The official purpose of ModernStarts: People, the exhibition that opened last week at the Museum of Modern Art, is to explore the many ways in which artists depicted the human figure during the early years of modernism. The galleries are organized into eight installations – such as “The Language of the Body,” “Actors, Dancers, Bathers,” and “Composing With the Figure” – that together create a kind of flickering, kaleidoscopic view of the body during the period when Western culture lost its belief in a settled human visage. All very respectable. All very responsible. But there’s also an unofficial meaning to this exhibition, one far more exciting to regular visitors to MOMA than its presentation of “the figure.” Behind the academic restraint of “ModernStarts” lies a Dionysian joy at the opportunity the show provides to play with the permanent collection – a collection that has for decades seemed as fixed in place as the stones of Parnassus.
Organized by a team of curators led by John Elderfield, the exhibition is part of a larger millennium project called “MOMA2000” and covers the years from 1880 to 1920; it will be followed next year by “Making Choices” (1920-1960) and “Open Ends” (1960-2000). “ModernStarts” is itself divided into three large sections – “People,” “Places,” and “Things” – that open one after another this fall. (Each section of “ModernStarts” occupies a full floor of the museum.) The simplicity of the titles “People,” “Places,” and “Things” evokes the powerful desire of many early modernists to return to the sources – to the basic languages of existence – in order to reconstitute, reconsider, and re-dream the world. Here and there, the curators mix recent and contemporary works into their display to indicate the way art both changes and stays the same. A mural by the contemporary artist Sol Lewitt, marking the entrance to “People,” is a kind of abstract evocation of Eadweard Muybridge’s serial studies of the figure, which were themselves an effort to understand the essentials of bodily movement.
The curators approach their permanent collection in a similar way, hoping to recover first principles. A difficult task. No other museum in the world has holdings in modern art of a range, depth, and quality comparable with MOMA’s. As a result, no other museum can present the encyclopedic unfolding of styles with the same effect, an almost biblical this-begat-that narrative of art during the twentieth century. So powerful is MOMA’s traditional presentation of modern art that people went bananas a few years ago when the museum presumed merely to change the frames on the pictures. With the advent of the millennium and the prospect of moving into a new building in the next few years, the curators found themselves with a brief but irresistible opportunity to try out other ways of approaching the collection. Again and again, they place familiar works into a new, less dutiful context. In a catalogue essay, Elderfield quotes Francis Bacon: “I don’t want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much to do the thing that Valéry said – to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.”
The result is astonishing – as if an old and conservative friend were suddenly to walk into the room naked. For as long as I can remember, Cézanne’s The Bather, a painting of a young man or boy posed in the act of stepping forward, has hung near the opening of MOMA’s permanent collection. It has always been surrounded by other Post-Impressionist works from the period. Its message has been, in part, Here modern art itself seems to step forward, in the unfolding of style that you will see in the succeeding rooms. In “ModernStarts,” the curators have juxtaposed this iconic painting with a photograph taken more than a century later, Rineke Dijkstra’s Odessa, Ukraine, 4 August 1993. The photograph shows a young boy standing on a beach in a pose similar to that of the boy in the Cézanne. Both images have a flat, detached aura. But the Cézanne retains the density of nineteenth-century painting, whereas the Dijkstra has the deadpan color and – in the expression of the boy – the strange mixture of naïveté and sophistication typical of contemporary culture. To see this Cézanne fast-forwarded seems to deliver a shock to time itself. And afterward, both periods – his and ours – appear enlivened.
In the next room, Matisse’s great Dance (First Version) – which is usually given lots of open space, as if its wildly dancing pagans might fling themselves beyond the frame – is facing a careful, brilliant study of ballerinas by Degas. The gallery is small and intimate; the tension between these two versions of “the classical” is extraordinarily close and rich. If the Cézanne juxtaposition catapults the mind forward, this drawing-room hanging of the Matisse makes a place in the past for one of the most forward-looking and radical images of the century. For MOMA regulars, however, the most remarkable act of renewed seeing will come with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. At MOMA, Picasso’s painting is traditionally presented as the essential modern icon, the catalyst for cubism and much of what followed. In “ModernStarts,” the painting is still prominently placed, framed by an entrance and centrally located on a wall. But it has been plucked from the time line of style and given new and unexpected neighbors (a Matisse and a Picabia). For a moment, it is just another picture on a wall – albeit a great one – and looks as fresh as a painting borrowed from an artist’s studio.
By removing the textbook narrative of style, the curators allow the “sensation” of the early modern figure to emerge without the usual “boredom of its conveyance.” The result is a modern figure that now looks unexpectedly alone, in ceaseless flux. The actual appearance of a man or woman appears to be only one truth among many. Instead, the vast spaces on either side of the human surface – the interior space of dreams and exterior space of social reality – become the presiding powers. And the metaphysical figure of the artist himself steps forward, becoming more important than the figure depicted on the canvas. When MOMA reinstalls its permanent collection, it will inevitably restore the narrative of style. That story is just too good to abandon. But the current, fleeting experiments reflected in “ModernStarts” should leave a lasting impression among its curators about what tradition in art really means. Tradition, properly understood, is not only the chrysalis; it’s the butterfly.