When the purse strings tighten up at museums, the institutions usually cut back and cancel shows. That’s exactly the wrong reaction. In fact, now is a good time for them to loosen up—a chance to breathe and experiment a little—and go for the juicy solution lurking in their own basements.
Almost all institutions own a lot more art than they can ever show, much of it revealing for its timeliness, genius, or sheer weirdness. If Charles Ray’s pint-sized naked nuclear family, owned by the Museum of Modern Art, were placed in the museum’s atrium, viewers might dash up to the permanent collection wondering where such a strange thing comes from. It would cast a whole different light on the collection and the museum.
MoMA inarguably possesses the greatest collection of modern art in the world. It is our Garden of Eden, the place we go to visit the ancestors. Yet after spending three-quarters of a billion dollars in 2004 for its spiffy new building MoMA inexplicably, maybe unforgivably, failed to provide enough room to let that collection soar, or even to tell the whole wild story of modernism. And, a few years later, some say that garden—our garden—is wilting, even that its dying. Since it is unlikely that MoMA will take this open moment to present art history as the tremendous spaghetti-like mix that it really is, staying wedded to its diagrammatic Old Testament version of modern art that runs from Cubism to Surrealism, the museum could think about shaking up the fourth floor. MoMA could dismantle the entire space and hang only Postminimal art or Abstract Expressionism for a year. Something. Anything to inject life into the ossifying body.
The other solution for MoMA, as well as other museums in similar situations, is to have more artists curating more exhibitions from museum storage. Not only would this save money; all sorts of unexpected objects, ideas, and narratives would pop out. To its credit, since 1989 MoMA has had just such an “Artist’s Choice” series in place. Nearly all the shows in this series have been outstanding. Right now, there’s a wily rumination organized by the sly fox conceptualist-photographer Vik Muniz. It is impossible to write about Muniz without using the word clever; I imagine his tombstone will read, “He was clever.” Thus, it’s no surprise that while Muniz’s show isn’t high visual math, it is wonderful mad and visual science. “Artist’s Choice + Vik Muniz = REBUS” is a clever exercise in seeing and an extraordinary lesson in the crazy (and clever) connections artists make between objects, whether in terms of material, shape, color, title, or subject matter. Muniz’s show begins with a ballpoint-pen drawing of a rectangle next to a rectangular stack of plywood next to a photo of a rectangular form next to a rectangular base with a fly on it next to a plastic model of a hamburger not far from Jeff Koons’ hygienically sealed stack of vacuum cleaners. In a few yards, he takes us from ideal Platonic form to natural decay to the urge to live forever. Connections like these go on for 82 objects and end with an LED EXIT sign borrowed from the museum’s design collection. Muniz has laid the entire exhibition out as one continuous sentence, one object next to another, and only on the outside wall of the gallery. There’s a handout checklist, but there are no wall labels. You’re visually on your own, freed to make your own connections.
Needless to say, some artist-curated shows at MoMA, and other institutions, have been self-serving messes. But the best of them have been game-changers. Scott Burton’s brilliant installation of Brancusi’s bases sans the sculptures, in 1989, was one of the most radically revealing shows of sculpture ever mounted in the museum. Barbara Kruger’s “Picturing ‘Greatness’” consisted entirely of depictions of famous male artists enacting heroic poses, including one photo of Picasso parading around the beach in his underpants. (Preening macho artists have looked a bit sillier ever since.) In 1995, Elizabeth Murray installed a show of only women that made it obvious how much good work by women is always in storage. None of these exhibitions were self-serving walks in the park. Each was a shot in the arm, and each was, relatively speaking, cheap to stage. Exactly what the doctor ordered for MoMA—and for times like these.