PRINT January 1999

World Report

millennium shows

BY THE TIME 2001 ROLLS AROUND, the sigh of relief will be universal. We’ll have survived the glut of exhibitions fluttering around the all-too-marketable flame of the millennium. And what, besides the likely desire never to hear the M-word again, will we have come away with? If the curators are to be believed, we may be left with a very different sense of what art is about. In all the march-of-the-century surveys coming to a museum near you, there seems to be a common curatorial gambit: shuffling the way art’s story gets told.

One prominent example is Robert Rosenblum’s “1900: Art at the Crossroads,” opening late this year at the Royal Academy in London and coming to the Guggenheim in New York, which will regather some 150 pieces from the Paris 1900 Exposition Universelle as the center of his show’s 300 works. Including artists from Madagascar to Martinique, Japan to Portugal, as well as such stylistic bookends as Bouguereau and Picasso and the Impressionists in between, the Exposition Universelle’s core statement was complication and collision—much as it will be in Rosenblum’s display. “I kept thinking what could I do for the year 2000 that would have grand epic sweep and also muddy the waters of art history,” Rosenblum says gleefully. “I want viewers to walk away thinking that the history of modernism has to be entirely rewritten. It’s time for a major housecleaning.”

No words should be more provocative to the longtime bastion of modernism, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, yet in the view of John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator at large, they’ve evidently become something of an anthem. Elderfield is overseeing a series of shows drawn from the collection, broken into historical cycles (1880–1920, 1920–60, 1960–2000) whose objects will fill three floors of the museum from fall ’99 through summer 2000. “In effect we’re saying that the Modern has been about telling one master narrative about this period of art,” Elderfield notes. “Now we’re going to attempt competing stories. In the first cycle, there will be no movements. We’ll ask the question, perverse as it is, Is it very useful to have something called Cubism that links Picasso and Metzinger rather than hanging Picasso next to Matisse or Mondrian next to Matisse?” (You can already hear Hilton Kramer’s blood pressure whining like a turbine.)

Beyond the battering of categories is the aggressive mixing of media. Photography, painting, objects of industrial design, film, sculpture, posters, video will be, in Elderfield’s word, “recontextualized?” Two ambitious shows display a similar verve when it comes to rethinking their particular histories. For October 2000, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is planning “Made in California: 1900–2000,” which will fill over 35,000 square feet of exhibition space with a century of California art and pop culture. The Whitney Museum of American Art will devote its entire building to its own survey, “The American Century,” a version of which will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (where David Ross, who originated the show when he ran the Whitney, is now director). Parsed by decades, the exhibition will focus on major themes—the response of artists to the Depression is one instance—with the years 1900 to 1950, curated by Barbara Haskell, on view from April through the fall, and the next fifty years, overseen by Lisa Phillips, on display until January 2000. As Haskell says bluntly, “The heyday of the formalist approach to art history is over.” Both she and Stephanie Baron at LACMA talk about these massive surveys as juggernauts meant, in Haskell’s phrase, to “summarize without simplifying, . . . illuminating the ideas expressed by art as a bellwether of culture.” Not a new idea, but the promised spectacle of so many objects and disciplines intertwined (art, dance, film, architecture, music, fashion, literature, and pop culture ephemera) broadcasts the breadth of their ambitions, no doubt influenced by the magnitude of the undertaking. “These are messy exhibitions,” Baron says. “The tremendous collaborative process of working with curators in all of our departments points to the future. That approach will take us far into the next century.”

Other millennial outings point that way. Consider the joint affair of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the New York Public Library entitled “Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World,” opening in Paris in October 2000, which gathers four hundred prints, etchings, drawings, paintings, photographs, and manuscripts. Or the huge “At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture,” now up in Mexico City after opening in Tokyo, and scheduled to reach its home base, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, in April 2000. Both orbit single subjects, striking from every angle of social and cultural history with a welter of materials. And these are only a sample of what’s to come. In Germany, there will be shows in Cologne, Bonn, Duisburg, and Düsseldorf museums under the title “Global Art Rhineland 2000,” as well as “Art of the 20th Century” at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Not to be outdone, Harald Szeemann is organizing his own spectacular to open at the Zurich Kunsthaus this August. What will he call it? What else? “The End of the World.”

Steven Henry Madoff is an editor at Time, Inc.