PRINT February 2005

Yve-Alain Bois

I HAD BEEN WARNED. FRIENDS OF ALL PERSUASIONS had told me that even if I did not find MoMA’s new architecture offensive, I would certainly object to the reinstallation of the collection. They mentioned troubling details as supporting evidence: Matisse’s Dance (I), 1909, in a staircase; David Smith’s Australia, 1951, pushed against a wall at the foot of an escalator; the dire and (by comparison) tiny space devoted to Conceptual art; Ellsworth Kelly’s Colors for a Large Wall of 1951 placed next to a generic late-’50s Hans Hofmann with colored rectangles; a large multicolored Judd floor piece thrusting diagonally across a room—even though the artist, to my knowledge, always presented his work on the orthogonal—and thereby squeezing another Kelly, this one a delicate white relief, on a wall busy with doors and other visual disturbances, etc., etc. Schadenfreude not being my thing, I was in no rush to inspect the disaster, especially after months of robotic praise from the New York Times. But after I finally paid the new MoMA an extended visit, I was left wondering, What’s all the fuss about? Even after experiencing the blunders mentioned by my friends, why did I feel so numb, so devoid of passion, that I couldn’t muster any anger? The answer, in the end, may have to do with the difference between the courageously bad and the commercially bland.

Let’s start with the architecture: It’s very tasteful, minimalist-chic. The detailing is as discreet as possible; the lighting generally excellent; the circulation not too coercive—three tremendous improvements over MoMA’s previous incarnation. Yoshio Taniguchi is rightly celebrated for the intelligent manner in which he managed to circumnavigate, without ignoring, the hideous Cesar Pelli tower (in the museum’s entrance lobby, it becomes an entropic black box) in order to link his new wing (baptized the David and Peggy Rockefeller Building) with the old Philip Johnson and Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone buildings (both entirely gut renovated, they now form the Ronald S. and Jo Carole Lauder Building). Taniguchi has also been deservedly commended for the numerous vistas he has cut onto the cityscape: Like the ha-has in a picturesque garden, they winningly punctuate the otherwise utterly predictable race through the galleries with welcome blips of surprise.

True, there are a few senseless features, starting with the colossal Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, a pure sumptuary expenditure, the sole practical function of which must be to host fund-raising events. But even it manages to look relatively subdued: One sees none of the vulgar brass or polished marble usually found in spaces of this kind in luxury hotels and corporate lobbies around the world. It should be said, however, that this hotel-lobby model does impinge on canvases by Monet, Brice Marden, and Agnes Martin, all of which look lost in the vastness like homeless decor tacked behind a busy front desk. As for Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, 1963–69, it survives only if you avoid looking at it from above, which you are invited to do from the multiple apertures and gangways that Taniguchi generously provided over his central void (a view that effectively undermines the great pains Newman took to invert his Obelisk in the first place). Another odd waste of space is the considerable volume rendered basically useless by an enormous ceremonial staircase connecting only the fourth and fifth floors, which are devoted to the historic, pre-1970 collection. The staircase seems designed mostly for photographs and views from below, since it connects two installations at midcourse and is therefore little used (a fact that seems doubly perplexing, given that the escalators, which are used, enjoy no such dazzling views). Despite its size, this interstitial space can only accommodate a few works on its two landings—the upper one, rather optimistically labeled the Riklis/Lindner Gallery, is home to Brancusi’s Fish, 1930, which faces Matisse’s Dance (I), hovering unapproachably over the stairs; the lower one, dubbed the Emily and Jerry Spiegel Gallery, houses two Diebenkorns and a Milton Avery seascape, as if to suggest that the effect of Matisse’s chromatic innovations on American art was pretty inoffensive after all. (I have heard the awkward hanging of Dance (I) defended on the grounds that this is how it would have been installed in the stairwell of the Russian collector Sergei Schukin’s Moscow palace. But this is a convoluted argument, since this particular painting was never destined for Schukin, who only commissioned two panels for his grand staircase after seeing it in Matisse’s studio, and it should be noted that Matisse deliberately intensified the colors when he worked on the second version of his bacchanal, in order to counter its inevitable toning down once inserted in Schukin’s pompous architectural setting.)

Waste is not confined to these ambulatory spaces but pervades the museum as a whole (with the notable exception of the third-floor galleries devoted to drawing, photography, and architecture and design, where lower ceilings and more intimate proportions feel soothing after the exhausting giganticism of the other floors). The sixth floor’s hangarlike space, usually reserved for temporary exhibitions, was empty when I saw it, but my guess is that it will have a dwarfing effect on whatever art is displayed there. MoMA’s curators may have been wary of this, hanging for the opening two of the largest works in the collection, Kelly’s enormous Sculpture for a Large Wall, 1957, and James Rosenquist’s famous yet rarely exhibited F-111, 1964–65. I wish I had seen this installation so as to test my intuition that the Kelly could easily withstand the scale of the room, since it was conceived for a large corporate lobby, while the Rosenquist—meant to exceed our visual field and shown in the past as a wraparound environment—must have looked a fraction of its actual size. The vast second-floor Contemporary Galleries are slightly less intimidating, perhaps because they are loosely subdivided and better lit (a fate one hopes will improve the temporary exhibition galleries upstairs). Yet still, the only works on view that can cope with the pressure of the architectural expanse are a giant gray Cy Twombly of 1970, Rachel Whiteread’s Untitled (Room), 1993, and Gordon Matta-Clark’s newly acquired Bingo, 1974, all three of which are dialectically boosted by the de facto miniaturization of the other works that swarm nearby. There is some irony to the gargantuanism of the galleries on these two floors, given that they are rumored to have been designed with Richard Serra’s large-scale works in mind, but they reduce his usually impressive Cutting Device: Base Plate-Measure, 1969, one of the masterpieces of post-Minimalism, to something like the contents of a schoolboy’s backpack spread on the floor.

Vastness aside, the most vexing spatial issue to my mind resides on the fourth and fifth floors. For all the millions spent on the new MoMA, there seems to be little, if any, gain in wall space for the “historical” collection (even though the floor square footage is probably slightly greater than before). The galleries are much more spacious, to be sure, but they are generally undivided thoroughfares, each with three openings onto its neighbors (save for a few culs-de-sac like the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund Gallery, the home of Italian Futurism). The awkward result is that, for all their spaciousness and easy flow, the galleries feel packed with paintings grouped by size, with proportionally little breathing space around them. Sculpture is the big loser in this section of the museum, which is why, perhaps, a greater number than before are parked in the restored Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, as if a mere accumulation outside—particularly of small works—could atone for the paucity of sculptures in the historic galleries proper. The Florene Schoenborn Gallery (more commonly and affectionately known as “the Matisse room”), which contains some of my all-time favorites, should have been relatively easy to install, given that it is one of only two monographic galleries, the other devoted to Pollock. Yet it represents the paragon of the pervasive dullness that characterizes the hanging of the historical collection as a whole. The five “Jeannette” heads of 1910–16 are aligned as before against a wall, as if in a shooting gallery, but now their serial arrangement is mimicked on the wall across the room by the row of great paintings from 1911–13, all vertical, all roughly the same size, all framed alike.

This layout is typical of the fifth floor, where paintings are serialized as if they had been translated and reduced into a kind of Esperanto, their common denominator being that they belong to a modern idiom that is prudently and ecumenically left undefined. We are never required to ponder each work’s specificity, never asked to think in terms of oppositions or ruptures. The fact that at any given moment we can glimpse what’s in store for us in the neighboring rooms adds to this sense of a desensitizing leveling off. For example, even before beginning to digest works by Signac, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, and the Fauves in the first room, the Mercedes T. and Sid R. Bass Gallery, you are already solicited by Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, in one adjacent space and, in another, by Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s large Standing Youth, 1913 (one of the few domineering sculptures in the installation). This axial installation logic is sometimes so emphatic that works can even be seen two galleries ahead, as in the case of Matisse’s Red Studio, 1911, which beckons from beyond the Lehmbruck, and later, in the case of Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis, 1950–51, hung in direct contradiction to the artist’s express stipulation that his large canvases not be seen from afar. By constructing these carefully framed views through doorways, the curators seem bent on impelling us along our journey, rather than encouraging us to linger over the works where we are. One could say that this privileging of what comes next over where you are now befits an electronic age where people flit from one channel to the next, but I hopelessly cling to the idea that museums should be resistant pockets of contemplation and study.

It could also be said that none of this is so bad. Contrary to what one might have feared after the disastrous thematic hodgepodge of “MoMA2000,” the three-part exhibition with which the museum ushered in the twenty-first century, few of the impromptu juxtapositions between rooms are jarring, while, on the whole, chronology is respected without being obtrusive. But this is precisely my main point of contention: Because of the equal availability of a multitude of problematics, styles, movements, and individual enterprises at any given moment in the course of one’s visit, one is left with the odd impression that such a diversified field of practices—far from having been the terrain of multiple and deadly serious conflicts—was merely a “pluralistic” cornucopia wherein everything cohabited harmoniously. I should say that I have nothing a priori against perturbing chronology or making jarring juxtapositions, if done for a purpose. For example, in “Modern Starts,” the first part of the “MoMA2000” trilogy, I liked the hanging of Matisse’s eerie Blue Window, 1913—the painting that first prompted André Breton to write about art—next to a metaphysical de Chirico, which drew out often-overlooked qualities in Matisse’s work and suggested truly meaningful connections across diverse pictorial modes.

The logic now, though, is that of tourism and entertainment, since the collection is presented as a series of landmarks seen at a rapid pace. The proliferation of masterpiece vistas recalls the lure of Europe in five days or, in Disneyworld’s reconstruction of it, just a few hours. (You like the Eiffel Tower? Wait ’til you see the Grand Canal!) MoMA is simply following an international trend here, with more clout than its peers (the twenty-dollar entrance fee notwithstanding, the permanent collection has never been so crowded). The paradox of the touristic mode of display, particularly odd given the formidable riches of MoMA’s collection, is that one constantly feels as if in a small provincial museum (say, the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University) proudly exhibiting its limited treasures. (In this sense, the difference between the new installation of the collection and the temporary “best of ” presentation in Queens—where in one long view you could see from Mondrian to Christopher Wool—is only a difference in degree, not in kind.)

The current installation has no punch, no rhythm, no strong moment. Even if key works abound, they are deadened by the metronomic regularity of the spaces (all galleries of the same mold) and of the uncommitted hanging. This is meant to induce a steady flow, not to arrest (the one exception is the extraordinary gallery featuring Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Twombly, a rare case where curatorial discrimination is perceptible for having remained focused). A particular case in point is furnished in the Contemporary Galleries: Why bother showing just one painting among the fifteen that constitute Gerhard Richter’s “October 18, 1977,” the indivisible 1988 series being one of the most spectacular works acquired by the museum in the last decade? True, exhibiting the ensemble would have decreased the amount of space available to present other artists, but given the work’s themes of terrorism and state violence, it would have made a much better case for MoMA’s commitment to contemporary art than the potpourri of mostly second-rate works with which it filled its second-floor galleries. By the same token, it’s a shame that after a multimillion-dollar expansion an iconic work like Rosenquist’s F-111 has already been consigned to storage, another fatality of MoMA’s inclusive, pluralistic vision.

One of the main causes of the blandness I deplore is probably the will of the curators to distance themselves from Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s legacy, which was pursued by William Rubin and, to a lesser extent, Kirk Varnedoe. This implied, among other things, avoiding or at least softening the linear, teleological, and even authoritarian account of modernism that Barr and Rubin (the latter with Greenberg’s occasional help) had shaped into the ruling narrative: Lashing out against the prevailing Whiteness of the Male (or the maleness of the whale) is the easiest route for such an aggiornamento. I noted above that monographic rooms are almost entirely abolished, and Picasso is the most spectacular victim of downsizing in this regard. The soul of MoMA’s modernist canon, he was previously shown forcefully to bridge Cézanne with Constructivism, Surrealism, and even Pollock. But now, despite the inclusion of a large number of his works, he seems somehow almost inconspicuous, as if everywhere and nowhere at once. (Perhaps we were supposed to be appeased by the remarkable cleaning of the Demoiselles, whose coloristic high pitch and textural diversity are now in full view.)

Another sign of the commitment to diverge from MoMA’s previous gospel is the noticeable inclusion of many works by Latin American artists. Despite an early endorsement (exemplified by Diego Rivera’s 1931 retrospective, second only to that of Matisse), this part of the world had all but vanished off MoMA’s radar after Nelson Rockefeller abandoned his failing strategy of using the museum as a lobbying tool for the interests of Standard Oil in Mexico and Venezuela, as art historian James Oles has argued. At times this new dedication feels forced: Is it really important to show a generic Cubist portrait by Rivera along with Picasso’s and Braque’s most glorious 1912–13 collages? But in a gallery dedicated to the early ’60s and dominated by Frank Stella’s Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II, 1959, it is indeed refreshing to discover one of Mathias Goeritz’s “Messages” of the same year and two of Jesús Rafael Soto’s early “Vibrations,” 1959–60, an oxymoronic combination of Dubuffet’s materialism and Vasarely’s optical illusions. And, finally, in the concluding gallery of the historical overview, Hélio Oiticica’s Neoconcrete Relief of 1960 reminds us that the story of the shaped canvas needs to be revisited, just as his Box Bolide, 1964–65, tells us that American post-Minimalism does not have a monopoly on the anti-form.

I should add that Latin America is not the only geographic region to benefit from MoMA’s sudden openness: Postwar Europe also gains a lot of exposure. And here, too, the results are mixed. The addition of a pitiful R.B. Kitaj, a mediocre Richard Hamilton, and a late Jacques de la Villeglé to the museum’s insipid serving of American Pop does nothing to spice it up. As elsewhere, this hanging is merely a buffet-style sampling without an armature: two Lichtensteins separated by a Rosenquist and a Ruscha; two Oldenburgs at opposing corners; and several Warhols dispersed throughout the room. Given MoMA’s considerable holdings in American Pop, it should have been easy to make a choice that, while concentrating on one or two themes or formal strategies, could have given some idea of what the movement was about. But in the room with Soto, Goeritz, and Stella, a small tribute is finally paid to Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, and Yves Klein (each, unfortunately, with a prime and a second-rate work), as well as to Dieter Roth and Günther Uecker—suggesting, albeit all too timidly, that if Stella and Judd could in 1964 condemn European art for its reliance on late-Cubist compositionality, it was sheer ignorance on their part, as Judd himself later acknowledged.

Such correctives are welcome, needless to say, but they hardly stir the waters. Indeed, the entire installation, including the Contemporary Galleries, is geared toward the avoidance of a clash of any sort. This sanitization is perhaps most manifest in the Edward Steichen Photography Galleries: Even though they contain a fair amount of shots that one would characterize as prime examples of photojournalism, one cannot but be struck by the near absence of images dealing with the tragedies in which this century abounds. A few exceptions include a 1944 Robert Capa photo of a shaved female collaborator surrounded by a hostile crowd in Chartres; Eddie Adams’s famous and horrifying 1968 photo of a South Vietnamese police officer shooting a Vietcong at point-blank range; an anonymous photograph of a demonstration against the military draft in Paris in April 1914; a few others portraying the misery of the Great Depression; as well as images by Louis Hine, Héctor García, and Shomei Tomatsu. I may have forgotten a few images, but that’s nearly all out of more than two hundred photographs. The repression of history is almost absolute in MoMA’s account of the development of photography. True, this has long been the case, especially under the rule of John Szarkowski, former director of the Department of Photography, but things had loosened up a bit lately, perhaps under the pressure of current scholarship. This makes it all the stranger to find that we are now back in the purely formal and rarefied land of photography as the slick, immaterial substitute of down-and-dirty painting. And one could say the same about the repression of the human body in the Steichen galleries—no more eros here than thanatos. These omissions only help to reinforce the illusion, as in the painting rooms, that modern art was merely a panoply of complementary ideas, because it has no context whatsoever—or rather, no context outside itself. To begin redressing this issue, MoMA would have to abandon its principle of departments strictly delineated by media, something that seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Although most of the curators’ decisions discussed above were aimed at politely redressing Barr’s dogmatic views, they end up as timid as he was on most scores (perhaps even more so) and just as embarrassed in their treatment of Dada and Russian Constructivism. It’s a good idea to show these two movements together in the Patricia and Gustavo Cisneros Gallery, given their parallel attacks on the institution of art, but that emphasis is lost as their agitprop antics are reduced to mere decoration. Meanwhile, the various realist movements that in the ’20s and ’30s offered a counternarrative to the modernist mainstream still remain a hot potato—thus the piling up in a single gallery of the Mexican muralists Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros, the Neue Sachlichkeit painters Otto Dix and George Grosz, plus Oskar Schlemmer, Max Beckmann, and, most bizarrely, Jacob Lawrence. An argument could be made that these works, despite their stylistic diversity and contrasting political content (from the Mexicans’ die-hard communism to Grosz’s nihilism to Schlemmer’s reactionary dream of a New Man) have much in common, but the room is too small and the gathering too scant for this story to be adequately told. It is yet another example of a curatorial attempt to muddy the modernist waters without making any waves, and despite the brilliance of several of these works, we will remember them as just a crop of figurative paintings.

The question is why. Why in this day and age such curatorial timidity, which inadvertently makes us regret the strong stance of a Barr or a Rubin? The answer is the same as with any other branch of the culture industry, and Hollywood in particular: MoMA has become, like museums everywhere at an ever-growing pace, a corporate entity, and a universal corporate law is No ripples, please. (Here we might recall Rem Koolhaas’s audacious proposal for the museum’s renovation, in which he pointedly dubbed one portion of his design “MoMA, Inc.”) MoMA used to be heralded as an exemplary foil to the Guggenheim Museum, with its crass commercial and expansionist behavior, the rental of its collection, and the sale of its masterpieces. But it’s hard to defend the Modern’s superior ethics after the scandalous “de-accessioning” of Picasso’s incomparable 1909 Houses on the Hill, privately sold to Heinz Berggruen to help fund new acquisitions such as a late (and generic) Francis Bacon triptych, not to mention the hefty “lending fee” that the museum reportedly earned after sending its collection to Berlin.

Would the old MoMA have so shamelessly planned the inauguration of its temporary-exhibition galleries with the celebration of a corporate donor? Perhaps it’s näiveté on my part, but I doubt it. Yet now, “Contemporary Voices: Works from the UBS Art Collection” opens this month with a catalogue containing an interview between none other than MoMA’s director and Donald Marron, founder of the collection, museum trustee, and namesake of the soaring new atrium. And with this full-fledged transformation of MoMA into a beacon of corporate culture comes a surge in the power of its trustees—most of them CEOs or heirs of large companies. This is not to say that trustees directly impinge on curatorial choices. In his introduction to Modern: Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present, a volume that celebrates MoMA’s seventy-fifth anniversary and its reopening, John Elderfield makes a sly remark about the “dangerous step” the museum took in 1929 when it let the trustees choose the artists included in “Nineteen Living Americans.” His innuendo is that this has never since been the case. No need for that: Self-censorship is efficient enough. One need not concoct conspiracy theories about Ronald Lauder demanding that no less than five works figuring in the Contemporary Galleries (by Gerhard Richter, Blinky Palermo, Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero e Boetti, and Sigmar Polke) be credited as gifts, partial gifts, or promised gifts of his. He wouldn’t have to, since the museum knows that highlighting such largesse will help ensure that it continues.

By now, the reader must have noticed my deliberately annoying device in the preceding pages of mentioning the names with which various galleries are emblazoned. A few spaces in the old MoMA were named, and they retain their original labels: for example, the Edward Steichen Photographic Gallery, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. But now almost every gallery is crowned with a huge inscription informing us in petto about the amount of money lavished on the museum by this or that member of the Fortune 500. Amazingly, there is still a short list of available galleries whose godfathering is for sale. (My advice to billionaires: Don’t wait too long, lest only the restrooms and elevators be left up for grabs.) Depending on whether just one portion or the whole of the Contemporary Galleries is dedicated to Kirk Varnedoe (the sole new space celebrating a scholar—an exception in this baptismal frenzy), I counted seven unnamed spaces in total, all located on the fourth and fifth floors. While it’s unlikely that artworks are assigned in perpetuity to particular rooms, which will no doubt change over time, it’s still easy to imagine that at present some of these receptacles (like the pitiful Conceptual art room) would be a hard sell; others, on the contrary, would win handily on the auction block, such as the Rauschenberg/Johns/Twombly jewel.

This is not to condemn en bloc, of course, the structure of private philanthropy from which museums benefit so much in this country and on which they largely depend, given the lamentable lack of public funding for the arts (particularly at the federal level). But while it was an act of courage for a Lillie P. Bliss or an Abby Aldrich Rockefeller to found the museum in 1929 and to remain indefatigable in their support throughout their lives—probably gaining little for their own reputations among their peers or the growth of their families’ businesses—today there is nothing risky about such patronage, which has become little more than a social function for the affluent. The shame about the new MoMA is not so much its embarrassment of riches but rather its loss of nerve.

Contributing editor Yve-Alain Bois is Joseph Pulitzer, Jr. Professor of Modern Art and chair of the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.