MoMA Reboots With 'Modernism Plus'

Holland Cotter

When the Museum of Modern Art reopens on Oct. 21 after a $450-million, 47,000-square-foot expansion, it will finally, if still cautiously, reveal itself to be a living, breathing 21st-century institution, rather than the monument to an obsolete history — white, male, and nationalist — that it has become over the years since its founding in 1929.

After decades of stonewalling multiculturalism, MoMA is now acknowledging it, even investing in it, most notably in a permanent collection rehang that features art — much of it recently acquired — from Africa, Asia, South America, and African America, and a significant amount of work by women. In short, what’s primarily different about the reopened MoMA is the integrated presence of “difference” itself — a presence that takes the museum back to its experimental early days, when American self-taught art and non-Western art were on the bill.

Did we need a supersized (one-third larger), nearly blocklong multiplex MoMA — with a Diller, Scofidio + Renfro /Gensler extension tacked onto the 2004 building designed by Yoshio Taniguchi — to accommodate this presence? No. As we learn from every art fair every year, more art is not more. What’s needed is agile planning and alert seeing, and these are evident in the museum’s modestly scaled opening attractions, which include focused surveys of two African-American artists (Betye Saar and William Pope.L), installations by artists from India (Sheela Gowda and Dayanita Singh), a sampler of Latin American work, and a permanent collection gallery devoted to contemporary art from China.

But in every museum with an active acquisition program, the permanent collection galleries are key. They’re the heart, brain and soul of the place; its history and memory. Special, short-term shows bring people through the door. But they end, move on. If you want to know what a museum is really about, what it’s feeling and thinking, keep your eye on the art it owns and gives its walls and floors to, long-term.

Judged by this metric alone, the expanded MoMA is making obvious efforts to reshape its image without going entirely off-brand — to tell the tale of what might be called Modernism Plus, with globalism and African-American art added.

The museum has long been famous for inventing an ironclad view of Modern art as a succession of marquee “isms” (Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, etc.), and arranging its holdings to illustrate that. The very rough outline is still in place on the three floors of collection galleries: art from the 19th century through 1940 on five, from 1940 to 1970 on four, and from 1970 to the present on two. But the main route is now peppered with unexpected inclusions and interrupted by theme-based detours and byways.

 Also, walls between disciplines, once firm, are down. The permanent gallery rehang, coordinated by five chief curators from departments across the museum, has been, and will be, a collaborative project. The prevailing style is mix-and-match, with sculpture, painting, design, architecture, photography and film bunking in together (something that will freak out orthodox modernists). But, rest assured, each discipline gets some space of its own.

The jumble can be confusing, as, at first, are certain features of the general floor plan. Previously, visitor traffic entering the main lobby from West 53rd Street flowed to the right, toward the Sculpture Garden and up to the galleries. Now you have a directional choice. You can still go that way, or opt to go left toward the new Geffen wing, where you will find, among other things, street-level galleries to which admission is free (as it has been, since 2013, to the Sculpture Garden).

One of these holds a selection of design items chosen by Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the department of Architecture and Design. Another, the double-height Projects 110 Gallery, has a set of penumbral oil-on-barkcloth narrative paintings by the young Kenyan-born painter Michael Armitage, in a New York solo debut. Organized by Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, this show is the first in a series to be presented here by the Studio Museum while its new David Adjaye-designed home is under construction.

Upstairs navigation is easier, familiar. As before, the permanent collection galleries begin, chronologically, in the Taniguchi building and move from there straight west into the Geffen, with black metal door frames marking the points of transition. And on the fifth floor you’re eased into a plunge into modernism with a grouping of Brancusi sculptures set just outside the galleries themselves.

The Brancusi installation is classic MoMA: white walls, lots of air, few words. The idea is that this art doesn’t need commentary; it speaks for itself, and anything added, beyond light and space, is superfluous. You can argue with this approach — I do; I like lots of take-it-or-leave-it contextual information — but it has always been the MoMA way. Inside the galleries, the old-school hands-off mode continues, though with some tweaks. Each gallery has (at least) a short thematic title, so visitors can get a sense of what connects the works of art in the room — an idea, a medium, a place, a time — and a brief explanation of the theme.

The first gallery, now labeled “19th Century Innovators,” is pretty much a painting hit parade — Cezanne’s “Still Life with Apples” (1895-98), Rousseau’s “The Sleeping Gypsy” (1897) and, straight ahead, van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (1889) — with a few painterly prints (Mary Cassatt, Pierre Bonnard) thrown in. But to this familiar two-dimensional European world MoMA has introduced an American wild card: half a dozen nugget-like ceramic bowls and jugs by George Ohr (1857-1918), the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi.”

Ohr was turning out hundreds of these gnarly, pinched earthenware vessels in the American South at the same time Van Gogh was painting “Starry Night” in an asylum in the south of France. And in the year Ohr died, in Mississippi, even locally all but unknown, Brancusi finished his first version of“Endless Column,” on view just beyond the gallery door. In the pre-expansion MoMA, these three artists were unlikely to have met. Here they’re caught up in formal and psychological conversation.

Farther on, after you’ve passed through a mesmerizing gallery of early photographic images — including Anna Atkins’s lacy 1850s botanical studies and a 1905 film of the New York City subway, looking every bit as funky then as now — you find another meeting of artistic minds, this one a genuine startler.

The gallery itself is a virtual Picasso shrine, with his 1907 “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon” at the center, and related pictures ranged around it. But there’s a major out-of-time entry here too: a 1967 painting, acquired in 2016, by the African-American artist Faith Ringgold depicting an explosive interracial shootout. Titled “American People Series #20: Die,” it speaks to “Demoiselles” both in physical size and in visual violence. And just by being there it points up the problematic politics of a work like Picasso’s — with its fractured female bodies and colonialist appropriations — that is at the core of the collection. MoMA traditionalists will call the pairing sacrilegious; I call it a stroke of curatorial genius.

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Photo Credit: Jeenah Moon for The New York Times 

Oct 10, 2019