I lunched on Wednesday with a friend of mine who recently went to work at the Museum of Modern Art, whose brand-new midtown headquarters will be opened to the public tomorrow. The flu had laid me too low to attend any of the preceding week’s press previews, so when she asked me if I’d like to take a quick peek at the galleries, I was–well, torn. I was worn out from a hard night’s book-plugging and knew I really needed to go home and grab a nap, but I couldn’t imagine passing up a chance to see the new MoMA before the crowds arrived, so I took a deep breath and said, “You bet. Let’s go.”
No doubt every art and architecture critic in the known universe will be holding forth this week and next about MoMA. (The New York Times even has a special page on its Web site devoted to the opening.) Opinions published to date range from the ecstatic to the apocalyptic. For my part, I feel neither inclined nor qualified to lay down the law based on a single brisk walkthrough. The new MoMA is going to be around for a long time, and my feelings about it will evolve each time I come back to see it again. The sheer bigness of the public areas, for instance, struck me as offputting at first glance. “This’d be a great place for a roller derby,” I told my friend as we entered the first-floor lobby. But I realized in the next breath that they’d look different–radically so–once they were filled to capacity with excited museumgoers, and immediately resolved to suspend judgment.
Most of the artbloggers who’ve written about MoMA have concentrated on the contemporary galleries and their contents. (Modern Art Notes is posting fresh links on a regular basis.) I was more interested in how MoMA’s “narrative” of the development of modernism had been revisited and reshaped by John Elderfield and his team of curators. Again, my reactions are strictly provisional, but here are some of the things that struck me as I sprinted through the galleries for the first time:
– In the old MoMA, Picasso was the big cheese. Now it’s Matisse. (Suits me.)
– Visitors to the old MoMA had only one way to experience the unfolding of modernism: in a sequence carefully controlled by the entrances and exits to the successive galleries. The new floor plan, by contrast, is much more open. MoMA still tells a highly idiosyncratic “story” about modern art, but you can read the chapters in whatever order you choose.
– In the old MoMA, prewar American modernists were all but ignored, except for the ones whose work either related to European surrealism (Joseph Cornell) or prefigured abstract expressionism (Milton Avery). Nor were such postwar representationalists as Fairfield Porter given the time of day. Alas, nothing has changed. Justin Davidson and Ariella Budick nailed it in their Newsday review:
Every museum has its omissions, but MoMA’s disregard for Americans who don’t fit the official line is all the more breathtaking because of the building’s scope. Two floors of painting and sculpture are still not ample enough to include Fairfield Porter, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Philip Pearlstein, or Alex Katz. Even Larry Rivers’ “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” one of the museum’s marquee paintings, is absent.
These omissions are all the more striking to me in light of the fact that my own collection of works on paper by American artists focuses on precisely those artists whom MoMA fails to take seriously. I originally conceived of the “Teachout Museum” as a kind of counter-canon of American modernism–a reply to MoMA, so to speak. The fact that the old MoMA was too small to exhibit more than a fraction of its vast holdings made me wonder whether the new MoMA might possibly be planning to rethink its cramped view of American art before 1945. No such luck. At least for now, Elderfield & Co. haven’t even tried.
– If you want to sum up MoMA’s occasional fits of provincialism in a single sentence, you could do worse than this one: it owns at least four major Morandis, but none of them is on view.
– One of the best things a smart curator can do is hang works of art together in such a way as to make you say, Wow! I never thought of that. The new MoMA offers more than a few such double-take moments. The gallery devoted to minimalism, for instance, also contains a large circle painting by Kenneth Noland. To see it hanging across the room from a Donald Judd sculpture is eye-opening in the best possible way. Likewise the now-notorious stairwell in which Matisse’s “La Danse” looks down on Avery’s “Sea Grasses and Blue Sea” (which used to hang next to the cloakroom!) and a Richard Diebenkorn “Ocean Park” canvas. No, I don’t like the way the Matisse is hung, not one little bit–it’s cute, if you know what I mean–but I love the juxtaposition.
A thought-provoking afternoon, in short, and I was bone-tired when I headed for home, got on my back for a couple of hours, then cabbed down to the theater district to hear the Phil Woods Quintet
at Birdland, an event I’d been eagerly awaiting for weeks.
Woods is one of those jazz musicians who is extravagantly admired by his peers without ever having enjoyed the general acclaim he deserves (except for the too-brief period in the Seventies when he sat in on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” and Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu” and recorded under his own name for RCA). He is that rarity of rarities, a second-generation bebop saxophonist who learned the lessons of Charlie Parker without choking on them, and now that he’s reached the threshold of old age, his playing is purer and more compelling than ever. Yes, Woods is still hot enough to burn a hole in a girder, but the hard-edged style of his youthful days has given way to a warmer, richer sound–perhaps he picked up a touch of Benny Carter somewhere along the way. Of course he’s also a great virtuoso, one of the greatest in jazz, but you never get the feeling that he’s showing off: everything is casual, even offhand, as though he were playing for a roomful of friends.
It doesn’t hurt that Woods has been working with the same bassist and drummer, Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin, for thirty years. To say all three of them are on the same page is the blandest of understatements–they finish each other’s sentences–and trumpeter Brian Lynch, who joined the group in 1992, fits in no less seamlessly. Among a thousand other things, I love the way they rely on only the most minimal amplification, letting their individual sounds blend naturally in the air. (Microphones have always been a formality for the mammoth-toned Woods.) As for Bill Charlap, who signed on in 1995 and has continued to appear with the quintet from time to time even after his own career mushroomed, I simply can’t say enough good things about him, try though I do; I go to hear Charlap as often as possible, and he never fails to spin my head around. On Wednesday he did it with a solo version of David Raksin’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” that sounded as if he were breathing into an Aeolian harp instead of caressing the keys of Birdland’s Cadillac-sized B