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Confronting the MoMA Monster: How Its Rehang Lynches the Collection

How do I not love the Museum of Modern Art’s reinstallation of its permanent collection in it expanded, renovated galleries? Let me count the ways. The galleries featuring two of MoMA’s most beloved works best exemplify what’s wrong with the museum’s wayward arrays.

As my Twitter followers already know, I managed to get a privileged look at what is arguably the museum’s signature masterpiece. Never again am I likely to find myself as blissfully alone with van Gogh’s always mobbed “The Starry Night” as when I saw it at the end of one of three MoMA press previews that I dutifully attended over the last two weeks:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Usually, the scene is more like this:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Previously accorded its own centrally located wall near the beginning of MoMA’s orderly progression of modern and contemporary masterpieces (as seen above), this MoMA must-see is now tucked away in the back corner the rehang’s first gallery, as seen in this photo, taken when more of the press was in attendance. (Henri Rousseau‘s “The Sleeping Gypsy” is to the right of “Starry Night.”)

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In this gallery (titled: “19th-Century Innovators”), pride of place was given to the group of George Ohr ceramics at its entrance—engaging but not amazing objects. They’re not display staples, but are compatible with the museum’s new strategy to upend and broaden timeworn hierarchies, periodically reshuffling works from its permanent collection to stimulate new insights:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The “Innovators” gallery includes three Cézannes (including The Bather, which introduced the galleries in olden days), but it has none of his still lifes, which prefigured Cubism. (This still life, from William Paley‘s collection, is the sole Cézanne in a gallery titled, “A Surrealist Art History.”)

Similarly, you won’t find MoMA’s most famous Mondrian—“Broadway Boogie Woogie”—with the two other Mondrians displayed in the 5th-floor “Abstraction and Utopia” gallery. Instead, it’s on the 3rd floor in the vibrant temporary display (to Mar. 14) of more than 100 Latin American abstract and concrete works recently given to the museum by MoMA trustee Patricia Phelps de Cisneros.

Left: Mondrian, “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” 1942-43
Right: Jesús Rafael Soto, “Double Transparency,” 1956
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

According to MoMA’s label for “Double Transparency” (oil on plexiglass and wood with metal rods and bolts), Soto stated: “I really started out with the desire to make the work of Mondrian move”:

Jesús Rafael Soto, “Double Transparency,” 1956
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Many of the labels accompanying familiar favorites are far less informative. This terse identifier for “Starry Night” epitomizes a pervasive shortcoming of MoMA’s reinstallation: Many labels offer few or no insights, referring us, instead, to the museum’s audio device or its website:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Even more cryptic is the label for the other celebrated van Gogh in the same room, which includes only its title, date and donors (via deaccessions of works that they had given, which I wrote about at the time of the purchase in 1989), but nothing at all about the subject of the portrait or where one might get more information about the painting (i.e., via the website or MoMA’s audio device):

Van Gogh, “Portrait of Joseph Roulin,” 1889
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Perhaps “Starry Night’s” relatively inconspicuous placement (in the rear corner of its gallery) is intended to make it harder to find, so it will be less mobbed. Something similar may be behind the placement of another visitor favorite—Monet‘s monumental “Water Lilies”—now tucked away in a cul-de-sac in a corner of the 5th floor:

Monet, “Water Lilies,” 1914-26
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The space (and seating) allotted for MoMA’s Impressionist tour de force seemed to me too small for the crowds it will likely attract. That said, I was glad to see that it’s no longer in a walkthrough gallery. Its previous installation, along a path between two galleries, had resulted in one’s view being constantly disrupted by passersby.

There’s no excuse, though, for the new insult to “Water Lilies'” devotees—the constant, grating noise emanating from a film in the adjoining gallery. The wall text for Monet’s three-panel magnum opus says that it has “held a cherished position in the museum, affirming Monet’s conviction that art can provide a respite from an increasingly urban, commercialized and technological world [emphasis added].”

But there’s no such respite for those gazing at “Water Lilies,” because of its proximity to a film-transferred-to-video in the adjoining “Design for Modern Life” gallery:

Brief excerpt from Dziga Vertov‘s “Entuziazm” (“Enthusiasm”), 1931
Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

Dziga Vertov‘s film “celebrates the promise of Joseph Stalin’s Five-Year Plan for economic development…,signaling the arrival of a new technologically driven Socialism,” according to its label. That’s about as far as you can get from the tranquility of Giverny.

MoMA’s new strategy of incorporating film, video and performance throughout its galleries is a pervasive, invasive contemplation-killer that permeates the museum and aggravates those of us who perversely prefer to contemplate silent artworks in silence.

That’s so old-school, isn’t it?

A NOTE TO MY READERS: I’ll have more commentary about the new MoMA (including things that I did like) in future posts.

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