Gentle Giant

MoMA's atrium, with Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk at the center.Photo: Nikolas Koenig

New York is immodest, wonderfully so. Its skyscrapers compete against the skyline, and its voices rise above the contemporary Babel. Its art museums reflect the city’s temperament: The Metropolitan is an august classical pile, the Whitney a bristling modern fortress, the Guggenheim a cosmic spiral. In its way, the Museum of Modern Art was always the most cocksure of them all. Not only did MoMA own the greatest collection of modern art in the world—it was also a living part of the story it was telling, championing modern ideas even as it codified them. MoMA did not need to show off with a grand or fancy edifice. The modern pilgrims would come anyway. MoMA had the goods: It was the squirrel with the nut in its cheek.

In certain important ways, the beautiful new MoMA, designed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, changes the museum’s traditional character. Or perhaps the new building simply mirrors a subtle change in spirit that occurred some time ago. MoMA is no longer the edgy institution of its youth, a place of argument, sharp elbows, and missionary zeal. It remains a vital museum, but one whose energies now seem older and more contemplative. In its early days, the museum’s celebrated garden was a place of retreat—not just from the hurly-burly of the city but from the metaphysical racket within the museum. Now, in this new building, Taniguchi has imbued the entire museum with the spirit of the garden, creating a light-filled temple.

During the construction, the art world busied itself with wondering how the curators would tell the story of Modernism. Whose reputations would rise, whose would fall? In the old museum, Cézanne’s Bather opened the “Painting and Sculpture” galleries. Were the rumors true that a Signac would replace the Cézanne? Quel horreur! In the end, however, the inside-baseball details matter little. It’s the architecture that governs, in the deepest sense, this new telling of the modern story. For example, Taniguchi does not create declarative entrances: The Signac painting does not therefore become a clash of narrative cymbals. As visitors approach the art galleries, moreover, the building will calm them. They become aware of the museum’s garden, introduced by Rodin’s Monument to Balzac. Then, as they move deeper into the building, they come to a second and more conceptual garden: a soaring 110-foot atrium aglow with light, in which stands a more abstract vertical sculpture than the Rodin, Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk.

The placement of the Newman is the most telling curatorial decision in the new museum, and, like the progression through garden spaces, symbolizes MoMA’s meditative approach to modern art. Not only does the Newman appear perfectly proportioned to the atrium, it’s a work that invites reverie. Like the Rodin, Broken Obelisk seems at once dramatic and cryptic, austere and corny. It has many complex and simultaneous meanings to noodle around with; it can represent modernity’s rupture with the past, for example, while also conveying a romantic air of aspiration. From the atrium, pristine walls rise toward the daylight. But they are not implacable: Taniguchi makes walls that bring order but do not enclose. Through one cut in the atrium wall, you can glimpse Matisse’s Dance (first version). Everywhere, as you approach the galleries, Taniguchi emphasizes air, openness, light, and the sensation of ample and ever-changing space. In this environment, viewers naturally develop a free-floating, wandering attitude. The drumroll of art history remains, but it does not dominate. Visitors will certainly not feel pulled by the art-historical nose, a complaint frequently directed at MoMA in the past.

The fifth floor of the museum—painting and sculpture from 1880 to 1940—is unforgettable. It provides one of the best museum experiences in the world, and it put me into a kind of trance, a state of art-bliss. The work is astoundingly high in quality, and it is invariably given room to breathe. The visual rhyming and play among the works is often profound. (Mondrian and Brancusi exchange a particularly deep look.) Every artist and critic will have quibbles with John Elderfield, the curator who oversaw the installation, but those quibbles amount to little when compared with the glories at hand. The same is true of the other departments at the museum, which are also mounting various surveys of their own superb permanent collections.

From the Pop period onward, the galleries look a bit scattered and do not convey the same intensity. The art of the time is partly responsible for this effect, but the building’s virtues may also become a vice in the display of recent art. An atmosphere of pristine idealism is not necessarily the best context for such work. At the moment, the weakest part of the museum is the high-ceilinged contemporary space, which contains a scattering of fashionable names: The art looks embalmed. MoMA will have to work hard to bring a more raw and vital spirit to its presentation of contemporary art, and I don’t know if the building will allow it. P.S. 1 may yet become the museum’s contemporary heart.

The new MoMA is like nothing else in the city. Therein lies its New York immodesty. It’s monumental without being a monument. It frames the skyscrapers with its windows. It welcomes people, but doesn’t follow the crowd. (MoMA did not reach for the Gehry effect in museum design.) Celebrating light and space just off the crowded street, it melts away in the eye, the better to illuminate art. New York’s suddenly different.

  MoMA’s first home was in the Heckscher Building at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. In 1939, the museum moved into the building that (vastly expanded) is still its base, on the site of a townhouse donated by the Rockefellers. The architect was Edward Durell Stone, then the straightest of straitlaced Modernists. Over the decades, Stone’s style evolved—some say devolved—and became far more baroque. By the sixties, he was designing ornate, outré buildings like the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art on Columbus Circle—widely hated when new, and the subject of a fierce preservationist fight today.  

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The Making of the New MoMA
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The Museum Of Modern Art
11 W. 53rd St., near Fifth Ave
Reopens November 20.

Gentle Giant