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.
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.
Two related trends have affected museum architecture: one is the sense that works of art need to be staged for the general public; the other is the taste for an architecture that attracts attention to itself, the most conspicuous example being Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a huge and successful urban landmark, but not very satisfactory as a museum. The Musée d’Orsay in Paris occupies an old railroad station, but inside, the heavy and elaborate architectural detailing by Gae Aulenti is so obtrusive that it constantly competes with the art on exhibit. By contrast Taniguchi’s design is discreet, self-effacing although not without drama; it is also, most importantly, reasonably flexible and adaptable. Its most original effects are to be found in its interplay with the surrounding city environment, which it frames to great advantage, and also in the unexpected views from one part of the museum to another. High on the undecorated black granite wall of the vast atrium, an unframed opening allows a surprising glimpse of visitors descending the staircase; the sight of Newman’s Broken Obelisk from above through this opening is particularly enjoyable. The architect has borrowed, one suspects, from commercial malls where such effects have become banal, but the refinement of proportions and materials makes the experience here exhilarating.
The exhibition rooms are beautifully proportioned and carefully lit, and give a sense of flow that enables the visitor to move freely among the different rooms. The plan of the previous building was more linear and prescriptive; the visitor was made to feel the works had to be seen in a definite order. This new freedom will not be welcomed by all. We overheard a visitor who said: “It left me feeling like I might have missed a couple of rooms or something.” But the new arrangement allows for a much richer understanding of the historical development and the complexity of interconnections among different artistic trends. There is a certain monotony in size of the rooms on the fourth and fifth floors, and one occasionally regrets the loss of some of the very intimate spaces of the old building, especially for small-scale Surrealist works. No doubt the much larger size of today’s public has dictated the loss of such spaces, but ways can be found to accommodate the old experience in the new structure. Perhaps the unrelenting whiteness of the walls could eventually be alleviated.
MoMA is the victim of its own spectacular success. Its two related purposes—to represent the history of modern art and to stay in touch with the most recent contemporary work—had at first seemed harmonious but soon became antagonistic and began to clash. After a few decades the only museum in the world that offered an adequate and almost comprehensive view of the modernist art of the twentieth century ran out of space for showing its holdings. The problem had been seen from the beginning by Alfred Barr. During the 1930s the museum initiated a policy of selling works over fifty years old to other museums—principally the Metropolitan Museum of New York—in order to raise money for the future and to keep abreast of contemporary developments. The folly of this policy became clear almost at once: to divest the institution of many of its most attractive and prestigious works was heartbreaking for the director and curators, and it did not help to build a public that would remain faithful.
The policy was abandoned by 1953, but the discreet and sometimes foolish sale of important works continued when the people running the museum needed money for some suddenly enticing project. (It is, we should add, no longer polite to speak of a museum “selling” a work: the expression has been officially replaced by the euphemism “de-accessioning,” in much the same way that killing civilians in war is now described as “collateral damage.”)
The expansion of the museum paradoxically allows little, if any, more space in which to show the basic permanent collection. Besides keeping in touch with the latest developments in painting and sculpture, MoMA from the beginning has had ambitions that were, in fact, integral to the way it was conceived. Its interest in elegant and efficient modern commercial design—coffee pots, typewriters, cars, chairs, helicopters, teacups—was fundamental and even glamorous, and it has exerted a great influence throughout the world. MoMA also houses one of the most important film collections, covering the entire history of the medium. Space had to be supplied as well for the large collections of prints, photographs, and drawings, including an important representation of modern architectural drawings.
No great museum can show everything it possesses. After three quarters of a century of buying, MoMA has accumulated a number of works that few people would want to see today and also a great many to which most of us would be indifferent. In the shifting field of contemporary art, even the wisest acquisitions policy will end up with some objects that will cause the buyers themselves later to wonder how they ever came to choose them. A museum trying to keep up with new work finds itself subject to pressures, lobbied to represent movements whose future is uncertain or whose artistic language is not yet fully understood. Showing everything is therefore absurd. Even showing everything that would give pleasure to a public other than the artist and his relatives is not possible.
Nevertheless, something has gone wrong when a collection that was aimed at giving an adequate, intelligible, and relatively comprehensive view of the history of modernism—and succeeded in doing so—hides so many works that the curators themselves as well as the museumgoing public consider important. What has happened, for example, to Matisse’s The Swimming Pool, a large decorative collage from the end of the artist’s life? Balthus may not be the supreme master that some critics claim him to be, but his disappearance from MoMA’s walls is hard to defend since the museum owns some of his best and most celebrated canvasses, such as La Rue of 1933. More generally, European art after Mirò has been sacrificed in favor of the major artists of New York.
Each of the several methods of installing the collection of a museum has its advantages and shortcomings. The density of hanging is an important issue. The more one can see, the more crowded the walls will look and some works will suffer. Traditional picture galleries like those of the noble houses of Europe on which earlier museums were modeled hung pictures almost frame to frame, and often on more than one row up to the ceiling. Modern sensibility has rejected this practice, and museums often prefer to keep many works out of sight in order to do full justice to what is displayed on the walls. In the recent past MoMA chose a relatively dense hanging. While the new hanging is more spacious, some will find it not spacious enough, while others would prefer to see more of the collection.
The principles underlying presentation are also of great consequence. Should one give priority to chronology? Will national schools be kept separate to stress their particular character? Is it preferable to emphasize artistic movements like Fauvism or Constructivism, or should all the works of an artist be grouped together in order to appreciate his or her range and development? The new MoMA draws on all these various approaches while generally following a rough chronological scheme. Most of the works by Matisse on view are in a separate and extremely impressive room, but some of his early works are grouped with Fauvism, while Memory of Oceania, a monumental papier collé of 1952–1953, hangs in a room devoted to the 1950s, where the octogenarian fits in surprisingly well with such groundbreaking painters of the New York School as Arshile Gorky and Franz Kline.
At a Harvard round-table symposium in 2002, Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA, remarked:
…One of the issues that we are certainly grappling with is the tension between creating possibilities. Indeed, one of the reasons that our galleries at MoMA get very crowded is because we put a lot into them. When I go back to what for me was probably the most epiphanic experience I’ve had looking at a work of art, it was Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas, which I saw at the National Gallery fifteen, twenty years ago. It was all alone down that long corridor. There it was, Flaying of Marsyas, that single—and singular—work of art.
To this, the director of the Getty Museum, John Walsh, rejoined, “But your challenge, then, is to have twice the space and not put up any more art.” To which Lowry replied, “Twice the space and half the amount of art.”
The ecstatic pleasure of the lone admirer of a single work of art in a large space, however, is an ideal only conceivable for an observer who has had enough experience of art to appreciate what is there. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to understand an unfamiliar style on the basis of one example, and the pleasure naturally increases as we grasp the idiom. It was the profusion as well as the high quality of MoMA’s acquisitions that made its collection so extraordinary, and that rendered its greatest works easily intelligible and acceptable to so many today.
The vision of Alfred Barr made the collection itself into something like a work of art. Starting with his “conception of modern art as beginning with the classic Cézanne of the 1880s,” as the curator John Elderfield puts it in his brilliant introduction to the excellent book he has edited on MoMA, Barr’s philosophy of modernism was supple and wide-ranging, but coherent and consistent, drawn from an international consensus of collectors and artists, and it was largely followed by his successors, in particular William Rubin. This coherence, in which, among others, Cubists, Futurists, German Expressionists, Surrealists, and Abstract Expressionists have complex interrelations, is the subject of reproach today from many who want an alternate aesthetic—an emphasis on multiculturalism, for example—or a shaggier version of history. It is, nevertheless, the artistic success of that vision of the work of Picasso and Matisse and their successors that accounts for the enormous popularity of MoMA and enables it to give such pleasure to so many. The aesthetic coherence of the so-called “permanent collection” endowed MoMA with a personality of its own that only a few other great museums can claim, largely those created by the taste of an enlightened collector like the Poldi-Pezzoli Gallery in Milan or the Beyler Museum in Basel.
Painting is the greatest triumph of modernism. Listening to extended works of modernist music can still make the unsympathetic lay listener nervous, and reading the long novels and poems of modernist literature may often seem a chore. The visual arts, however, make the least demands on our patience. After all, we are not forced to devote more than a few seconds to a modernist painting that does not immediately fascinate, although it can also inspire the kind of “epiphanic experience” that Lowry had when he saw Titian’s painting. It is precisely the familiar crowded galleries of the old MoMA that had such a large part in making the modernist art that once appeared so perverse appear so natural today. The great works may still cause a shock at first sight—or even tenth—but they no longer seem arbitrary.
An essential responsibility of a museum is to present artists and their works as effectively and impressively as possible. In this respect, the work of the great generation of New York Abstract Expressionists poses a challenge that has not been faced in the expanded museum. Each of the principal artists—Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline—developed a radically personal visual language, an idiosyncratic repertory of forms that set him apart from the others. Of these, only Pollock is now exhibited with enough works to show his range and his energy. Perhaps the single and powerful example of Clyfford Still is sufficient to reveal the nature and quality of his art, although MoMA has a second one in storage.
But Mark Rothko is a different case: the two mature Rothkos on view are agreeable enough, but give no idea of the intensity of feeling his paintings could command, and, since they are hung in a room with many other works, they do not invite or force the onlooker to penetrate their sense. For this, one would have to go, for example, to the Phillips Collection in Washington, where four isolated Rothkos are shown on the four walls of a single small room and one can begin to appreciate the balance and interaction of a few colors in rectangular shapes. De Kooning as well needs much greater representation to do him justice, and it does not help that one of the few examples of his work is not on the fourth floor with two of his other works but on the second floor in the atrium where it is dwarfed and rendered less effective by the immense wall on which it hangs alone. A small number of artists are fully represented—Mirò, Picasso, and Matisse, among them—but for many others like Juan Gris, Jean Dubuffet, and Morris Louis we do not have a satisfying view of their achievement, merely something that might be called Highlights from the Permanent Collection, as if this were not a new installation but a traveling exhibition.
This is unfortunate because, as we have remarked, MoMA is the only institution in the world capable of presenting the synoptic, historical view of modernism that was Barr’s original idea. You can go to the Uffizi to see the Italian Renaissance, to the Tate to see the Turners and English nineteenth-century landscapes, to Manchester to see the Pre-Raphaelites, to Amsterdam to see classical Dutch genre paintings and landscape, to the Louvre to see French seventeenth-century classicism; but no other museum, not even the Beaubourg in Paris, can offer so splendid, rich, and inspiring an experience of the European modern movement from 1880 to World War II. As for the New York School from 1945 to 1980, nothing equals MoMA’s holdings (although a few museums such as Buffalo’s have been able to acquire a fine selection). In addition, finding the American Abstract Expressionists in close proximity to the European art that immediately preceded and inspired them is enlightening: they are not belittled but magnified by the presence of Picasso, Matisse, and Mirò, for example, and the pleasure of the viewer is incomparably enhanced.
The other museums in the city that might be expected to supplement what is seen at MoMA—the Guggenheim and the Whitney—have deep limitations. The Guggenheim may have an occasional spectacular exhibition, but its display of whatever has been left unsold, or unshipped to foreign outposts of its permanent collection, has become a joke. The museum once had 180 Kandinskys, and there was an outcry many years ago when sixty of them were sold. A few of the remaining Kandinskys (have any more been sold since?) have finally been put back on exhibit after many decades. Almost nothing is left of the Guggenheim’s original ideal of the collection as a museum of “non-objective art,” but it has not been replaced by any intelligible alternative except for the boast of its director that the museum is in the entertainment business. The Whitney has many beautiful examples of the New York School, but in its role of representing American painting in general, it feels obliged to give a more diffuse presentation and has never been able to acquire works as selectively as MoMA.
One solution projected for MoMA’s problem of space is a plan to empty the room on the fourth floor now devoted to Pollock and to exhibit Rothko or Newman. This is a measure of desperation. Most people who return again and again to a museum hope to see the pictures they love best in their remembered position (surely MoMA does not expect most of its visitors to be out-of-town tourists). The systematic removal every year of some of the strongest works from the walls will cause irritation only partially compensated by the appearance of new sources of pleasure.
The installation of the fourth and fifth floors is glorious: the works are hung and illuminated generally to their greatest advantage. The architecture never interferes or competes with the pleasure of viewing the art. The rooms of drawings, prints, and photographs on the third floor are all equally admirable, and, since these objects cannot be exhibited for any length of time without deteriorating, this will surely be the place for a series of changing exhibitions that can draw on the wealth of the museum’s holdings.
The second floor with the gigantic hall for contemporary art is more troubling. The problem is not the quality of the art, since there are fine pieces by such artists as Rachel Whiteread, Bruce Nauman, and Gordon Matta-Clark, or even the selection of works, since an attempt has been made to represent many of the most important tendencies in the art world, with an emphasis on the inheritors of modernism that is both logical and reasonable, in view of the nature and character of the history of MoMA.
What is less successful is the practice of representing so many different characters and styles side by side with only one or two examples of each in a huge space, so that few of the pieces can succeed in creating the air of authority that is indispensable for comprehending the artistic language used in any recent innovation. Even the works exhibited here that need no advocacy and have already won a foothold in international critical opinion, like the two paintings by Gerhard Richter, have little effect, lost in this vastness. No doubt, the well-informed visitor already familiar with the artists represented will appreciate the opportunity to see these works, many of them too large to fit in a smaller space. But the merely curious, the open-minded but unprepared spectators are more likely to be baffled than won over; pleasure and understanding may require several return visits.
Barr’s promotion of the art of his time (most of it twenty to fifty years old when he began his campaign in its favor) was successful largely because there was a scandalous gap between, on one side, an important body of international collectors, critics, and artists and, on the other, the museums of the time, particularly in America. It is said that the Rockefellers offered a painting by Cézanne to the Frick Museum, and that Miss Frick refused it, claiming that her father would never have allowed such a work on his walls. No important museum in this country except for the Art Institute of Chicago made any effort before Barr came on the scene to collect the art from Cézanne to Picasso that already had extraordinary prestige; and after three decades, the collection of MoMA had surpassed Chicago in its richness and thoroughness of representation. The work of Barr may be compared to the journalistic campaign of Bernard Shaw in the 1890s for the cause of Wagner, none of whose operas, in spite of their immense European reputation, had ever been performed in London by a British company, but only by an occasional touring European ensemble. MoMA could build up a great collection because it was needed and overdue, because prices were still relatively low, and collectors were passionate and willing to donate.
What will be the future of MoMA? If it continues adventurously to acquire new works, it will soon run out of space—as, in fact, it already has. Yet no other American museum is so generously committed and dedicated to continuing to present international developments in contemporary art. It is clear that selling off valuable parts of the basic collection to make room for novelties, however promising or prestigious, is a form of vandalism. As it now stands, the greater part of the collection should, by moral right, be accorded public landmark status. In addition, much of it was acquired by tax-deductible donations, theoretically for the public good, which means that we, the taxpayers, have had to make up the loss of money which should have gone into the federal and state treasuries; MoMA is therefore only holding these works in trust for us. That is why it is deplorable when works that would give us so much pleasure and instruction are withheld from display.
Perhaps the museum could install somewhere a study collection, in which the finest works that are invisible in the main part of the museum are simply stacked on the walls in rows for anyone interested to come and gaze at them. Even if some works were not given the presentation they deserve, this might be better than nothing. Or perhaps MoMA should consider leaving the business of promoting new art to commercial galleries, and renounce the virtuous satisfaction of aiding the as yet unrecognized genius or the more guilty pleasure of showing it has the power to influence the future of art. Perhaps someone would consider building a new museum, not of modern but of contemporary art. But would another museum have the intelligence of the present staff and director?
January 13, 2005