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Red-Hot MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Yoshio Taniguchi, architect

1.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has changed radically over the years since it was founded in 1929 and moved into its own building on 53rd Street in 1939. What is most striking in the new building that has just opened is the change of scale. For it is, indeed, a new building. The original one on the same site by Edward Durell Stone underwent two successive expansions, in 1964 by Philip Johnson and 1984 by Cesar Pelli. The last was a spectacular failure: it mainly increased the number of small and rather intimate enclosed spaces used to show pictures, and the effect was numbing. The lobby, in the style of a commercial mall, with a highly visible escalator that obstructed the view of the much-loved sculpture garden, did not help. And the space was rapidly seen to be insufficient for the needs of the institution. Having purchased the adjacent Dorset Hotel, the board decided that this time the museum should not be just expanded, but largely gutted and rethought. The result is a grand and elegant creation that incorporates the old façades on 53rd Street but completely transforms the interiors and the garden façades on 54th Street. The architect, Yoshio Taniguchi, a surprising and controversial choice, was known up to then only for his imaginative designs for museums in his native Japan.

The new home for the museum acknowledges the fact that MoMA is no longer a small enterprise promoted by a restricted number of patrons and professionals. The original intellectual impetus came from Alfred Barr, but also from the young architect Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the architectural historian. Remarkably, photography was included at the outset thanks to Edward Steichen, at a time when the artistic establishment still mostly refused to accept it as an art. Cinema, which commanded even less respect, was added by 1935. These decisions were audacious. MoMA began as the project of a small group of people united by aesthetic convictions, among whom members of the Rockefeller family were the dominant force. There was little revenue outside philanthropic contributions, and the small building was rarely crowded. The new one, however, can accommodate an average of two thousand visitors a day, and a high admittance charge ($20, as of now) is crucial for running it.*

The new MoMA is conceived on a large scale and it is complex in response to the numerous demands made upon it to show different kinds of artworks from different periods of the modern movement. It is not entirely finished. The eastern part of the construction, which will house both a formal restaurant and a research center and library, will open later. The 53rd Street façade, flush with the rest of the block, is largely the same as before, showing the three successive stages of the building, visually preserving its history. On the 54th Street side, Taniguchi has made an entirely new setting for the sculpture garden, which is preserved but with a somewhat different selection of exhibits. Along 54th Street, the garden wall is more like a fence just one floor high, allowing the passersby a view of the upper part of the museum.

The visitor can enter from either 53rd or 54th Street through a public passageway (something like the passageway between the new sculpture courtyards of I.M. Pei’s Louvre). As we turn from the passageway to enter the museum space, we have a view of the sculpture garden, and ascend several steps to a platform dominated by Rodin’s Balzac, centrally placed on the ground (unfortunately with no pedestal). Turning again we mount an imposing flight of stairs (there are also elevators and escalators tucked away) and arrive at a vast space, which rises to the full height of the building. Here Barnett Newman’s huge Broken Obelisk has been sited in the center to breathtaking effect. The galleries on this level are surprisingly large and are devoted to contemporary works.

The collection has been organized in reverse chronological order going up. The sixth floor at the top, reserved for temporary exhibitions, is a huge open space with a span of roughly 150 feet, now mostly empty. It can of course be subdivided, but at the moment it accommodates two enormous works, James Rosenquist’s F-111, an eighty-six-foot-wide painting on canvas with twenty-three sections, and Ellsworth Kelly’s Sculpture for a Large Wall of 1957, a sixty-five-foot-wide composition of colored aluminum plates. The fifth and fourth levels are devoted to the permanent collection up to the 1970s—in other words to the art considered more or less consecrated as part of the modern canon. The third level has spaces specifically allocated to the departments of architecture and design, photography, drawings, and smaller special exhibitions. The contemporary works on the second level are placed in two huge and connected spaces; nearby is a gallery for videos as well as exhibition spaces for prints and illustrated books.

This autonomy of the different departments is traditional at MoMA; other museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, have been showing together different genres such as drawing, painting, and sculpture, on grounds that this is more historically sound. MoMA exhibits a few works on paper in the room showing other German Expressionist art, but much more could be done.

2.

No one should underestimate the difficulty and complexity of reconfiguring an enormous enterprise like MoMA. Any reservations about the result must be seen in proportion to the extraordinary accomplishment. The major problem facing the museum is the allocation of space, and developments in art since MoMA was founded in 1929 have created a variety of difficulties for the display of art. This was to be expected. Works of art either respond to the demands of the setting they are made for or make their own demands on space, and radical changes have taken place in both respects during the past two centuries.

Most historians see modern society arising in the late eighteenth century with Romanticism, the French Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. It is also, not coincidentally, when the museum was born, providing a specific public space for art. The Louvre first opened in 1793, and in 1818 MoMA’s predecessor, the first museum of contemporary art, was founded in the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. (Around this time in 1811, John Soane designed, in Dulwich, the first building intended specifically as a public museum.) The conception of the autonomy of art, the idea that art was only accountable to its own principles, which had first appeared in the sixteenth century, took on a new force. Before the end of the eighteenth century, large paintings of religious and historical subjects with life-size figures were intended to serve a function in the churches and palaces in which they were shown. From Géricault to Courbet, however, painters often exhibited huge paintings that were only appropriate for a museum, like Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, which ended up at the Louvre only five years after its first appearance at the Salon of 1819, or the Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix, which had to wait a long time for this distinction.

In the later nineteenth century, however, with the radical alienation of “independent” art, as it was known, from official institutions including museums, the Impressionists and other artists of the modern movement produced only works that would fit into private interiors. The dealers’ galleries, which took over from public exhibitions, were on the same scale as private residences. Picasso, the paragon of modern art, painted only one picture on a very large scale, his Guernica of 1937, an obvious and unique return to the tradition of grand history painting. The spaces of the 1939 Museum of Modern Art were modeled on private houses rather than on the vast galleries of the Louvre or other major museums.

Then the situation changed. In reaction to what was felt as the domestication of avant-garde art, and its all too easy acceptance and preemption by rich collectors and institutions, artists began to produce works that made new demands on viewers and on their environment. Already by the 1950s and 1960s some huge canvases became harder to accommodate in the intimate rooms of the original MoMA. Minimalism intensified this. Works like Tony Smith’s 1962 sculpture Die—a six-by-six-by-six-foot steel square—or the light pieces of Dan Flavin not only demand a great deal more space than a moderately large Picasso like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but are not compatible with the presence of other works. They often require isolation, a room of their own. (In the new MoMA, a sculpture by Donald Judd and a work by Ellsworth Kelly on the wall behind it are, in fact, given an entire room to themselves.) The art trade of New York responded to this trend. By the 1970s many galleries abandoned the traditional spaces available in midtown Manhattan and the Upper East Side, which were like the rooms in private houses, and moved to SoHo where they adapted large commercial spaces for the display of the new kind of art.

It is to the credit of MoMA that, on the whole, it kept up with the most interesting and innovative art and was ready to exhibit and collect it. But this is precisely what created an acute problem. When, in 1953, it definitively abandoned the idea of passing on older parts of its collection to the Metropolitan Museum or the Whitney, it assumed the responsibility of housing and displaying the most comprehensive collection of the art from the late nineteenth century to the postwar triumphs of the New York School. It took on the task of responding to the extravagant demands of the new trends in art while, at the same time, decisions on allocating space have been deeply affected by the economics of museums as the costs of running them have increased at a dizzying pace. To survive, museums charge admittance at an ever higher rate but also raise money through the shops and restaurants that visitors have come to expect. The new building offers not only a restaurant but two cafés as well as three different stores.

Designing museums has become a major, and perhaps the most prominent, concern of architecture during the last twenty-five years, whether the architect starts from scratch (like Richard Rodgers and Renzo Piano at the Centre Georges Pompidou), or adds to an existing museum (I.M. Pei at the National Gallery in Washington and the Grand Louvre), or revamps an earlier structure (the Tate Modern’s takeover of a London power station). The number of new museum buildings, small or large, during this period has been astounding, and there is hardly a prominent architect who has not tried to design at least one. MoMA is essentially a new building that preserves fragments of older ones. Taniguchi’s design is very much in the tradition of the modern movement, appro- priately so in view of MoMA’s part in defining and promoting the so-called “international style” in the 1930s.

  1. *

    However, admission is free from 4 to 8 PM on Fridays. For those who wish to visit the museum often, a $75 annual membership gives free and unlimited access to the collections and film showings.

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