PRINT February 2005

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh

TWO MAXIMS, PRONOUNCED BY TWO PHILOSOPHER critics who understood twentieth-century culture better than most, would seem to foil the work of all art historians but in particular that of the curator. The first one is Theodor Adorno’s claim that “each work of art is the fatal enemy of each other work of art.” And the second one, more complementary to Adorno’s view than opposed to it, is Roland Barthes’s alluring suggestion that each work of art deserves a “proper science all of its own.”

When I visited the “new” Museum of Modern Art on its seventy-fifth anniversary, these maxims immediately sprang to mind. For they speak to any spectator’s (or reviewer’s) simultaneous struggle with the Modern’s three major epiphanies: its collection (in particular its newly presented contemporary holdings), the installation of this collection (executed by a curatorial team working under the guidance of John Elderfield, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture), and the collection’s spatial and presentational shell and devices, the architecture of Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. No doubt it will be difficult to keep these domains distinct, no matter how much we’d like to. After all, one could ask, what do paintings by Cézanne and Matisse ultimately have to do with the ambitions of contemporary architecture?

This pedestrian question has already been posed by many a visitor—professional and amateur alike—confounded right from the start by a change in the collection’s circuit, which is a matter of both architecture and installation. Missing from the entrance to quarters housing its foundational nineteenth-century belongings is that familiar figure by the painter whom Matisse once identified as “the father of us all”—Cézanne’s The Bather, ca. 1885. This enigma of infinitely complex painterly quietism has lost its place as sphinx at the door to Paul Signac’s razzmatazz portrait of Félix Fénéon of 1890, a comparatively minor painting trumpeting divisionist color theory that also provides the first color plate in Elderfield’s monumental tome guiding readers through the collection. One might well want to greet Fénéon as MoMA’s perfect Penates, since he was in fact a quintessentially modernist personality. His career spanned from bomb-throwing anarchist to brilliant critic, from fervent supporter of Georges Seurat and Symbolism to director of Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. But rather than announcing a renewed commitment to modernism’s innate political radicality, the shift from bather to conjurer of colors—insignificant as it may be—more likely signals a desire to reignite modernism’s extinct embers under the auspices of spectacular sensation.

The visitors’ futile demand for continuity in the installation of the collection, as much as in the writing of the history of modernism, articulates, of course, one of the fundamental conflicts determining the experiential conditions of museum culture at large: that the museum claims to present transhistorical objects (e.g. the “canon,” the “masterpieces,” the “highest quality”) yet must subject these objects to perpetual change so that it can appeal to and accommodate the demands of new audiences, which in turn propel a continuous renewal of architectural framing. This appeal to ever-larger crowds with expanded motivations and reduced attention spans inevitably necessitates a shift in architectural size, design, and proportion of the display spaces. One new feature that responds to these needs at MoMA is the insertion of large metal-clad passageways not only linking the galleries (and breaking their historical precision) but also, most important, stringing the voracious spectator along a seemingly never-ending line of masterpieces. Crowd management (aspiring to receive several thousand visitors daily at twenty dollars a head) clearly had to be a major planning and design factor for the new Museum of Modern Art. Nowhere is the clash between the historical nature of the objects and the architectural task to accommodate greater crowds more painfully evident than in these fifth-floor galleries setting up the Modern’s trajectory in 1880 with Cézanne, van Gogh, Seurat, Gauguin. Previously that part of the collection was presented in relatively small rooms, which claimed—as William Rubin once stated, and certainly enacted in his installations—a large, bourgeois living room as their model. These modules had allowed for the separation of historical phenomena that, while contemporaneous, had in fact been distinguished by extreme oppositions and incompatible artistic convictions (e.g., Gauguin and Cézanne). Now, all of these founding fathers of modernism inhabit the same white Hall of Fame in a continuous line-up, forced to hang side by side, as though they had never fought for anything in particular anyway.

A second, separate set of problems has become more manifest in the new version of the old institution: the insistence on the law of the medium (concretized in the Modern’s traditional departmental divisions between painting and sculpture, drawing, photography, architecture and design). While Alfred H. Barr Jr. had originally emphasized the equivalence of these mediums after his return from a trip in the late ’20s to the Soviet Union and the Bauhaus, that law of introducing all the mediums into the museum now simply shores up an ever-more-conservative genealogy of modernism (not incidentally, in Elderfield’s introduction, Barr’s visit is foreshortened and simply has become “a visit to the Bauhaus in Germany”). What both the Soviet avant-garde and the Bauhaus had to different degrees projected was the gradual displacement of painting and sculpture by transitional design objects, aiming for practices that would generate a new collective experience in public space, and an opposition of use value to the presumed autonomy of the work of art.

In the otherwise breathtaking galleries of Cubism, reminding us of how much we all owe to Rubin for his acquisitions as much as for his scholarship on the subjects of Cubism, even the first and arguably the greatest object to cross the medium boundaries, Picasso’s monumental Guitar, 1912–13, apparently no longer merits its own wall, in the curators’ estimation. Guitar’s exemplary hybridity (between painting and object, between relief and readymade, between virtual and architectural space) seemingly has to be tamed and repictorialized, placed beside a large, framed collage that reinforces rectangularity. The same principle of domestication is applied to another epistemic and epochal object, Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column, version I, 1918: Lumped together in a more or less arbitrary cluster of Brancusi sculptures, the Column is stripped of the extraordinary egalitarian radicality (of seriality, of repetition, of sculptural abstraction) that would, forty years later, serve as the beacon of Minimalism. Had the sculpture been positioned in a space of isolated singularity—as was the good fortune of Brancusi’s infinitely more seductive and decorative Fish, 1930—it would have confronted bewildered viewers with the task of unraveling its intricately difficult agenda, in which perceptual and social transformation are fused together. And the furtive appearance of Gustav Klucis’s Maquette for “Radio-Announcer,” 1922, in a room reserved for MoMA’s treasures of Russian and Soviet abstract painting makes the principle of medium even more painfully obvious. As does the almost embarrassed display there of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s oval Spatial Hanging Construction no. 12, 1920, one of the collection’s prime historical objects, brought into the museum in one of Rubin’s many heroic acquisitive intuitions and the sole survivor of that seminal group of kinetic sculptures. Suspended in a poorly lit corner of that very same room, the piece attests to the utter failure of any order enforced by medium. The medium game equally fails when it comes to the display of Surrealism. Instead of releasing their radical powers of defetishization, these objects and photographs by Man Ray and Max Ernst, Meret Oppenheim and Joan Miró, presented in an accumulation of boxes of bric-a-brac, now generate the misreading that their apparent fetish character should be foregrounded. Finally, the eternally continued absence of John Heartfield from MoMA’s account of German Dada—in spite of his brief undercover appearance in the architecture and design section—and the consequential absence of anybody who might have taken him as a point of historical departure (from Hans Haacke to Martha Rosler, who once called the museum the “Kremlin of Modernism”) is the true scandal of the policy of medium quarantine.

What is at stake, clearly, is a recognition—after seventy-five years of disavowal on the administrative level—that a history of modernism cannot be written without taking the radical transformation of the distribution form of the work of art into account (a development that will never be understood when being presented as a problem of mediums). As the museum’s own recent exhibition history has amply proven (consider the outstanding 1998 Rodchenko retrospective curated by Peter Galassi, Leah Dickerman, and Magdalena Dabrowski, or the extraordinary 2002 exhibition “The Russian Avant-Garde Book: 1910–1934,” curated by Margit Rowell and Deborah Wye, to name but two instances), the progressive avant-gardes of the 1920s and 1930s in Weimar Germany, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union had been programmatically engaged in the deconstruction of the hierarchical laws of traditional mediums. One of their primary projects was the systematic transformation of the work of art from a singular auratic object into an agenda or archive for the new mass-cultural public sphere (e.g., the printed photograph in newspapers, magazines, and books). A departmental division that reestablishes the hierarchical order of the mediums, enforces—if nothing else—a manifest historical falsification, whose American version originated with the Greenbergian repression of the sociocultural projects of the agents of that avant-garde, from Mondrian to Lissitzky, from Rodchenko to Heartfield. Of course, we anticipate the adage that oil is eternal but photographs and paper are sensitive to light. Considering such instances in the installation, one confronts the question whether a curator can actually still be primarily committed to the history of art, or whether other regimes of vision inevitably interfere with curatorial identity today. One should note the fact that a tremendous amount of work has been done by younger scholars over the past twenty years on these questions, necessitating a revision of the law and order of the medium and the hierarchical structure that it enforces (needless to say, strictly along the lines of history and art history, not those of politics and ideology). And this change warrants a more extended consideration of audiences’ expectations and object-relations in the present.

In a deliberately misleading commonplace, the late Pierre Bourdieu, a great sociological analyst of spectatorial desire and behavior, once named the unfathomable phenomenon of our collective aesthetic passions “l’amour de l’art.” This love of art, like all other loves and other proto- or postreligious practices, is marred by more projections and problems than the eye can see. At the onset of the twenty-first century, we can assume without hyperbole that the aesthetic and emotional investment of one class of spectators shares next to nothing with that of another class, even while looking at the same object from the twentieth century in the same overcrowded spaces of the new Modern. In spite of the self-conscious claims that the institution of the Modern is integral to a liberal-democratic culture, internal and external factors inevitably overdetermine both the institution and collective spectatorial behavior in the present and challenge those claims. If one had seen the trustees at the gala preview (which I did not), and if one had seen “the masses” during the holiday season (which I did while preparing this review), one would presumably have had more evidence than necessary to recognize that the museum’s architecture and the museum’s pedagogical mission now confront extreme contradictions: to be liberal-democratic on the facade and plutocratic in the center. It is this schism between the museum’s pretense to function like an institution within the bourgeois public sphere and the actual governing principles of late-capitalist corporate spectacle culture that MoMA’s new building and any new installation of its classic collection would have to reflect, and reflect upon, if the institution itself does not want to become the blinded subject of these historical determinations.

This duress does not even result primarily from the drastic differences in social status of MoMA’s audiences (a trivial fact, by comparison) but rather from the dramatic transformations of perceptual behavior and object relationships that spectators have undergone in the last twenty years alone. The magnetism radiating from, say, a Jasper Johns painting all the way to New Jersey is first of all on the order of the economic mirage. Contemporary paintings that fetch unimagined sums in auctions operating as contemporary orgies of the public destruction of (private?) surplus value have surpassed the status of the trophy and now border on that of the miracle. Accordingly, they instigate mass pilgrimages to the museum’s house of wonders. Under those circumstances it has become more difficult to identify what, in that moment of sublime distinction that the encounter with a work of art supposedly provides, our “love of art” actually loves most. Nevertheless, even if we still wish to assume that the spectrum of spectatorial motivations and responses is one of almost infinite subjective and social difference, this is the field where the collection, the installation, and the architecture, as inherently pedagogical projects, would have to find their proper theater of operations.

If works in the Contemporary Galleries have not yet acquired this cult status of the multimillion-dollar object, pity is the appropriate term for them: They generate it partially because they reflect the naïve confidence of their makers in an art-world apparatus and museum institution that they apparently plan to inhabit as though times had not changed, and as though their privileged status as makers of “modern” art remains unconditionally guaranteed. It is also appropriate in response to the attempts of these artists to prolong the agony, to extend the lineage of painting and sculpture at least by an inch in endless epigonal maneuvers. In fact, the contemporary collection makes it painfully evident that not only the social character of the artist seems to suffer from a failure of historical nerves, but curators, collectors, and spectators alike appear equally desperate (for very different reasons, obviously) to hold on to a kind of object production whose time has come and gone long ago. What makes these objects so attractive to us in the museum (and at the same time so desperate) is their simulacral tangibility and fraudulent individuality (their lure of the subject’s intact autonomous vision, corporeal plenitude, and communicative capacities). They promise protection from the ever-intensifying incursions of a new technological imaginary, which not only enters and expands into every recess of our unconscious and conscious daily experience but also has captured and restructured the most intricate and intimate spaces of communication and social exchange. As long as artists (and the cultural institutions that represent them) fail or refuse to confront these conditions governing present experience, and in unforeseeably totalizing intensities in the future, neither the notion of artistic production nor the institution of the museum will escape the haut gôut of obsolete forms of production and communication presenting themselves as the latest horizon of hope.

One response to these new historical conditions governing the art world—and this applies to its artistic authors as much as its administrators—has been to embrace the principle of a totally noncommitted pluralism. It is not even clear whether that principle originated in political conviction or whether this default position simply resulted from both indifference and de-differentiation (of criteria, of judgment, of a commitment to history or anything whatsoever). However, it was bound to become increasingly difficult to maintain aesthetic judgment on the grounds of a principled indifference toward all criteria. Nothing could be more pernicious to the task of the historian and curator than a socially enforced attitude of pluralism, confounding the institutional requirement of political neutrality with the comfort to forfeit judgment altogether.

The first symptoms of this historically formed deficiency appear already in the for-the-most-part amazing spaces and installation of the collection’s postwar segments. Forcing Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept, 1957, by juxtaposition and proximity onto Frank Stella’s black painting The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, 1959, for example, is either a failure of curatorial competence when it comes to postwar European work at the Modern or an ill-informed impulse to rewrite an already convincingly established, even indisputable history—in this case the fact that Stella initiated American Minimalism from a dialogue with Johns and Ad Reinhardt. Similarly, forcing Hans Hofmann onto Ellsworth Kelly simply imposes a mad art-historical and theoretical scheme onto Kelly’s astonishing work, vandalizing the extreme subtlety of the artist’s project, which should, of course, accompany the work of his actual peers such as Johns and Twombly, whose projects were similarly opposed to the mythical virility of the Abstract Expressionist painters and their claims for unfettered originality.

This catastrophic loss of criteria plays itself out manifestly in MoMA’s curatorial choices when it comes to the acquisitions of contemporary work. The new installation of these acquisitions makes it painfully evident how difficult a task it must be to judge without discerning, to discern without criteria, to love art without a larger comprehension of cultural practice—to name but a few of the inevitable contradictions of the liberalist-pluralist model. (Or, if are we mistaken to assume that such a model is indeed operative, should we regress instead into the more paranoid, conspiratorial explanation that the hotchpotch quality and mediocrity of many of these contemporary acquisitions are mainly the result of hurried curators and desirous trustees, driven by their own forms of the love of art, to try out this, that, or the other and see whether and how it will fly?) The total lack of any cohesion in the Contemporary Galleries—from the abject banalities of Chris Ofili to those of Charles LeDray, from Josiah McElheny to Luc Tuymans, from Elizabeth Murray to Rachel Whiteread—proves not only that pluralism fails miserably when it comes to the judgment of artistic production, but also makes it clear that a culture without commitment to any criteria other than those of the rapid increase in exchange value cannot generate a sense of communication between artwork and audience.

This claim for the value-free neutrality of pluralism is, of course, also the standard of the Modern’s new architecture. We would be the first to felicitate the choice of Taniguchi as the architect of an epochal building. This commission could have easily turned into another nightmare of a postmodern architectural monomania that generally sees contemporary art not only as the inexhaustible source of its “inspirations” but also as the perfect object to be emulated and eventually extinguished within its own ambitious embrace. And yet, the hailed neutrality of Taniguchi cannot but provoke suspicion: Given the social circumstances of the present, what type of “publicness” and what kind of simultaneous collective perception could this neo-modernist architecture actually generate and sustain?

Three elements rupture Taniguchi’s vaunted neutrality and sacrifice of the megalomaniacal architectural self: the lobby in the manner of a corporate cathedral; the architectural reveals that make the walls appear as though they were floating (one wonders whether Taniguchi saw a 1973 work by Michael Asher at the Lisson Gallery in London, which programmatically dismantled and decontextualized the gallery’s architecture precisely to transform it into a set of floating display surfaces); and the windows opening onto the sudden vertiginous shafts of a negative sublime. Each of these aspects brings to the foreground the latent contradiction resulting from the crisis of subjectivity and the crisis of MoMA as an institution, which architecture could never possibly solve on its own: the tension between modernism’s traditional claim to constitute a self-critical subject determining itself within the spaces of the public sphere, and the actually governing conditions of an oligarchic spectacle-and-entertainment culture within which the viewer’s subjectivity has to position itself. Spectators may attempt to resolve this tension by turning into customers (at the museum’s opulent cafés or its impoverished bookstores) or by losing themselves in the vertigo of the cultural and architectural spectacle that will anaesthetize any remaining desire for the autonomy of the subject that modernist works had once universally promised. The sudden vistas from high elevations down into the Modern’s chasms—one side of the abyss inhabited by the Bell 47 D1 Helicopter, 1945, and the other by Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, 1963–69, as though they were causally connected—are exacerbated by the intensely vertiginous (and barely gated) visions down into the streets of Manhattan. These might remind visitors that it is no longer utopian progress and the subject’s emancipation that are at the center of our experience in the museum, but that spectacle and warfare have become the foundational elements of vision at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Benjamin H.D. Buchloh is an art historian and critic based in New York.