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MoMA Conquers Curator-Devouring Second Floor, Makes Plans for Nouvel’s Mega-Tower CORRECTED

Alejandro Puente, “Everything Goes,” 1968-70, New Acquisition

The Museum of Modern Art’s latest installation of contemporary works from its collection, Here is Every, has fallen below the critical radar. But it’s the best of the five deployments of its contemporary forces since the Taniguchi-designed museum expansion opened almost four years ago.

It’s also the most visitor-friendly use of the cavernous second-floor gallery. All of this is largely due to the skills of the museum’s overworked and estimable curator of drawings (and everything else), Connie Butler (who also curated Wack!, Pipe, Glass Bottle of Rum: The Art of Appropriation and the upcoming Marlene Dumas).

The show is well selected and installed—roughly chronological, but with affinity groupings that make sense without a curator’s needing to tell you why. There’s minimal labeling, except for new acquisitions (including the Puente, above), some of which are accorded more detailed descriptions. There’s no wall text announcing: “This is minimalism.” “This is conceptualism.” But you sense the flow and the changes in visual and emotional vocabulary as you move through the subdivided space.

The judicious use of temporary walls are what make this show seem more intelligent and intelligible than others, where the floor’s huge expanse was not broken down into digestible bits. Too big a space, presenting too many competing and divergent works, created a sense of visual and sensory overload in past installations.

MoMA is also getting the knack of taming its monumental atrium, most recently with Ann Temkin‘s rewarding hang of works by Philip Guston and, coming in November, a site-specific, 25-foot-high installation of moving images by Pipilotti Rist. There needs to be some unifying concept for an installation to hold its own in this art-dwarfing arena.

But onward to MoMA’s NEXT expansion: Temkin, recently promoted as the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, told me that plans are due in the middle of next year for the museum’s use of the approximately 50,000 square feet of new gallery space that will accrue to it if Jean Nouvel‘s soaring glass tower (contiguous with MoMA and built on land that it sold to the developer) ever gets off the ground. Unlike the Whitney, which, as expected, won easy approval for its downtown expansion from the City Council on Wednesday, MoMA (or more precisely, Hines, the developer for the tower) is coming up against some hostile neighbors.

Hines, through a spokesperson, refused to inform me of the status of its quest for the required government approvals. Community Board 5, in an advisory capacity, voted overwhelmingly against the transfer of air rights from St. Thomas Church (east of MoMA) and the University Club (to the northeast), needed to allow the megalith to rise 75 stories. MoMA owned the University Club’s air rights, previously acquired by director Glenn Lowry as part of his real estate-buying spree.

Sid Bass, vice chairman of MoMA’s board, recently told me that residents of Museum Tower, the apartment building that was built in conjunction with MoMA’s previous Cesar Pelli-designed expansion, are up in arms about the expected obstruction of their views by Nouvel’s tower. The West 54-55 Street Block Association is also on the case.

Community opposition didn’t matter, however, in the first round of the official review process: Both buildings that are transferring air rights are landmarked, and the city’s Landmark Preservation Commission voted unanimously on May 13 to allow the transfer. LPC spokesperson Elisabeth de Bourbon told me:

The Landmarks Commissioners found there is a “preservation purpose” to both applications to the Planning Commission….”Preservation purpose” refers to up-front restoration work of the landmarks or the establishment of an ongoing maintenance program for them. The Commission also determined that the Nouvel Tower would have no effect on either the club or the church.

Next up: the City Planning Department. But a spokesperson there, Rachaele Raynoff, told me on Monday, four months after the Landmarks Commission’s go-ahead, “No application has been filed as yet.”

Could it be that Hines is daunted by the challenging real estate climate and the difficulties affecting another New York Nouvel, overseen by a different developer—a condo project, merely 23 stories high, rising next to Frank Gehry‘s IAC Headquarters building? Alex Frangos of the Wall Street Journal wrote in August that the downtown project was “some $50 million over budget and nearly a year behind schedule.”

If MoMA ever does continue its inexorable westward expansion, its new galleries will be used for the permanent collection, according to both Temkin and Kathy Halbreich, the museum’s associate director. Plans call for mixing together works from different media—paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, etc. And the next installation in the existing second-floor contemporary galleries may juxtapose contemporary works with older works, Temkin said.

CORRECTION: In my original post, I said that MoMA owned the University Club. It owned (and transferred) only the club’s air rights.

an ArtsJournal blog