the dissident strands in the city’s art community, and there is nobody else at the Modern of whom this can be said. Storr is certainly in demand as a curator: at SITE Santa Fe, at the Venice Biennale, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I am left wondering if the problem with Storr, at least from the museum’s perspective, was that he is far too independent a figure to fit into Lowry’s vision of the Modern, with its highly centralized authority.

 

THROUGH ALL THE BUMPS OF the past decade, the one curator who has remained a constant figure is John Elderfield. He now holds the post of chief curator that Varnedoe once held, but it is that job only in name; the gap of a year or so between Varnedoe’s departure and the announcement of Elderfield’s appointment was surely intended to signal that Lowry had at long last broken the chain of curatorial command that ran from Barr to Rubin to Varnedoe. To museum goers who cherish the Modern’s permanent collection and worry about some of the museum’s trendier aspirations, Elderfield has long been viewed as the man you can depend on. His abiding interest in Matisse and his involvement with the work of Richard Diebenkorn suggest that he views modern art not as a break with the past so much as a distillation of the past or a continuation of traditional values by different means.

I have to admit that I have never been especially convinced by Elderfield’s view of Matisse. Some years ago, when he mounted a show of Matisse’s drawings, he wrote a catalogue so packed with reflections on the act of creation that Matisse’s creativity felt stifled. In his enormous Matisse retrospective in 1992, he seriously underestimated the importance to Matisse’s later thinking of his experiments with illustrated books and his work on the Vence chapel, all of which had long ago been recognized by Barr, his great predecessor in the study of Matisse at the Modern. Where Elderfield would be wise to diverge from Barr is in the latter’s downgrading of the work of the Nice period, which Barr probably chose to de-emphasize in part because it had been overemphasized by collectors in the 1930s and 1940s. By now, however, Barr’s obsession with Matisse’s most simplified works has become holy writ, and it is disappointing to see that Elderfield, in his current installation of Matisse from the permanent collection, continues to overlook the Nice period, although the Modern owns several stellar canvases from that time, which came from the William Paley collection.

Elderfield has never had much of an instinct for installing works of art; but then nobody at the Modern since William Rubin has had this mysterious gift, which involves a confounding combination of disinterested sensitivity and fearsome self-assurance, and Rubin has now taken his secrets with him to the grave. That Elderfield’s re-installation of the permanent collection was lacking in both poetry and lucidity did not come as much of a surprise. What has been encouraging in the past few months is that he has shown a willingness to honor an older tradition at the museum and listen to his critics. In at least three large galleries on the fifth floor, the installation has been immeasurably improved. Monet’s Water Lilies, which made a crushingly poor impression as originally installed in the atrium, has been hung in a gallery that to a large degree resurrects the room dedicated to Monet’s late work that was one of the legendary corners in the old museum. Next to this, he has re-hung Mondrian’s work in a gallery that is now devoted exclusively to this essential modern master. And next to that, Elderfield has devoted a gallery to Picasso’s work of the 1930s and 1940s, combining paintings, a sculpture, a collage, and some prints that offer an audaciously personal recapitulation of classical themes.

In his initial installation of the permanent collection, Elderfield made something of an effort to set aside the systematic unfolding of stylistic trends, often described as a cornerstone of modernist taste, in favor of a kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of works. He set Bonnard’s intimism near Picasso’s surrealism; he presented Mondrian not alone, but in the context of other constructivist and geometric work of the 1920s and 1930s. That Barr and Rubin, in their installations, often simplified the character of certain periods is beyond question. But what Elderfield’s willingness to move closer to their hangings suggests is precisely what many people have long suspected: that those older installations were based not on a refusal to accept complexity so much as on a recognition that the museum going experience requires a certain clarity. When Elderfield hangs Picasso’s meditations on the minotaur, those graphic works that have been a part of the Modern’s collection for generations, we are reminded that Barr and Rubin understood that Picasso, despite his magisterial formalism, was also a fervent storyteller. Elderfield’s willingness to recognize some mistakes, and to return to the museum’s more traditional configurations, is one of the few hopeful signs in what has been a deeply discouraging year.

The Museum of Modern Art was never quite the formalist stronghold that it is often believed to have been. Barr was extremely sensitive to the powers of metaphor and narrative, and Rubin, despite his sympathy for some of the most starkly distilled work of the past half century, gave in his exhibition “Picasso and Portraiture,” in 1996, what may be the most searching of all accounts of the workings of Picasso’s omnivorous imagination. While I am definitely one of those MoMA watchers who believe that the museum has as often as not overlooked the finest work of the past fifty years, it is a testament to the riches of the Modern as an ongoing center for the study of modern art that what often feel like the most urgent artistic questions turn out to be ones that the museum was exploring long ago. When “Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon” opened at the museum this fall, a lot of people were so struck by the extent to which this fin-de-siecle master of dreams and enigmas spoke to what they saw as contemporary art’s drift toward the fantastic and the bizarre that they came to believe the show reflected a new turn at the museum. The fact that the majority of the works on display had been recently donated by the Ian Woodner Family Collection served to underscore this view, but what is most fascinating about the Redon show is that it draws on a very early preoccupation of the Modern’s, with the development of near-abstract fantasy at least a generation before the coming of abstract art.

There were Redons in the collection in the early 1930s; a dozen of Redon’s works were included in the seminal “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” show in 1936; there was a show of his drawings and lithographs in 1952; he was featured in “Redon, Moreau, Bresdin” in 1961; and in recent years his work has hung near the beginning of the permanent collection. “Beyond the Visible,” which is a splendid show, builds on that rich museological history. There is a winning modesty about the presentation of the exhibition. Jodi Hauptman, the curator in charge, understands that the development of Redon’s art, which begins with decades of essentially monochromatic work and concludes with a burst of dazzlingly chromatic paintings, has its own dramatic force. This memorable exhibition bears comparison to great MoMA shows of the past. The curator clearly believes that the artist’s work can actually tell its own story, and the result is an exhibition of riveting poetic complexity.

IV.

THERE IS NO QUESTION that the founders of the Museum of Modern Art meant to establish an institution that would last. It is also unquestionable, as Lowry is so fond of pointing out, that they meant to create an institution that would constantly change. The question that now confronts the museum is in what ways it ought to last and in what ways it ought to change. For Barr, I think, the evolution of the museum was linked, in some deep philosophical way, to the dynamism of modern art itself, with its mysterious mingling of intense introspection and messianic ambition. It was the artists who would show the museum the way.

In 1954, when Barr wrote a description of Cèzanne’s Bather, a work that had already been in the collection for twenty years, what he chose to emphasize were the tensions in this strange male figure. ”Academically,” he wrote, “the drawing is poor, the right knee inexcusable, but seen as a whole the figure stands firm as stone.” And he went on to say that “Cèzanne, adapting a landscape from another picture, has again fumbled his naturalistic scale while achieving artistic grandeur.” Like the Greek kouros figures, those primary images in the classical accounts of Western art, Cèzanne’s Bather steps into the world. But the smiling confidence of the kouros has been riven with anxiety—the anxiety that bids the history of modern art begin. For Barr, Cèzanne’s awesome yet unsettling Bather, this painting that for decades welcomed visitors to the museum’s collection, must have been a constant reminder that nothing is simple, neither the making of a masterpiece nor the shaping of a great institution.

Today Cèzanne’s Bather is located far away from the entrance to the museum. You have to make your way from the first floor to the fifth floor to find it, and there you discover that it no longer has quite the central position that it had in earlier installations. There are surely visitors who proceed straight to the fifth floor, where the permanent collection begins, and just about everybody who visits the museum finds their way there eventually; but by the time you come upon the Bather you may also have the feeling that it has been kicked upstairs. In the current arrangement of the museum, visitors are urged to begin by exploring the vast second-floor galleries devoted to work from the past thirty years. Whatever the arguments in favor of the reverse chronological arrangement of the collection, which some may see as giving the beginnings of modern art an appealing ivory-tower remoteness, the salient fact about the new museum is that there is no longer any way even to begin to understand how the art of the present, on the second floor, might be related to the beginnings of modern art, which the Modern still identifies with Cèzanne, Van Gogh, and the other Post-Impressionists, who are up on the fifth floor.

The concern for continuity and tradition that continues to shape (albeit in a formulaic and dutiful way) the account of art between 1890 and 1950, on the fifth and fourth floors has been rejected on the second floor. A visitor wanders from a painting by Agnes Martin to a room in which a Thomas Tallis composition has been arranged to play on forty speakers by an artist named Janet Cardiff, and from there to a slide show of William Kentridge’s cartoonish drawings, to three mannequins that Yinka Shonibare has clothed in nineteenth-century women’s garments made out of contemporary African-style batiked cloth. The works here are tossed around with what feels like a here-today-gone-tomorrow informality. And this is more or less what is intended, according to Elderfield. “The art of the last thirty or so years,” he wrote in a guide published at the time of the re-opening, “is too recent to be presented in the form of a synthetic overview.”

Glenn Lowry, discussing the museum’s view of history, would have us believe that he and his curators are responding to the kaleidoscopic conclusions that contemporary artists and museum goers choose to draw from the art of the past. He has observed that the museum “is constantly revising the narrative of its own history,” and he has said that the museum is engaged in “a collective process of interlocking dialogues and narratives played out over a theoretically infinite number of lifetimes. Each thread, each experience, is part of an ever-expanding set of ideas and realities made concrete by the objects that the Museum collects and displays.” Lowry can certainly talk the talk. And when he speaks about “narratives” and an “ever-expanding set of … realities,” those buzzwords of postmodernism and relativism, he is telling us that the search for truth has become so hopelessly tangled that any account of art and its history will do. The fact is that the installation of contemporary art does not offer any of the threads that Lowry advises museum goers to trace back into the history of art. The second floor is like a sewing kit dumped on the floor and scattered.

 

‘WHO IS TO SAY WHAT is really important?” This is the question that Barr raised in the introduction to Masters of Modern Art, a survey of the collection published in 1954. Lowry may want us to believe that the controlled chaos of the second-floor installation is his staff’s carefully equivocal response to this question. But if this installation has a message, it is that nothing is particularly important, and if Barr knew full well that there was no absolute standard, he also knew that the intensity with which people argue about the relative importance of works of art is a sure sign that art is fueled by the loftiest aspirations. ”A leading authority on cubism,” Barr wrote in 1954, “still insists that a Mondrian is not a work of art at all; a devotee of Mondrian denounces the surrealism of Ernst and Dale as perversion of true art; a dadaist of 1920 finds the abstract expressionist of 1950 tedious…. Artists and their champions may indeed seem a squabbling banderlog of isms. But, actually, they are not.” And why not? Barr’s answer is exceedingly important, for what he is saying is that what matters in the present relates to what mattered in the past—that there are lines of force, evolutions, devolutions. ”Their differences are real and significant,” he explains, “slowly developed, passionately believed in, and expressive not simply of artistic convictions but often of deeply felt philosophies of life.” What has been erased at the new Museum of Modern Art is this sense of something (of anything!) that is slowly developed, that is deeply felt, that makes a connection between the past and the present.

Let us return to Barr’s question. “Who is to say what is really important?” For museum goers who have been visiting the Modern for decades, there can be a certain irony in that question, for it was after returning to the Modern over and over again that some of us realized that we did not always agree with Barr and Rubin. Of course, Barr would have said that that was precisely the point, just as long as everybody was in agreement as to how extraordinarily important a work of art could be. Dismayingly, this is no longer the case at the Museum of Modern Art. Lowry can write whatever he wants about narratives and realities, but the message that he has broadcast loud and clear is that in Lowry’s museum the only important work of art is the one for which a trustee can be persuaded to cough up a few million dollars—or the one that a tourist will plunk down the $20 admission fee to see. All that any longer matters is the health of the institution, by which we are to understand the box office, the cash flow, the revenue stream, the endowment. Considering that only a year has passed since the re-opening of the Museum of Modern Art, it may still be too soon to conclude that the operation was a success and the patient died. What is certain is that Glenn Lowry’s corporate medicine has left the Museum of Modern Art’s artistic mission on life support.

This article appeared in February 6, 2006 issue of the magazine. 

 

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posted in: guggenheim, san francisco, matisse, target, ubs, alfred barr, alfred h. barr jr., arthur drexler, barnett newman, broadway boogie woogie, donald b. marron, glenn d. lowry, glenn lowry was, jeff koons, jeff koons, joachim pissarro, joe milone, john elderfield, john szarkowski, kirk varnedoe, lincoln kirstein, louise nevelson, margit rowell, michael jackson, robert storr, stephen c. clark, wallace stevens, william paley, william rubin, manitoba, world health organization

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