If you think that the de-installation of the Museum of Modern Art’s fourth-floor permanent collection to make way for Picasso Sculpture was a one-off, think again. That floor’s traditional survey of works from 1940 to 1980 is not coming back any time soon.
That was one of the revelations at MoMA’s press breakfast on Tuesday, where director Glenn Lowry and chief curator of painting and sculpture Ann Temkin told the scribe tribe how installations may change both in the near future and also after the completion of the new expansion, designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro (to occupy lower floors of a Jean Nouvel-designed tower).
That residential skyscraper still has a long way to go:
As there had been during the planning for the 2004 expansion (designed by Yoshio Taniguchi), there is again talk about disrupting MoMA’s traditional march of the “isms” to present a more nuanced, eclectic, interdisciplinary story of modern and contemporary art than envisioned in founding director Alfred Barr‘s famously diagrammed conception of the museum as “a torpedo moving through time, its head the ever-advancing present, its tail the ever-receding past.”
Lowry on Tuesday preferred to invoke Barr’s metaphor of the museum as a laboratory. with (in Glenn’s words) “programs, installations and exhibitions that are not fixed, but constantly evolving.”
Tuesday’s comments triggered my memories of the series of three experimental permanent-collection exhibitions, MoMA2000 (presented that year), which tinkered with different ideas of structuring and rethinking the permanent collection, in anticipation of the new hang in the planned Taniguchi building.
Notwithstanding that build-up, the inaugural 2004 installation featured some tweaks but not a major overhaul. As I wrote at the end of this post, MoMA had promised that the new Taniguchi galleries would feature better integration of prints, drawings and photographs with related works in the main collection galleries, but implementation of that plan was spotty. German Expressionist works on paper, for example, were included in the gallery displaying paintings by the same artists.
Also not new is the notion discussed on Tuesday of frequently refreshing the permanent collection displays. Lowry and Temkin had discussed this at length back in 2009. Since then, Temkin has enlivened and deepened the traditionally static permanent-collection galleries with small, temporary focus displays giving exposure and context to works from storage—a welcome change.
Temkin told us Tuesday that she and Martino Stierli, chief curator of architecture and design, are now planning another complete reinstallation of the fourth floor, once “Picasso” comes down. In a multi-department, permanent-collection display (opening Mar. 26), they will “zero in on the ‘60s,” because she and Martino “both have a liking” for that era, in which “we have extraordinary strong holdings.” Ann added that this kind of “boundary-crossing and sense of experimentation,” with a tight focus on a certain time or topic, is something the museum intends to continue.
The ’60s show means that all the other 1940-1980 artworks ordinarily present on the fourth floor will continue to be largely MIA at MoMA, which previously could be counted on as the comprehensive museum-of-record for modern and contemporary art.
I questioned this problematic approach during the press breakfast Q&A:
ROSENBAUM: In having a new permanent-collection focus, zeroing in on a particular era like the ‘60s, do you disappoint people who come here from all over the world, expecting to see things that aren’t going to be here, now that you won’t be showing the full sweep of the collection? How do you balance those two opposing imperatives?
LOWRY: Excellent question. It’s a fine balance and that’s part of what we are working towards: What is the right pace and balance to it? If you think about the current condition, where Picasso occupies all of our fourth-floor galleries and there are many great works from that period [1940-1980] that won’t be there. So what we’ve done is to zero in on Jackson Pollock, in a special exhibition devoted to him, or Take an Object, a survey exhibition that includes many works that would otherwise have been in the fourth-floor galleries.
We’re very conscious of the fact that if we have works critical to the reading of modern art, we have to find ways of making sure that they are present, even when they’re not necessarily in the structure of a single exhibition. I think we’re looking at how to do that, through a combination of exhibitions, so a visit to the museum will give the same level of engagement and satisfaction, but perhaps not in the way we did it previously.
I dropped in on the sparsely attended Pollock show, cited by Glenn, after breakfast, and saw that MoMA’s great masterpiece, always a strong crowd-magnet in its accustomed spot on the fourth floor, had a second-floor audience appropriate to its title—“One”:
I think that if the museum is to achieve a “fine balance” (as Lowry termed it), between bringing “the fluidity of the loan program to the collection galleries” (in Temkin’s words) and properly privileging its superlative, comprehensive permanent collection (my words), it must not sacrifice the latter in order to achieve the former. Growing up as a NYC museum-rat, I had certain touchstones that I expected to find and looked forward to seeing whenever I dropped in at certain institutions. That’s a rock-solid part of a satisfying museum experience, which shouldn’t be entirely sacrificed to the experimental urges of the “new generation” of curators that Lowry repeatedly referred to.
By all means, do some focus shows drawing upon the permanent collection, but don’t put the cart before the horse.
As for the new expansion, Lowry said that the museum and its architects are “still working on the plans and design and will talk about this in much greater detail in the new year.” The sign posted at the construction site puts the “anticipated completion” of the tower that will house MoMA’s expansion at Spring 2018:
Below is a rendering, posted on the construction fence, of how the Nouvel tower will appear. No longer in evidence is the “sharp needle at the top of the building,” as described and illustrated in filings with the City Planning Commission. (You can see line drawings of the prior design, with its tapered top, in my 2011 report on the public filings.)
Here’s senior prints and drawings curator Jodi Hauptman discussing the radically inventive Degas monotypes in the show that she is organizing with Richard Kendall, curator-at-large at the Clark Art Institute, with input from Karl Buchberg, MoMA”s senior conservator (who, with Jodi, had co-organized MoMA’s glorious Matisse Cut-Outs show):