The Exuberance of MOMA’s Expansion

The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl

The Vatican, Kremlin, and Valhalla of modernism—home of the faith, the sway, and the glamour—that is the Museum of Modern Art is reopening, after an expansion that adds forty-seven thousand square feet and many new galleries, inserted into an apartment tower next door and built on neighboring land gobbled from the late, by some of us lamented, digs of the American Folk Art Museum. Far more, though still a fraction, of moma’s nonpareil collection is now on display, arranged roughly chronologically but studded with such mutually provoking juxtapositions as a 1967 painting that fantasizes a race riot, by the African-American artist Faith Ringgold, with Picasso’s gospel “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). The renovation is a big deal for the global art world, and certainly for New York. It runs up against problems old and new. Generously enlarged quarters will only marginally relieve a chronic crush of visitors, the museum victimized by its own charisma. Enhanced representations of art by women, African-Americans, Africans, Latin-Americans, and Asians can feel tentative, pitched between self-evident justice and noblesse oblige. But such efforts are important and must continue. We will have a diverse cosmopolitan culture or none worth bothering about.

In addition, the design provides flexible space for temporary installations that will serve the museum’s duty to entertain. A spectacular affair by the South Korean artist Haegue Yang in the museum’s still space-squandering atrium features wheeled assemblages that jingle as, at intervals, they are pushed around by performers, and colorful vinyl reliefs that cling to the high walls like mutant lepidoptera. The work’s political, spiritual, and whatnot themes are arcane, but never mind. It makes for an elating circus atmosphere, hospitable to audiences only cursorily versed in art history. Popular engagement has become a necessary face, or fate, of any current art-making that isn’t adjudicated by a plutocratic market. Without it, contemporary art is a buyers’ club.

Decisions to stitch works of formerly segregated mediums, such as graphic art, photography, design, architecture, artists’ books, and film, into the historic course of painting and sculpture come off pleasantly—the museum owns gems in all fields—though you sense the strain of the forced equivalencies of art and artifacts. moma laid the groundwork for this dilemma nine decades ago, when the founders envisaged an encyclopedic approach to products of modernity, eliding bohemian studios with commercial industries. That mandate, though still guiding new acquisitions, has devolved from evangelical avant-gardism to the preservation of multitudinous brainstorms of yesteryear. The adorable 1945-vintage Bell helicopter, acquired in 1984, yet hovers above the stairs to the second floor, gamely signifying something epochal, or not so epochal, or bizarre, depending on your predilection. So vast is the frame of reference adopted at the museum’s outset that, by now, no survey of the collection can amount to more than a walk-through brochure of choice examples. Obligatory breadth renders depth moot. There’s no help for this.

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Photo Credit: Ward Roberts

Oct 14, 2019