Visitors will be greeted on the fifth floor by Rockefeller’s Paul Signac portrait of Félix Fénéon, collector, critic, dealer. The painting, on loan for four months, brilliantly represents the nexus of art and money that is the basis of the modern and the Modern. The first gallery will also hold works by Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh. Then visitors will have a choice—and this choice is a crucial part of the museum’s new exhibition philosophy—to go right into Cubism and Picasso, or straight on into Expressionism, color, and Matisse. “The advantage of this isn’t only that people feel more comfortable if they have a choice, but I think it is actually truer to what modern art is,” Elderfield says. “It isn’t one development. It’s a sequence. It’s a debate between different opinions about what modern art is, as represented by these movements.”
“There was general agreement among curators in the museum that the installation of the collection that had existed for twenty-odd years was too linear and was too much of a marathon. It was thought that it should be more open in terms of where you came in, where you got out, so that not everything fit into one grand unfolding narrative,” says Robert Storr, former senior curator of painting and sculpture and a professor at the Institute of Fine Arts. “And it had to be more integrated in terms of different mediums and different modernisms.” At Pocantico in 1996, Kirk Varnedoe, at the time the curator of painting and sculpture, had suggested dispensing with a physical-historical sequence entirely, offering it via audio guide, and letting each gallery be an episode.
Floor five will take you from Cézanne through the early forties. Floor four will pick up with early Abstract Expressionism and the School of Paris and wrap up with Eva Hesse and post-Minimalism. “In the old museum, the collection really stopped in the sixties, and even in the sixties, there wasn’t much space devoted to it. There were two small rooms just before the stairway,” Elderfield says. In the new museum, the fifties and sixties get half a floor, and from certain spots, you can make the same sort of choice as that between Picasso and Matisse: Pollock or Newman?
Some of the departmental galleries are growing minimally, which has caused some grumbling. “Based on what Kirk Varnedoe told me, there will be somewhat less space for the permanent collection before 1960 than in the old building, though the space for post-sixties art will be vastly expanded,” says Storr. Department heads say their galleries feel better—higher ceilings, fewer walls—allowing for more flexible exhibitions.
The museum has also been buying strategically, and some of its major new pieces will end up in these fourth-floor galleries. Jasper Johns’s Diver; a 1950 Picasso sculpture of a pregnant woman, rarely seen before; and a couple of key Minimalist purchases that Elderfield won’t name—one a late work by a star, the other a work from the dawn of the movement. Elderfield is wary of saying too much, explaining that while he’s prepared for the calls of aggrieved living artists after November 20, he doesn’t want to take such calls now.
How Shocking Is the New?
By recommitting to contemporary art, MoMA is undoubtedly making its life difficult. Yes, there may be masterpieces, but there are infinitely more mistakes and detours and dead ends. For the museum’s founders, that was part of the excitement. Founding director Alfred Barr brought the latest work from Europe to New York for the museum’s early shows, like “Cubism and Abstract Art” in 1936, and showed it in the latest manner: just one or two pieces on seagrass-covered walls, the items isolated for appropriate thoughtful contemplation. The museum owned none of the works—its permanent collection wasn’t created until the sixties—and the three founding ladies planned to maintain the museum as an ad hoc, always-moving-forward enterprise. “If that had been maintained, our collection would start with Jasper Johns,” says Elderfield, referring to one of the eldest of contemporary artists. “As the museum evolved, there wasn’t something called ‘modern art’ and something called ‘contemporary art’ but the thought that contemporary art was the most recent version of modern art.”
The new galleries represent “a debate between different opinions about what modern art is,” says curator John Elderfield.
Up to the sixties, the museum maintained its currency and helped to assert the primacy of New York as the new center of Modernism, through curator Dorothy Miller’s numbered “Americans” shows. From the perspective of today, the lists of artists she chose (“Sixteen Americans” in 1959, often pointed to as a high point for prescience and tastemaking, included Frank Stella, just out of Princeton, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns)—are a fascinating collection of stars, even supernovas, and artists lost to history.
The new MoMA is reinforcing that original commitment even as its position as chief custodian of twentieth-century art has made it more protective of its curatorial judgment. It’s that duality that is liable to cause continuing institutional neurosis.
Many of the works given pride of place are already canonical. The first piece of art you will see in the museum is Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, a work from 1969, the hinge between modern and contemporary, centered in Taniguchi’s vertical court. Exit that court, and you’ll be tossed into a realm of big Serras, big Twomblys, sprinkled with potential household names of the future.
In the second-floor contemporary-art galleries, curator Ann Temkin is installing work of the past 30 years, with areas for the seventies, eighties, nineties, the paintings and sculpture mixed with selections from design, photography, prints. “The installation there will rotate more quickly and will always be treated more like a gallery space than a museum space,” says Elderfield, “without any pretense that this is telling the definitive history.”
The museum has continued to collect artists who made their names in the sixties through the present, so some may appear both upstairs and downstairs. The museum purchased a late Francis Bacon triptych during its Queens hiatus. Collected in the seventies were Pop, Minimal, process, and installation art by such artists as Acconci, Beuys, Burden, Fabro, Kelly, Merz, Richter, Rosenquist, Serra, and Turrell. From the eighties, Lowry mentions Bruce Nauman and Jeff Koons. And from today, the museum has collected sculptor Whiteread and photographer Jeff Wall, along with three artists seen in this year’s Whitney Biennial, painters Julie Mehretu and Elizabeth Peyton, and video artist Eve Sussman. The museum tends to favor artists who refer to the history of art—it reinforces their definition of the modern as continuous—so Sussman’s video piece refers to Velázquez’s Las Meniñas. Mehretu’s huge canvases manipulate the visual language of architecture into Abstract Expressionism. Peyton paints portraits.
The museum has bought actively with the new galleries in mind. In 2004, a set of trustees endowed the Fund for the 21st Century with $1 million to purchase works made within the past five years, says drawing curator Gary Garrels, “for generally less than $50,000. It could be a $5,000 drawing or a $3,000 photograph.”