Modernizing the Modern

Creating a balance between modern art and contemporary art was just one of the challenges confronting MoMA’s staff, which used the museum’s latest expansion as the occasion for soul-searching about what the museum has been, what it is, and what it wants to be.

Among the museum’s recent acquisitions by contemporary artists is Gillian Wearing’s Self-Portrait at 17 Years Old, 2003.


Have you ever fixed a bathroom or a kitchen?” asks Peter Galassi, chief curator of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Galassi suggests images of household chaos when asked what it has been like to reinstall a multibillion-dollar collection while construction crews are still finishing Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi’s expansion, which Terence Riley, MoMA’s chief curator of architecture and design, describes as a series of interlocking spaces that come together “like an incredible spatial Rubik’s Cube.”

John Elderfield, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, reinstalled the permanent collection as finished sections of the building were delivered piecemeal to him, starting with the second floor, where contemporary works in the permanent collection from the 1970s onward will be displayed, and the sixth floor, a temporary exhibition space that the museum is devoting to its permanent collection during its reopening. James Rosenquist’s massive F-111 (1964–65), a work the museum has never shown on a single wall until now, will occupy a vast gallery on the sixth floor, where Ellsworth Kelly’s Sculpture for a Large Wall(1957) is set to join it. November 20, the date of the museum’s reopening after an expansion project that will cost nearly $1 billion, says Elderfield, is a “we-will-do-it-regardless date.”

During the past decade, the museum’s staff conducted a public self-examination of what the museum has been, what it is, and what it wants to be. It held a series of think-tank sessions during the mid-1990s, including a weekend retreat in 1996 at the Rockefeller family estate in Pocantico Hills, New York, where artists, critics, and architects—among them architect Bernard Tschumi, New Yorkercritic Adam Gopnik, and sculptor Richard Serra—met with museum staff and trustees. The museum’s predicament was, as participant Bill Viola noted, that “all of a sudden we wake up at the end of the 20th century, and there is a major, almost Metropolitan Museum–like aspect to the Museum of Modern Art, which has all these historical objects that are looking period and very old.”

Senior officials say that one of the greatest challenges for a museum founded in 1929 on the premise of presenting “art of our time” is how to balance its commitment to the art of Barr’s time—classical modern works by masters like Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse—with the art of today, by artists such as Takashi Murakami, Matthew Barney, and Rachel Whiteread.

In reconstructing the museum, its leaders have had to consider competing interests. Most of its trustees collect contemporary art, donate it, and want it to be seen. But a few of its most ardent supporters, such as chairman emeritus David Rockefeller and chairman Ronald Lauder, favored giving the modern-art collection pride of place. “The Museum of Modern Art has the greatest collection of modern art, and that is a collection that nobody, no matter how much money you have, could ever put together today,” says Lauder, who is funding the $10 million-plus restoration of the original 1939 International Style building by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone.

Whatever statement the new building makes, it was arrived at by choices, says Lauder. “How big to make it, and what balance? How much intimacy? What type of lighting? How much daylight? But perhaps the major decision that we had to make—and we’re still making, and we’ll be making it for a long time, particularly during the installation—is the balance between modern and contemporary art. Then you have other choices within contemporary art. Does Roy Lichtenstein belong with modern art or contemporary? Do people want to see contemporary art from the 1960s and ’70s more or less than they want to see works done today?”

The museum does not draw a clear distinction between contemporary and modern art, according to Elderfield, who has brought in new staff—including Ann Temkin, formerly of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Joachim Pissarro, formerly of the Yale University Art Gallery—and promoted Anne Umland from within the department. Among the curatorial staff, he says, there’s been the sense that the “two things are part of the same thing, and that the two things inform each other. And that really the kind of issues made out by the pioneers are still being played out, however unconsciously or however obliquely, by younger people. Obviously there have been moments when people have argued that in fact modern art ended and there was something else called postmodern art, i.e. contemporary art, which is different.” The museum, Elderfield says, generally defines contemporary art as art made in the last 30 years on a rolling basis.

“Contemporary art is simply modern art made today,” says Lowry. “The issue for us is the relationship of what is being made today with what was made a decade ago, three decades ago, a hundred years ago. So long as there is a dialogue, then it is of absolute interest to us.”

When the museum reopens, it will turn over virtually the entire building to its permanent collection. Once visitors enter a 12,400-square-foot lobby that connects 53rd and 54th Streets, they will come upon a block-wide, column-free contemporary gallery on the second floor, with nearly 22-foot-high ceilings. It will house an installation of works that date from the 1970s to 2004 and represent each of the museum’s six collecting departments: painting and sculpture; photography; drawings; prints and illustrated books; architecture and design; and film and media. Visitors will travel up to the fourth and fifth floors to view older works. “The thing that Taniguchi and others who liked this idea could see was that people will always go see the early works,” says president emerita Agnes Gund, “whereas they might not go up and see the contemporary works if they were on the top floor.”

The fifth floor will house classic modern works from 1880 to about 1940, where the museum’s prized Picasso, the 1907 Les demoiselles d’Avignon, which has been cleaned and reframed, will occupy the second room.

“Taking the broadest possible view, the collection begins as an easel painting collection with sculpture, and then it goes through periodic assaults on easel painting from a variety of sources—mostly Dadaists and Surrealists and then again in the 1960s,” says Elderfield. “We’ve tried more than before to present the history not as one continuous river but as a sense of competing as well as continuous motivations. While it’s true that the MoMA collection is principally European before World War II, and it was principally North American after that, clearly at a certain point it started to disseminate more broadly. And certainly within contemporary art the notion of national boundaries hardly seems to work anymore.”

The fourth floor will start around 1940 and run through 1970, when “painting is still an active mobilizing force, but sculptural activities become increasingly important since the 1960s,” says Elderfield. “The last gallery there deals with minimalism and postminimalism, and that is the overlap that takes one down onto the contemporary gallery, which opens with sculptural activities that are very different.”

The second floor will represent the 1970s onward. “Obviously we had to decide where to make the split with the galleries,” says Elderfield. “One thing that guided us was thinking, ‘OK, at what point would it be impossible to accurately tell a history of contemporary art by painting and sculpture alone?’” The 1970s demarcation between the galleries, Elderfield says, “reflects the importance of media work, particularly the increasing prominence of photography. In that sense it is recognizing a change.”

In the 1970s and ’80s, museum officials debated whether they should even continue to collect contemporary art, and in the early 1990s they considered establishing a satellite building for contemporary art. MoMA vice chairman Jerry Speyer, owner of Tishman Speyer Properties, helped the museum negotiate the purchase of the Dorset Hotel and two adjacent brownstones in a $50 million transaction in 1996, allowing the museum to stay on-site and enlarge its footprint.

“It was pretty clear that contemporary art was the future of the museum, and in order for us to continue building on what we had achieved, we had to bring contemporary art and art of the immediate past together—not separate them,” says Lowry. “We have, I would say, only temporarily dealt with this issue. It will inevitably come up again, and we will think it through again because it is precisely that tension between the present and the immediate past that fuels the direction of the museum.”

There are two Taniguchi stories people involved with the museum like to tell. One involves green tea and the other a kind of magic trick. Elderfield recalls the first time he heard Taniguchi compare a museum to a teacup. “I was visiting his most recent building in Tokyo, which was not yet completed, and I said, ‘Yoshio, this is so beautiful,’” says Elderfield. “And he said, ‘No, no, no, you’re not allowed to say this.’ And then he said, ‘I’m not being modest. You can’t judge it until the art and the people are in the building. It’s like a Japanese teacup. You might think it’s beautiful, but it’s only when the green tea goes in that it takes on the colors that it’s supposed to have.’”

Terence Riley remembers a suggestion Taniguchi, who had never built outside of Japan, made after he had won the museum’s architecture competition. “We had a drink the night before he went back to Tokyo, and he said, ‘Terry, if you raise a lot of money, I’ll give you very good architecture. But if you raise a real lot of money, I’ll make the architecture go away,’” says Riley. “I’ve come to understand what that means. He doesn’t want the architecture to be a thing. He wants it to be an environment.”

Taniguchi accomplishes this, Riley says, through his choice of materials—such as the black Zimbabwe granite on the building’s facade, whose density can evoke fabric panels; the narrow, solid steel mullions that turn the glass walls surrounding the garden into fragile, lacy cages; and the white bronze in the door surrounds that lends a soft, lustrous reflectivity. Taniguchi also has a preference for very large pieces of material. “The bigger the piece, the less seams, the less work involved: less joints, less mortar, less everything,” says Riley. “The whole idea is less and less and less. Less material, less work, less weight.”

The design keeps Barr’s chronological survey of modern art, and it also incorporates flexible spaces where curators will be able to punctuate the story with contrasting or corresponding trends and views. “We wanted to encourage people to not only follow a route that we were laying out,” says Lowry, “but to move off that route in their own direction—to recognize that art making is often simultaneous, that while one group of artists is pushing in a certain direction, another group is pushing in a very different direction, and it is all happening at the same time.”

MoMA is a big, complex institution that employs more than 40 curators across 6 departments. Taniguchi had to incorporate individual departmental needs into his design. “MoMA is almost like a university, where the chief curators are given a lot of independence in how they see their medium and how they see their exhibition program,” Riley says. “We wanted a coherent plan for the overall building. It’s not supposed to look like a food court, with McDonald’s/painting and sculpture over there and Pizza Hut/architecture and design over here. It’s supposed to look like one museum. So there was that constant back-and-forth between the collective and the individual.”

Under Lowry the museum has altered its curatorial focus. “There is a recognition that while individual curators have responsibility for their discipline, their discipline is only one piece of a larger equation, and the larger equation is always more interesting than any one piece,” says Lowry. “We’ve tried to develop an interdepartmental approach to the way we think about the institution and the collection.”

Last year the museum established an interdepartmental curatorial committee on contemporary art, chaired by Gary Garrels, chief curator of drawings and a curator in the department of painting and sculpture. The trustees have also created a fund for the 21st century, the museum’s first interdisciplinary fund for acquiring works made in the past five years on a rolling basis. Since its inception last year, the $1 million-plus fund has been used to acquire works by artists including Julie Mehretu, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Manfred Pernice, and Eve Sussman, whose single-channel media installation 89 Seconds at Alcazar (2004) was a hit at the last Whitney Biennial.

The reopened galleries will boast a number of new acquisitions, among them Gordon Matta-Clark’s assemblage of building fragments, Bingo (1974), Sol LeWitt’s Floor Structure (1963), and a dozen works by Latin American artists such as Beatriz Milhazes’s Succulent Eggplants (1996) and Joaquí­n Torres-Garcí­a’s Color Structure (1930). The museum has been actively deaccessioning works in order to reshape its collection, attracting some controversy for shedding such valuable paintings as Picasso’s 1909 Houses on the Hill, Horta de Ebro, Francis Bacon’s 1952 Dog, Giorgio de Chirico’s 1917 The Great Metaphysician, and Pollock’s Number 12, 1949. The sales have enabled the department to acquire works like Jasper Johns’s Diver (1962–63), Bacon’s Triptych (1991), and Picasso’s Pregnant Woman(1950).

Lowry says that from its inception, the museum has accepted gifts only on the condition that any work could be deaccessioned at any time. “The singular strength of our collection has been the ability on occasion to trade a near masterpiece for an even better one,” he says.

Taniguchi’s building preserves along 53rd Street the facades of the museum’s past—the 1939 Goodwin and Stone building, the 1964 Philip Johnson addition, and the 1984 César Pelli museum tower. Perhaps just as meaningfully, Taniguchi presents a unified front on 54th Street.

Insiders say one thing is certain, however: this won’t be MoMA’s last expansion. The museum has already acquired two additional properties on the block. “The opening of the new building is not an end point,” says Peter Galassi. “If the building and display were an end point, it would be a disaster. It’s a new beginning. Things will start changing the next day.”

Kelly Devine Thomas is senior writer of ARTnews.

This article has been abridged for the ARTnews Web site.

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