The Revision Thing

Second sight: René Magritte's The False Mirror (1928); opposite, Jean Arp's Mustache Hat (1923).Photo: courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

A quiet revolution is under way at the Museum of Modern Art, one that will eventually transform our understanding of modernism. In the cycle of shows named “MOMA2000,” which began last fall with an examination of the years 1880 to 1920 called “ModernStarts,” the curators are dismantling the museum’s impressive “this begat that” monument to twentieth-century art. For decades, this monument – otherwise known as the permanent collection – has played a powerful didactic and polemical role in convincing the world that modernism can stand comparison with any other period of art. At the close of the twentieth century, however, modernism as a movement no longer has to justify, awe, dominate, or convince; its victory over its critics is complete. In the new century, the old monument seems too static and heavy, too humorless and academic, to reflect what Andre Breton called the “convulsive” beauty of the century’s art. And so the curators at MOMA are now engaged in a serious form of play, arranging and rearranging the pieces of the museum’s permanent collection to see what new light can be caught.

Last week, the museum commenced the second part of this “MOMA2000” cycle, Making Choices, which covers the years from 1920 to 1960. Like “ModernStarts,” this show will eventually fill all the museum galleries; its next sections open on March 30 and April 30. Organized by Robert Storr, Peter Galassi, and Anne Umland (who together led a larger team of curators), the exhibit also includes related work from outside the core period – including some contemporary art. Since the period itself was one of great flux, no effort is made to construct a narrative of subject or style. Instead, the curators put together 24 different shows that reflect both the era and the particular strengths of the museum’s permanent collection. In the section that opened last week, for example, there are eleven shows, including individual exhibits on Arp, Man Ray, Morandi, and Louis Kahn and thematic studies on, among other things, “War,” “The Dream of Utopia/Utopia of the Dream,” and “Modern Art Despite Modernism.”

Like “ModernStarts,” “Making Choices” is continually surprising. Iconic works are plucked from their usual place in Art 101 and placed in a new context; lesser-known works, rarely seen, emerge from museum storage; all the different arts are mixed together. What this means – on a larger level – is that the curators are now presenting modernism as a kind of collage rather than as a chronological narrative of successive styles. The view is less linear, more playful, glimpsing, and poetic. For example, one of the best effects in “Making Choices” comes from the powerful relation among three different exhibits. Visitors walk through “War,” which includes turbulent and dismaying work from the century’s many wars. These galleries then yield to a small room devoted to Morandi’s sublime etchings – still lifes and landscapes that are meditative and cloistered in spirit. From there, visitors move into larger galleries called “The Dream of Utopia/Utopia of the Dream,” which juxtapose the visionary worlds of artists like Mondrian and Malevich with the private, dream-besotted work of Dali, Ernst, and other Surrealists.

Each of these three shows is well selected, concise, and not too large. As a result, one carries them together in one’s mind – war, monkish reserve, dreams that fly upward, outward, and inward. Boundaries that hold and boundaries that collapse. This experience isn’t like visiting a vast show called “War” and then a couple of weeks later taking in an exquisite comparison of Morandi and Mondrian. There is a wordless conversation among these shows. There are so many disturbing connections – not just reassuring contrasts – that one leaves shaken. The shows together ask not only that you, the viewer, encompass contradiction and paradox but that you acknowledge that good and evil sometimes draw from the same fires in the heart. Which is not a bad way to know the twentieth century.

“Walker Evans & Company” invokes modernism in an equally fresh way. Here, the photographer is used as a kind of tuning fork for the century. Eight particular aspects of Evans’s work – his interest in commercial advertising, for example, and in the interior spaces of houses – sound major themes that recur in art throughout the century. Around each theme or tone, the museum gathers related work, both dissonant and more harmonic. Warhol’s and Rauschenberg’s art appears near Evans’s billboards. A bed by the contemporary artist Robert Gober rests near the Evans interiors. The obsessions of the century seem to move back and forth across time, constantly re-creating themselves: Time and influence become orchestral.

Although serious students of art know that there is nothing fixed about its movements, museums often present this or that style as if it were a kind of tidy historical package. In “Making Choices,” the idea of style itself becomes dynamic. A dominant movement in the period 1920 to 1960 is Surrealism. How should it be addressed? The easy thing would be to present a canned survey about the official movement. This would be worthy, interesting, educational – and dead. Official Surrealism includes acres upon acres of bad painting, yet its ideas could not be more important to the century. Surrealism matters more for its influence upon other artists who would not call themselves Surrealists than for the work made in its name. In “Making Choices,” the curators sensibly highlight the art of its strongest proponents, notably the photographer Man Ray, and juxtapose the style with other, equally dreamy art. Throughout the show, surreal inflections steal upon the mind. A witchy painting by John Graham. That mute Gober bed.

As befits a period of museological experiment, “Making Choices” is also a generous show. It acknowledges the untouchables in MOMA’s heretofore strict caste system – those artists, often representational painters, who refused to join the more advanced movements of the century. (Their refusal, incidentally, is itself an important part of modernism.) The title of one of the exhibits, “Modern Art Despite Modernism,” makes the point about this more welcoming attitude of the museum. The curators include the visionary realism of certain Surrealists, the conservative moments of otherwise vanguard painters such as Picasso, the offbeat work of eccentrics. Actually, that’s not so hard for MOMA to do. It’s not even that hard for the museum to include a figure like Andrew Wyeth, since he has become a famous and titillating symbol of realism. What particularly impressed me is that the museum presents work by serious painters – among whom the featured Morandi is a patron saint – who are less famous than Wyeth yet maintain the tradition of representational painting in a serious way. I was happily shocked to find in MOMA examples of the work of two of my favorite painters in this neglected area, Edwin Dickinson (1891-1978) and Rackstraw Downes (born 1939). I can hardly believe that the walls of MOMA still stand.

The monumental permanent collection, now in pieces, will be reassembled when MOMA completes its new building in 2004. It could not be otherwise. MOMA is fated to provide the orthodox textbook: No other museum in the world can present so complete an account of modernism as it evolved across the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But I hope the metaphysical air of the galleries, the sensations yielded around the monument, will seem less constricting when the museum is rebuilt. I hope to discover – at least in the wings! – the sort of surprising collages, experiments, forays, and failures included in “MOMA2000.” That is the only way to bring out the spirit as well as the substance of modernism. It was encouraging to find that the curators of “Making Choices” chose to highlight the work of Arp, one of the sprites of modernism, rather than that of a more famous, predictable, and formidable name. Arp is an artist who flies and flutters among the isms, making connections and refusing to be held down. The pigeon who brings the monument to life.

The Revision Thing