Exterior Reflection, MOMA, New York City,” Tony Fischer

October 10, 2019; New York Times

“Since its inception in 1929, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has continually redefined the idea of the museum in contemporary Western culture,” opines the nonprofit Art Story about the famed New York City institution. The latest renovation, the museum’s most significant in decades, seeks, in the words of chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer, to treat “the collection less like a canon and more like a conversation.”

Now, with member tours starting this week and a full reopening to the public on October 21st, the shape of the new museum is becoming clearer.

The remodel opens the museum to a far wider range of artists. But as New York Times art critic Holland Cotter observes, it should not be forgotten that this transformation did not come easily.

As Cotter puts it, with the remodel, the museum becomes “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.

Even as MoMA changes, there is still some caution. This is not surprising. The goal, as the museums’ curators have explained, is to facilitate new stories while continuing to feature modernist masterpieces. Criticism from those who “long for the days when the museum presented its canon of modernist masterpieces (which were also, of course, overwhelmingly by white male artists)” is anticipated. Indeed, last month Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture, half-seriously told the Washington Post she had enlarged her mailbox for October.

Cotter labels the outcome of the remodel as “Modernism Plus,” a combination of traditional modern art “with globalism and African-American art added.”

What does this look like? Cotter lays out the main features:

  • The museum maintains a traditional historical progression: Cotter notes that “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.”
  • Walls between disciplines, once firm, are down, with exhibits designed by multiple curators.
  • There is a willingness to use juxtapositions to encourage reflection; Cotter points to “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.”
  • New artistic voices are given their due. As Cotter puts, it “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.”

The result, Cotter notes, “is by no means an in-depth rewrite, but it has the makings of one.” And, Cotter observes, with plans for regular rotation and refreshment of the collection, “the mechanics for development are there.” As Cotter explains, “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.”

Cotter adds that, “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).” Still, Cotter cautions, there is also risk that flexibility could possibly go in the direction of less diversity, if the new MoMA is poorly received by museumgoers.

Overall though, Cotter is optimistic: “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…but in the reboot, there are stimulating ideas and unexpected, history-altering talents around every corner.”—Steve Dubb