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Art: Good-bye, MoMA

Staying true to its mission, MoMA pays final tribute to twentieth-century modernism while clearing its palette for the twenty-first.

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As the year 2000 approaches, the museum synonymous with "the modern" -- the Museum of Modern Art -- has chosen to reinvent itself. That, rather than any temporary show, is the most important response of the art world to the millennium. The legendary museum of Alfred Barr and William Rubin, the traditional heart of the modernist enterprise during the twentieth century, is already history. Earlier this year, the classical galleries of the permanent collection were not reassembled after being displaced by the Jackson Pollock retrospective. They never will be. At the outset of the twenty-first century, MOMA will build an entirely new museum, through which its curators hope to rethink what it has meant -- and still means -- to be modern. In short, MOMA believes that the period called Modernism continues to be a work in progress. It is not yet ready to retire into the cultivation of the past. It hopes to remain fluid in outlook, with an eye still open to the present.

The series of large millennium shows, MOMA2000, that the museum will open over the next year and a half embody this new outlook. These exhibits are illuminating, in part, for what they are not. MOMA will not, for example, close the century by doing the obvious thing, which is to erect a comprehensive, awe-inspiring monument to itself and the modern canon. Nor will it organize its presentation of modern art in academic or textbook fashion, as an august chronology of styles. Instead, the curators are being more playful, stressing the open-ended over the definitive and the fresh rather than the tried-and-true juxtaposition. They are trying to break down traditional boundaries between various museum departments, often likened to dukedoms, so that they can show photographs, drawings, and prints together with paintings without creating a lot of hullaballoo. And they are placing remarkable emphasis upon contemporary art in these retrospective shows, both to emphasize their ongoing commitment to the present and to remind the world that we see the past through the ever-changing lens of the here-and-now.

The opening exhibition of the cycle, "Modern Starts," will cover the years from 1880 to 1920. It will take up three full floors of the museum. The ground floor will be called "Things," the second floor "People," and the third floor "Places." Each individual floor will, in turn, contain a variety of smaller shows that examine particular aspects of the larger theme. In the "People" section, for example, the curators will examine the many different ways early modernists confronted the figure. This will range from a show called "Actors, Dancers and Bathers" -- subjects of obsessive interest to modernists -- to another called "Composing With the Figure," which will examine the way the human image breaks apart and is reconstituted in early modernism. The curators do not feel overconstrained by dates. ("Posed to Unposed: Encounters with the Camera" will look at figure compositions throughout the entire history of photography.) Viewers should come away from "People" thinking not about "Post-Impressionism" or "Cubism" but about how restless and varied is the face -- or mask -- of modernity.

The three floors will open to the public on a staggered schedule: "People" on October 7, "Places" on October 28, and "Things" on November 21. According to John Elderfield, who led the team of curators assembling "Modern Starts," his group was searching for "the jolt of the unexpected." Most people, for example, think of Matisse as an Arcadian artist. Why not discover in him, as well, a painter of the anxious modern city? Don't certain of his pictures have something in common with a painter he is never compared to, Giorgio de Chirico? Or, why not see what Monet's beloved Water Lilies looks like in a new setting, presented not as an object of serene contemplation in a chapellike rotunda but as a flat painting near Miró's The Birth of the World, in a section that examines the epic, even primal treatment of landscape? Then the curators will have an opportunity to exhibit Kandinsky's so-called Four Seasons in the rotunda -- which is how the artist himself wanted the work shown.

The greatest jolt, however, will come from the way MOMA uses contemporary art to frame the settled masterpieces of the past. On each floor, a living artist will decorate the long wall that contains the entrance to the show; the present will literally become the way into the past. The museum -- once all three floors are completed -- will look utterly transformed. For the entrance to "People," Sol LeWitt will re-create one of his large murals, a work in which the curves and straight lines distantly evoke an abstracted figure. Michael Craig-Martin -- an artist with a supercharged Pop style who is assembling a kind of visual dictionary in which he tries to define the essential look of objects -- will compose the entrance to "Things." Aware of the symbolic implications of "Modern Starts," the museum also wanted to acknowledge younger and lesser-known contemporary artists. And so it invited the Colombian artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso to create the entrance to "Places." She will arrange 6,000 plastic lilies on the entrance wall -- making a playful, contemporary rhyme with Monet's water lilies.

After "Modern Starts" closes, MOMA plans equally large exhibitions covering the years 1920 to 1960 and then 1960 to 2000. A different team of curators is organizing each of the three surveys; each will naturally have a different perspective. If the entire enterprise sometimes seems an unruly Babel, that is intentional. The museum envisions MOMA2000 as a laboratory for its new building, an opportunity to experiment with fresh ways of installing and presenting its collection. But a certain unfinished, even quarrelsome air is also nothing to fear. Modernism itself is a fractious, experimental, and often difficult movement whose best answers yield questions. Tidying up, for the Modern, would be a kind of death.


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