When the Museum of Modern Art reopens on Oct. 21 after a $450-million, 47,000-square-foot enlargement, it can lastly, if nonetheless cautiously, reveal itself to be a residing, respiration 21st-century establishment, slightly than the monument to an out of date historical past — white, male, and nationalist — that it has turn out to be through the years since its founding in 1929.
After many years of stonewalling multiculturalism, MoMA is now acknowledging it, even investing in it, most notably in a everlasting assortment rehang that options artwork — a lot of it lately acquired — from Africa, Asia, South America, and African America, and a big quantity of labor by ladies. In quick, what’s primarily totally different in regards to the reopened MoMA is the built-in presence of “difference” itself — a presence that takes the museum again to its experimental early days, when American self-taught artwork and non-Western artwork have been on the invoice.
Did we want a supersized (one-third bigger), almost blocklong multiplex MoMA — with a Diller, Scofidio + Renfro /Gensler extension tacked onto the 2004 constructing designed by Yoshio Taniguchi — to accommodate this presence? No. As we study from each artwork truthful yearly, extra artwork just isn’t extra. What’s wanted is agile planning and alert seeing, and these are evident within the museum’s modestly scaled opening sights, which embody centered 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 everlasting assortment gallery dedicated to modern artwork from China.
But in each museum with an energetic acquisition program, the everlasting assortment galleries are key. They’re the center, mind and soul of the place; its historical past and reminiscence. Special, short-term exhibits deliver individuals by the door. But they finish, transfer on. If you need to know what a museum is de facto about, what it’s feeling and pondering, preserve your eye on the artwork it owns and offers its partitions and flooring to, long-term.
Judged by this metric alone, the expanded MoMA is making apparent efforts to reshape its picture with out going completely off-brand — to inform the story of what is likely to be known as Modernism Plus, with globalism and African-American artwork added.
The museum has lengthy been well-known for inventing an ironclad view of Modern artwork as a succession of marquee “isms” (Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, and many others.), and arranging its holdings as an example that. The very tough define continues to be in place on the three flooring of assortment galleries: artwork from the 19th century by 1940 on 5, from 1940 to 1970 on 4, and from 1970 to the current on two. But the primary route is now peppered with surprising inclusions and interrupted by theme-based detours and byways.
Also, partitions between disciplines, as soon as agency, are down. The everlasting gallery rehang, coordinated by 5 chief curators from departments throughout the museum, has been, and shall be, a collaborative challenge. The prevailing model is mix-and-match, with sculpture, portray, design, structure, images and movie bunking in collectively (one thing that can freak out orthodox modernists). But, relaxation assured, every self-discipline will get some house of its personal.
The jumble will be complicated, as, at first, are sure options of the overall flooring plan. Previously, customer visitors getting into the primary foyer from West 53rd Street flowed to the correct, towards the Sculpture Garden and as much as the galleries. Now you’ve got a directional alternative. You can nonetheless go that manner, or decide to go left towards the brand new Geffen wing, the place you will see that, amongst different issues, street-level galleries to which admission is free (because it has been, since 2013, to the Sculpture Garden).
One of those holds a number of design objects 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.
There are other such moments, less emphatic, on all three floors. One comes with the sight of Alma Woodsey Thomas’s incandescent 1973 “Fiery Sunset” plugged into an otherwise all-Matisse room. And there are several in a group installation evoking the matchless élan of the New York City painter Florine Stettheimer.
No curatorial credits are posted anywhere. But I hope that whoever chose to include a 1981 piece by the East Village artist Arch Connelly (1950-1993), will accept my personal thanks. The Connelly contribution, a mirror-shaped canvas encrusted with hundreds of fake pearls and titled “Self-Portrait,” suits the Stettheimian “extravagance-is-me ” ethos to a T.
On the long historical walkabout of some 60 collection galleries spread over three floors, there’s pretty much something for everyone. You get a big hit of Jackson Pollock, a Frida Kahlo fix, megadoses of Pop and Surrealism; Soup Cans, “Water Lilies,” and Cindy Shermans to burn — all the things that many people come to MoMA, selfie sticks in hand, to see.
But you also get specialty shows, the equivalent of mini-seminars, on books made by artists in Revolution-era Russia (most are by women), on architecture as sculpture, and on the epic potential of Latin American Mail Art. And there’s one exhibition, smallish in floor space but large in material, focused on the poet Frank O’Hara, who was a MoMA curator. To some visitors these will seem esoteric and pass-byable, but they’re a testament to the museum’s archival depths and its scholarly chops. And, once you put a toe in, they’re fun.
Finally, we get charismatic images by names that should be on every art-lover’s A-list but aren’t — yet: Geta Bratescu, Graciela Carnevale, Sari Dienes, Rosalyn Drexler, Valie Export, Beatriz González, Maren Hassinger, Atsuko Tanaka, along with Benny Andrews, Ibrahim El-Salahi, and May Stevens, all three part of the exceptionally strong installation of Vietnam War-era art, “War Within, War Without,” that brings the 4th floor rehang to a close.
Work by many of these artists has entered the collection in just the past few years. (When you’re traveling the galleries, pay attention to the acquisition dates on the labels; they can tell you a lot about the politics of purchase.) Much of it could find no place in MoMA’s canonically gated modernist story. The current version of Modernism Plus is by no means an in-depth rewrite, but it has the makings of one, depending on how it’s developed.
And, in one of the most promising features of the reopened museum, the mechanics for development are there. Post-expansion plans call for regular rotation and refreshment of the collection. Every six months, a third of the galleries on floors five, four and two will be reinstalled. By the end of 18 months, everything, the promise is, will, have been rethought. Destination favorites — “Starry Night,” “Desmoiselles” — will no doubt stay on view, but what’s around them will change, which will change them too.
Such flexibility offers tremendous potential for new thinking, particularly at a museum whose curatorial staff has, in the past few years, begun to diversify (though not its board of trustees). Flexibility also, it’s worth saying, allows the option of backpedaling should the opening “new” model prove to be little too new for a healthy box-office.
My guess is that in some hopefully ever-improving version, this 21st century MoMA will work, if only for self-preservative reasons. Multicultural is now marketable. To ignore it is to forfeit profit, not to mention critical credibility. And the new MoMA is obviously tailored to a new and younger audience, one that has no investment, nostalgic or otherwise, in the old pre-Taniguchi model, which now lives on mostly in the memories of a fading population (which itself had no direct experience of the original, progressive 1930s museum).
On the evidence of what I see in the reopened museum, a bunch of very smart curators are putting their heads together to work from inside to begin to turn a big white ship in another direction. We’re not talking Revolution. With this museum we probably never will. But in the reboot there are stimulating ideas and unexpected, history-altering talents around every corner. As long as both keep showing up at MoMA, so will I.
Museum of Modern Art
The museum reopens to the public Oct. 21 (member previews begin Oct. 12); moma.org.