Wed, Jan 05, 2011 - Page 15 News List

Musing on MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art in New York used to be vaguely or overtly suspicious of the new — now the art institution can’t get enough of it By Roberta Smith NY Times News Service, New York

By Roberta Smith  /  NY Times News Service, New York

360 Degree Room for All Colors, by Olafur Eliasson, a 2002 work made of stainless steel, projection foil, fluorescent lights, wood and a control unit, is shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on April 12, 2008.

photo: Bloomberg

When I walk through the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) these days, it sometimes feels as if the place has come back from the dead — even if I’m not always so crazy about the life it happens to be leading. There’s often a confusing, disjunctive quality to it, especially where contemporary art is concerned, as the museum’s programming lurches from crowd-drawing, performance-art spectacles in the atrium to relatively dry and didactic exhibitions in its galleries. But at least there’s a pulse.

The museum feels much, much more animated than it did back in 2005 and 2006, when it — and we — were first adjusting to its slick new home on West 53rd Street. That structure, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi and built at a cost of more than US$800 million, opened in November 2004, and over the next two years it appeared to many depressed MoMA watchers that we were witnessing nothing less than a major museum’s suicide by architecture.

The building was fussy and sterile. The galleries felt too small (and still do), and the confusion and congestion of the network of hallways, escalators and elevators connecting them were extremely unpleasant (and still are). The total effect was overwhelmingly corporate, and a seeming betrayal of MoMA’s stated goal for the expansion: creating more breathing room for its existing and future collections, not to mention its public. And it was hard to see how under these constraints the museum was going to grow beyond its longtime role as guardian of its stringent, male-dominated, Cubist-based version of Modernism, as many had hoped the expansion would finally allow it to do.

And then there was the chilly and badly proportioned trophy-space atrium — four stories of spatial extravagance that the museum could ill afford. In the early days it was the leading symbol of the new building’s failed vision, and its effect on the art shown within it was dismal. Remember how Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk resembled a stake in the heart — albeit an ineffectual one — of the atrium’s vastness? Or the humiliating way that vastness made fairly robust paintings like Monet’s Water Lilies shrivel?

You may not. These days the atrium has become a symbol of something that might be called the New Modern. It is the most prominent sign of the museum’s giddy, even desperate, embrace of the new and the next, of large-scale installation and video art, as well as performance art, and generally of art as entertainment and spectacle. As such, the atrium is both a measure of MoMa’s new vitality and a symptom of something more than a little scary about where contemporary art is headed, or where the Modern is taking it. (Hint: Conceptual Art is the new Cubism.)

Like many museumgoers I can feel deeply ambivalent about what goes on in the atrium — variously vexed, seduced, pandered to, alienated and moved. Still, I think its transformation counts as progress. At least now, instead of worrying about the Modern’s vital signs, we can worry once more about what it is and isn’t doing, about the new life it has taken on.

This much is certain: MoMa isn’t sitting on its hands. Its tribe of curators is for the most part struggling with the building, which unfortunately usually means cramming too much art into its too small galleries. But the curators are also trying to make the most of their extraordinary collections and to free the museum from the straitjacket of art after, out of and up from Picasso. The increased attention to South American modernism is, for example, extraordinary. Too frequently, however, it seems that the curators revert to type, succumbing to the ingrained gravitational pull of the MoMA mindset. This is an institution, after all, that as much as ever wants to end up on the right side of history.

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