A New House for MOMA
By Alex C.
This November, the newly revamped MoMA reopened its Manhattan headquarters, reaffirming its Midtown location as the most prominent center for modern art in the world. On Saturday’s unveiling, coinciding with the museum’s 75th anniversary, New Yorkers were privileged to MoMA’s unknowns and very-well-knowns alike, and as Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times writes, “you would have to be either comatose or completely immune to the pleasures of modernism not to be moved by its fifth floor,” a ravishing collection of Vincent van Gogh, Max Beckman, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and Pablo Picasso.
The new space, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, is a sleek combination of stainless steel and glass, with vast white walls and hardwood floors. Far more spacious than before, with galleries situated to prevent congestion, the design is everything it is meant to be: practical, unobtrusive, and elegant, a modern house for New York’s modern art.
But Taniguchi also brings a new sense of meditation to the space. The galleries are vast and open, with lightly tinted windows illuminating the off-white walls. There is something soft about the design’s sharp-edged modernism.
Along with the MoMA’s architectural redesign, curators have overseen a complex re-hang. The prodigious collection of paintings, drawings, sculpture and photography are tactically displayed about the six high-ceilinged floors, plotted with the same precision as Taniguchi’s architectural plan. Placement of the work is a sensitive art in itself— a tricky balance of chronology, crowds and character.
Past the ticket counter and information desk, guests wander up Taniguchi’s stone staircase, passing under MoMA’s iconic hanging Bell 47D-1 helicopter and into the museum’s main atrium. With a curatorial spark, the cosmically mind-boggling Broken Obelisk sits central, Barnett Newman’s pyramid of Cor-Ten steel adjoined to an inverted balancing obelisk. Across from the spiritual, geometric sculpture is a work of contrasting technique but comparable vibe. The juxtaposition sets the mood for the whole museum: Monet’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-lily Pond, a beautiful, wall size blend of color that renders the natural scene with emanating tranquility.
Plotted around the atrium, the galleries are organized by form and period. The drawing collection is impressive and there is particular joy in the 2nd floor’s print exhibition. But the most powerful impressions are left by the painting and sculpture collections. Starting on the 4th floor with works from 1940-1970, the space is divided into sub-movements: abstract expressionism, minimalism, post-minimalism, pop art, with sculpture by Giacometti sprinkled throughout. One room is entirely devoted to Jackson Pollack, where his first three “drip” paintings, which were realized in quick succession, hang prominently. The largest, One: Number 31, 1950, is captivating. In person, the chaotic spontaneity of the Pollack’s “action” painting is deeply affecting. Beyond, there is delight in Jasper John’s target painting, and his iconic Flag. Hidden in the corner of the “After Abstract Expressionism” room, there is Painting by Francis Bacon, a haunting depiction of a man shadowed by an umbrella, standing against a stretched body whose chest is torn open and enshrouded in darkness. Colors are intense, with pastel pink and purple in the background, and the brushstroke is crude and expressive. Across the floor, in sharp contrast, Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans is definitive of the light-spirited pop art collection. The 4th floor offers a varied collection of pieces, from different artistic movements, which fully convey the pleasures and profundities of abstraction.
Adorning the staircase up from 4 is Matisse’s Dance (first version), an oddly placed segue from the late modernist period to its hailed glory days, the painting and sculpture of 1880-1940. Here is a collection of the vibrantly expressive, the disturbingly perverse and the startlingly beautiful: the modernism tour de force of the 5th floor. “This is where they have the heavy-hitters,” my brother noted as we climbed the stairs, reaching the museum’s chronologically plotted crescendo. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, followed by Cezanne’s The Bather, and Matisse’s Red Studio just after, with van Gogh’s Starry Night paces away-- the collection is historically stacked and deeply moving. Starry Night is unspeakably beautiful, especially in person. But Olive Trees, its lesser-known daytime companion, hangs next to it and is just as fascinating. Together their effect far outreaches historical preconceptions. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a thrill, but so much more so when viewed in the context of his The Women at the Spring. You simply have to see it.
On the top floor there is a monstrous gallery devoted primarily to temporary exhibits, large enough to house a Richard Serra Torqued Spiral. The open space is decked with a double-high ceiling and vastly expands on the museum’s temporary exhibition space. Its massive scale is perhaps extenuated though by its near emptiness; most of the space is yet unused. However Sculpture for a Large Wall, Ellsworth Kelley’s wrought of aluminum tiles and solid colors, is a spectacle to be sure.
Wandering through the museum, one can’t help but think of how much has changed since it was founded in 1929 by Alfred H. Barr Jr. For one thing, at that time, ‘modern’ art was actually modern. With MoMA’s latest renovation/reinvention, now finding itself with soaring new gallery space and a soaring new admission charge, questions of identity arise.
The weakest portion of the museum is by far the contemporary gallery of the 2nd floor. Devoted to works since 1970, the exhibition seems scattered and unimpressive. It is certainly no criticism that the collection lacks unity as the character of the contemporary period is still to be seen. But beyond unity, the collection lacks harmony. It seems thrown together without much care or attention. Contemporary art, it seems, is neither MoMA’s strength nor its focus.
MoMA is clearly no longer the edgy and progressive institution that it once was. When it was originally founded, Alfred Barr planned to sell its collection as it matured, keeping MoMA at the helm of the contemporary movement. But today the museum has become historical, especially considering the surprisingly high admission charge of $20, suggesting a readjusted focus on members and tourists. And with its newly finished meditative design, there is little edgy about it.
Identity questions aside, however, Manhattan has sorely missed MoMA. New Yorkers lined up in impressive numbers opening weekend to be reunited with that helicopter, to catch a glimpse of Starry Night. The museum is an essential part of the city, and the city is a distinctive part of the museum. Large tinted windows illuminate the galleries, and passing through, museum-goers constantly stop to gaze out at the city, before turning their attention to the next painting or sculpture.