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Picasso Fiasco: Jarring Juxtapositions & Missed Connections at the New MoMA

The aggressively transgressive new MoMA, trying to combat museum-ennui by shaking up its displays, has aimed its cannon at the canon. Its disruptive installation strategy audaciously breaches traditional geographic, temporal and art-historical boundaries, arranging shotgun marriages among strange (and strained) bedfellows and sundering longtime soulmates.

Particularly unsettling is the Museum of Modern Art’s new penchant for putting lesser-known, less seminal works on equal footing with the icons, while separating some collection highlights from the works to which they are closely related. In doing so, MoMA is not so much editing art history as eschewing it.

The pairing below has attracted the most attention, because it’s such an improbable (and, to my mind, incompatible) match:

Left: Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” 1907
Right: Faith Ringgold, “American People Series #20: Die,” 1967

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Picasso‘s world-renowned ladies of the night, with their impassive stares and boldly flaunted wares…

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and have a sculptural heft, stillness and timelessness that have nothing to do with Ringgold‘s chaotic, messy mayhem:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The strange notion that these two wildly disparate paintings belong together probably derives from Ringgold’s having “based her composition on [Picasso’s] ‘Guernica,’ which she regularly visited when the monumental canvas was on display” at MoMA, as the label for Ringgold’s depiction of a street riot informs us. (Below that text is a small image of Picasso’s searing depiction of the Spanish Civil War, as photographed at MoMA in 1964, but later returned to the Reina Sofia in Madrid, where it still resides).

At the far side of the museum hangs another Picasso, less iconic than “Demoiselles,” but far more resonant with “Guernica.” This World War II-inspired painting (in MoMA’s “Responding to War” gallery) would have made a far more convincing comparison to Ringgold’s massacre:

Picasso, “The Charnel House,” 1944-45
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Another of MoMA’s must-see Picassos finds itself in unaccustomed surroundings—a gallery devoted to “Surrealist Objects.” This is one of the few places in which MoMA directly references one of modern art’s “isms” in its reinterpreted displays:

Left, Pablo Picasso, “Girl Before a Mirror,” 1932
Right: Hans Bellmer, “The Machine-Gunneress in a State of Grace,” 1937
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A popular poster image, this Picasso bears a superficial resemblance to the Bellmer (its gallery-mate), by virtue of its cartoonish rendition of ball-like breasts. But unlike the spooky sculpture, the vibrant painting is lively in color and pensive in mood—“a complex variant on the traditional Vanity—the image of a woman confronting her mortality in a mirror,” in the words of MoMA’s 1999 highlights handbook that was published in anticipation of the 2004 Yoshio Taniguchi-designed expansion (critiqued by me here and here).

An installation choice that’s even harder to fathom is the inclusion of an Alma Thomas (on right) in a gallery otherwise devoted entirely to Matisse. If you can discern a connection between these two paintings, other than the color red, you’re more attuned to MoMA’s curatorial thinking than I am:

Left: Henri Matisse, “The Red Studio,” 1911
Right: Alma Thomas, “Fiery Sunset,” 1973

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Critic James Tarmy, in his Bloomberg critique, expressed misgivings similar to mine about the incongruities of MoMA’s new hang:

It turns out that putting two artworks in a room together does not guarantee “dialogue,” just as one person shouting in French and another person whispering in English is not, in fact, a conversation.

Similarly, Ben Davis, in his artnet review, suggested that MoMA’s presentation of artworks “as trophies in incidental rhymes with other things [emphasis added]” compromises “complexity and context,” as well as “hard-earned human depth.”

It’s not as if MoMA hasn’t tried (and prudently put aside) chancy gambits like this before. Who can forget the controversial juxtaposition of Cézanne‘s sublime “The Bather” (ca. 1885) and Rineke Dijkstra’s “Odessa, Ukraine August 4, 1993” in Modern Starts (images below)? That was one of a series of three unorthodox installations under the rubric “MoMA2000”—experiments tried (and mostly discarded) in anticipation of the rehang in the Taniguchi expansion.

Under its plan to “systematically rotate a selection of art” in its permanent-collection galleries every six to nine months, MoMA will get the chance to correct obvious installation missteps, such as the assault on the serenity of Monet‘s “Water Lilies” by grating noise from a film in an adjoining gallery.

In a fascinating piece on The Art Newspaper‘s website today, Judith Dobrzynski reported some specifics on MoMA’s plans for its first partial rehang. These include the relocation of the museum’s most famous Mondrian—“Broadway Boogie Woogie,” which is now an expatriate residing amidst Latin Americans from the Cisneros Collection on the 3rd floor (as I reported here). “Boogie Woogie” will soon boogie up to the 5th-floor gallery where the two Mondrians seen below are currently displayed. (That space will be entirely devoted to Mondrian in the next go-round, Dobrzynski writes.)

Left: “Composition with Red, Blue, Black, Yellow, and Gray,” 1921
Right: “Tableau I: Lozenge with Four Lines and Gray,” 1926
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Maybe Abstract Expressionism’s prescient precursor, Janet Sobel, now uncomfortably perched in a 5th-floor gallery devoted to “Architecture for Modern Art” (architectural models and drawings of museums), will finally get to commingle with her peers in the 4th-floor “Action Painting I” gallery:

Janet Sobel, “Milky Way,” 1945
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Jackson & Janet—a marriage made in MoMA?

Center: Jackson Pollock, “One: Number 31, 1950”
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

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

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