PRINT January 2020


View of “Frank O’Hara, Lunchtime Poet,” 2019–, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

RECENTLY, I was in conversation with a film-studies professor who expressed consternation over her unanticipated difficulty convincing an incoming class of students of Dogme 95’s importance during the 1990s. More precisely, this professor was finding it nearly impossible to render for a younger generation just how transgressive this Lars von Trier–led group had been when it eschewed the staid conventions of studio camerawork in their films for an unfixed point of view. For these students, as she observed to me, it was simply proving hard to grasp how such technical shifts might ever have been jarring. The visual lexicon—radically subjective, radically unstable—was by now quite widespread and common throughout culture. (Literally billions of us walk around with a camera in hand.) Indeed, and perhaps of greater consequence, it was no longer being seen, or understood, in relation to any foundational, firm, and set vocabulary against which the mode had been originally conceived in meaningful counterpoint. The initial prompt had been lost.

Joan Jonas, Mirage, 1976/1994/2005, props, stages, photographs, six videos (black-and-white, sound and silent, durations variable). Installation view, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2019. Photo: Robert Gerhardt.

Such generational leaps constitute a familiar trope. Yet for me the anecdote came to mind when considering the Museum of Modern Art’s new galleries, particularly with respect to their immediate reception—as well as a sense that the installation is less about any perspective introducing a revolutionary break than about one finally coming of age. When the museum last expanded, a decade and a half ago, so many critical dinner-table debates revolved around where the collection’s story began: Should the first painting on view have been Paul Signac’s portrait of Félix Fénéon, or was the absence of Manet there—with all his canvases’ resonant realism and politic—a missed opportunity? But the matter of modernism’s inception is hardly the locus of interest for audiences now. Moreover, the present layout of galleries does not unfold according to any sequential narrative thread so much as it creates so many different compartments, spatializing a sense of parallel, contemporaneous, and diverging historical passages (even if these are sometimes recognized as such only in the corner of the eye) among geographies, cultures, and disciplines. In this regard, a monolithic, citadel modernism and its aftermath fall away, as has been rightly contemplated for quite a while. At the same time, receiving new recognition are many figures whose reputations have actually been percolating for some years within art circles. (To choose just one of sentimental value for me, I think of how the inclusion of a room devoted to Frank O’Hara’s poetry—and its inspiration for Jasper Johns—might seem a surprising addition in a minor mode, until one considers O’Hara’s renewed impact on art-world dialogues around constructed subjectivity and “feeling” during the past decade.)

Jacques Tati, Playtime, 1967, 70 mm transferred to 4K video, color, sound, 124 minutes.

Of these artists, there are also a few who shift the spectrum of the white cube to other registers, as in the single darkened gallery on the floor dedicated to the ’40s through the ’70s that houses film and video by Joan Jonas along with her sculptural platforms and objects, which double in sensibility and purpose as sets and props. The space is nestled within the collection’s floor plan, and its fundamental ambiguity is easily contagious, creating a phenomenological prompt of sorts to offer some implicit elaboration on the surrounding galleries’ compartmentalization of histories—quietly cultivating by proximity the impression that each one also operates as a kind of set piece or stage area. In fact, the resulting, gently Brechtian disorientation experienced by viewers passing through the rooms, wondering sometimes just which way to go, is decidedly underlined by the projection of six minutes of Jacques Tati’s Playtime, 1967—an inclusion from beyond the circumscribed boundaries of art that is witty by one measure but incisive by another for implying how the viewer her- or himself is now the character animating any gallery. If the modern museum’s conceit, once upon a time, was to shepherd audiences through a kind of processional, positing the viewer’s present at a historical end point, here the “end” is, in a sense, nowhere in sight. Or, better, it is wherever viewers choose to stand.

David Tudor, Forest Speech, 1978–79. Performance view, Museum ofModern Art, New York, October 24, 2019. Installation: David Tudor, Rainforest V (variation 1), 1973–2015. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

It’s through such a prism, I think, that one might from the outset usefully surmise MoMA's new Studio, whose basic contiguity with fourth- and fifth-floor gallery spaces is its most immediately identifiable trait, allowing performance to be presented with all its requisite technical infrastructure right alongside any other room’s display of physical objects. The elegant space has surely been conceived in response to a growing recognition of performance’s role among all the contemporary arts as a source of dialogue and inspiration. As with all such recent embraces by institutions, one is excited by such recognition while also concerned by the possibility of an overriding sameness taking over a discipline known for its contrapuntal specificity. (Though, in this respect, the flexibility of the space here bears noting, given how it may be sealed off to become a black box, producing occasions of cordoned intimacy within an otherwise massive building. The modesty of its scale, adhering to the contours of the original American Folk Art Museum structure, where the Studio is housed, might create some cramped moments for productions, but it is noteworthy for gravitating toward the small within the large.) And the Studio’s creation will give the museum an apparatus with which to present work not only by an emerging generation of artists for whom an interdisciplinary approach is of greatest interest, but also by practitioners who possessed such a sensibility at an earlier juncture. The decision to first occupy the space with David Tudor’s 1973–2015 Rainforest V (variation 1) installation, realized with Composers Inside Electronics Inc., is keenly attuned to the moment in this respect, having been conceived and developed as an object and instrument amid a peer group including Cunningham, Cage, and Rauschenberg, and utilized at MoMA by younger composers like C. Spencer Yeh, Sergei Tcherepnin, and Marina Rosenfeld—when its parts were not left alone and understood more immediately as sculptures.

If the modern museum’s conceit, once upon a time, was to shepherd audiences through a kind of processional, positing the viewer’s present at a historical end point, here the “end” is, in a sense, wherever viewers choose to stand.

Yet more subtly provocative and consequential, if less proclaimed, is the growing familiarity among audiences with the roles they themselves take on when entering such a space: the increasing cognizance of how they move, which may bend back into the experience of other spaces, lessening any sense of an atmospheric shift among them. The Studio may be slight in scale, but it manifests as a kind of “tell” for the rest of a museum heading into the third decade of the twenty-first century, giving clarity to the staging throughout the rest of the spaces. If the Studio is indeed at the “heart of the museum,” to cite MoMA's promotional materials, its existence says everything about the very altered nature of circulation within that institution. In fact, the Studio’s appearance makes complete sense, but only as part of the same larger shift in perception and experience—subjective and unstable—that makes Dogme 95 no longer seem so remarkable to eyes today. 

Tim Griffin is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.