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PRINT January 1998

International News

the Moderna Museet

THOUGH 1958 is given as the founding date of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, the institution really came to life in the early ’60s. That was when Pontus Hulten, its first director, energized the place by forging relationships with such figures as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jean Tinguely, staging a pioneer survey of Pop art, and assembling the basis of what is now one of Europe’s leading contemporary collections. In 1973 Hulten left his native Sweden to jump-start the Centre Georges Pompidou. The Moderna Museet, meanwhile, began to lose its edge.

That’s a trend the institution’s new director, David Elliott, plans to reverse. “I want to get living artists back in the place, to start collecting the art of now, and to begin researching again,” says the British art historian, who migrated to Stockholm in November 1996 after two decades at the helm of Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art. There he oversaw a diverse program that featured shows ranging from contemporary art in Japan to ’60s Soviet Socialist Realism, and exhibitions that covered artists from El Lissitzky and Sol LeWitt to Susan Hiller and Jac Leirner. The fact that Elliott’s a new arrival on the Swedish scene is hardly a problem, he maintains.

While Hulten made the most of the onetime military drill hall and gymnasium that housed the institution, Elliott has the luxury of a far grander space—in February he’ll inaugurate a $60 million building by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo that is ten times the size of the museum’s most recent quarters. Meanwhile, the former gym, after renovation, will become part of the Architecture Museum, which will share an entrance, bookshop, and auditorium with the Moderna Museet.

One of the greatest challenges, says Moneo, was to create a 270,000-square-foot edifice that would respect the beauty of Skeppsholmen, the verdant islet (a ten-minute stroll from the city center across a bridge) that is home to the Moderna Museet. The architect won the commission with his proposal for a long structure that barely brushes the treetops, hiding two-thirds of its volume (including administrative offices) underground while leaving much of the building, nestled in a hillside, exposed to natural light. “It’s fundamentally discreet,” he says.

Still, the greenish-gray color of the proposed building was a bit too discreet for some in the city, who envisioned a livelier hue, like yellow. Politicians got involved—the museum is, after all, government financed—and, after some seven trips to discuss color samples, Moneo settled on a Mediterranean terra-cotta. “Sweden is a place that’s open to listening to different groups and constituencies,” the architect says diplomatically.

Within, square and rectangular galleries of varying sizes are “bundled” into discrete fragments that break up the larger structure. “It’s a little like a maze,” says Belen Moneo, a New York resident (and the architect’s daughter) who, with husband Jeff Brock, was an architect on the project. “You never know where you’re going to end up.” Each gallery has a pyramidal roof topped by a rectangular skylight poking out of the building like a lantern. By night, the lights seem to be floating in the sky. (The fact that the louvers are made of thick steel is no accident—in 1993 three men, perhaps inspired by the 1955 French film Rififi, sawed through the museum’s roof, rappelled its walls, and helped themselves to Braques and Picassos worth $60 million, one of the largest art heists in history.)

The first big exhibition scheduled in the new quarters is “Wounds: Between Democracy and Redemption in Contemporary Art” (February 14–April 19), which Elliott is curating with Italian critic Pier Luigi Tazzi. Featuring more than sixty artists, the show addresses a contradiction of Modernism—that art is seen as a positive, creative force even though it often registers social and personal rupture and pain. Beginning with Géricault’s 1818 studies for The Raft of Medusa and Munch’s 1907 Death of Marat II, it jumps ahead to work by figures including Jannis Kounellis, Matthew Barney, and Jake and Dinos Chapman. “Wounds” is followed by “Joan Miró: A Creator of New Worlds” (May 9–August 30).

Robin Cembalest is arts editor of The Forward.