“So, what did you do all afternoon?” my friend Allie asked as we settled into our seats to see Junebug.
“I went to MoMA,” I told her.
“And did you enjoy yourself?”
I hesitated, still reluctant to commit myself definitively to the unwelcome truth.
“No,” I finally said. “I didn’t enjoy myself at all. I don’t think the new MoMA is a very good place to look at art. It’s like a mall, not a museum. A great big supermall.”
She nodded. “That’s just how I feel,” she replied.
It wasn’t until last Friday afternoon that I was willing at last to admit what I’d suspected all along: I simply don’t like the much-ballyhooed new Museum of Modern Art, which I saw for the first time just before it opened to the public last November. My first impressions had been sharply mixed, but I did my best to side with the strengths of the new building, knowing that such impressions are almost always deceptive. I went back a month later, and since then I’d stayed away, wanting to give the curators a chance to find their footing before I rendered anything like a final judgment.
Sure enough, some things have changed since the new MoMA opened its doors, and one of them is genuinely encouraging. The museum’s great Monet “Water Lilies” triptych, which had been hanging in a multi-story atrium across from Barnett Newman’s monstrous Broken Obelisk, has now been moved to a small side gallery which it shares with two other late Monets and a pair of large paintings by Bonnard and Vuillard, a modest but nonetheless welcome gesture to civility.
Otherwise, the MoMA I saw on Friday is basically the same MoMA I saw last November, with the same ineradicable problems that were immediately apparent to me (and many others) on first viewing. The exaggerated scale of the building swamps the art it contains, and the austere décor is so rigidly uniform in its self-conscious simplicity as to make the museum seem even bigger than it is. As if to compensate—which it doesn’t—most of the galleries are as overstuffed with paintings as they are overcrowded with people, making it impossible to concentrate on any one work with anything remotely approaching ease. And while I’m hardly the first person to remark on the mall-like character of the new MoMA, I found it even more oppressive this time around. I came away feeling that visitors were intended not to commune with the art on the walls but to pass by it briskly on the way from the food court to the museum store, sped on their hasty way by the endless banks of escalators that in retrospect strike me as the building’s most memorable feature.
Size alone does not make a museum oppressive. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is big, too, but the varied character of its public spaces makes it feel far more compact than it is, like an ensemble of smaller museums that happen to share the same building. You can spend an hour or two in the American wing, for instance, and go home satisfied, knowing that you can always return another day to look at the Vermeers. Not so MoMA, whose architecture and décor are all, all of a piece throughout, making it look less like One Big Museum than One Big Blockbuster, “Modernism: A History,” a fist-sized pill that must be swallowed in a single desperate gulp or not at all.
Needless to say, it doesn’t help that the curators of MoMA long ago imposed on their collection an ideological unanimity that is precisely mirrored in the building’s unanimity of style. The Gospel According to MoMA is so well known by now that one thinks of it as a single portmanteau word: Cézannepicassosurrealismabexminimalismpop. That which fits neatly into the museum’s official “narrative” is exhibited in depth, sometimes counterproductively so. (The Mondrian gallery is a case in point.) That which fails to fit is either ignored or condescendingly shunted off to one side, as in the now-notorious case of the stairwell to which Milton Avery’s “Sea Grasses and Blue Sea” and a gorgeous pair of abstractions by Richard Diebenkorn have been relegated.
MoMA’s idiosyncratic version of the complex story of modernism has been criticized innumerable times, by me among others:
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….
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.
They still haven’t. On Friday I looked into the photography galleries, and saw on one wall a deft juxtaposition: Irving Penn’s 1947 dual portrait of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan hangs side by side with his 1948 study of John Marin, one of America’s greatest prewar modern painters. Might this have been a donnish stroke of curatorial wit? Mencken, after all, was violently hostile to modernism in most of its manifestations, as I explained in The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken:
Mencken may not have been the most qualified of observers of the American scene, but he had certainly spent more than enough time in New York City to have some awareness of what was going on there in 1924. The problem was his own lack of curiosity. It is impossible to imagine him dropping by Carnegie Hall for the premiere of Aaron Copland’s Organ Symphony, strolling into Alfred Stieglitz’s exhibition of the latest watercolors by John Marin, or even paying a visit to the Casino Theatre to see the Marx Brothers in I’ll Say She Is. While it is too easy simply to say that he was as much of a philistine as the philistines whose ignorance he loved to denounce, it is not altogether untrue.
Alas, the effect of this clever juxtaposition was greatly diminished by the fact that there was not a single painting, watercolor, or etching by Marin hanging anywhere in the Museum of Modern Art last Friday. There is more than one way to be a philistine.
The vastly increased size of the new MoMA makes its curatorial philosophy seem even more confining in retrospect. The larger MoMA’s vision of modernism is writ, the less convincing it looks, especially in light of the contextual separation imposed by the fact that MoMA is a museum of modern art. To visit a medium-sized encyclopedic collection like that of, say, the old Cleveland Museum of Art, where modernism was presented not as an isolated phenomenon but as part of the larger story of Western art—and where, no less importantly, the works of modern art on display were chosen in a brilliantly discriminating way—is a very different experience, as I was reminded when I visited Cleveland last September:
Instead of collecting in depth, Cleveland’s curators, like their counterparts at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, opted for quality over quantity, and time and again they hit the bull’s-eye. When I visited the abstract expressionist gallery last Tuesday, for instance, it contained paintings by William Baziotes, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, sculptures by David Smith and Isamu Noguchi, an Alexander Calder mobile, and a Joseph Cornell box—the whole history of abstract expressionism summed up in fourteen objects, all on display in a single room. Except for the Krasner, each one was of the highest possible quality. The whole museum is like that, more or less.
Next to so civilized a place, or the similarly civilized Phillips Collection, the new MoMA starts to look less like a truly great museum and more like the monomaniacally excessive Barnes Foundation. As I wrote back in June after my first visit to the Barnes:
Not coincidentally, seeing the Barnes for the first time redoubled my appreciation of the Phillips. While Albert Barnes and Duncan Phillips were both great art collectors whose underlying sensibilities were very similar, Barnes was both obsessive and provincial in a way that Phillips was not. Phillips spent a lifetime cultivating his eye and mind by engaging with the ideas of others; Barnes seems to have listened only to himself, eventually going so far as to create a closed system of aesthetics whose sole purpose was to justify his own prejudices…
There can be, of course, no doing without the Museum of Modern Art, if only because it is the home of so many beloved and essential works of art, and because it not infrequently contrives to present them, and others of similar quality, in memorable ways. I can’t count the hours I’ve spent looking at its exhibitions, nor can I even begin to estimate the pleasure and profit I’ve derived from them. That’s why I used to love MoMA, disagree though I always did with its inflexible point of view. No more. I know I haven’t paid my last visit there—but I also know that we shall never be again as we were.
UPDATE: Says Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes:
It is fair to ask if museums can be lovable once they hit the 120,000-square foot mark.
It sure is.