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Where Am I? MoMA’s Impermanent Displays of Its Permanent Collection (with video)

Which Way to Starry Night? That headline for Robin Pogrebin‘s NY Times report on the recently reopened Museum of Modern Art captures the disorientation of visitors as they attempt to figure out what’s where in museum displays that have been expanded and entirely reshuffled.

Here’s one guidepost that flummoxed me at the press preview, as I tried to find my way to Gallery 516 (Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman), after consulting a guard who couldn’t help:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I finally did reach my destination, I came upon a lone visitor in the eclectic display where “shape does prevail over other considerations” (in the words of the label by Sillman). That installation concept rang a bell—it sounds Barnes-ian—but I still found it hard to get the hang of this hanging:

Visitors’ general state of confusion is unlikely to be dispelled unless MoMA rethinks its new installation strategy, which may satisfy curators’ desire to shake up static displays, but will vex those visitors who would prefer a better balance between aimless wandering and purposeful navigation among familiar touchstones.

Here’s how MoMA describes its newly impermanent permanent-collection displays:

Recognizing that there is no single or complete history of modern and contemporary art, the museum will systematically rotate a selection of art in these collection galleries [on the fifth, fourth and second floors] every six to nine months….

By 2022, MoMA will have re-choreographed each of its galleries [emphasis added] across the fifth, fourth, and second floors—and will constantly renew the presentation.

Having witnessed the first performance of the museum’s new “choreography,” I’m more convinced than ever of the arguments that I advanced when Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, first told the press about the shakeup that she and her team were planning.

Here’s what I wrote about that, 10 years ago:

When I was a young D train-riding museum brat from da Bronx, I was comforted and edified by my repeated contact, over many years, with paintings that I loved and knew would always be there for me….Art-savvy tourists are also likely be distraught if works they expect to see on their rare visits to New York are nowhere to be found….

I’m not sure why they ditched the original plan for the [2004 Yoshio] Taniguchi expansion, which had called for suites of fixed galleries, surrounded by related changing galleries. That had sounded like a good idea to me [emphases added].

It still does. That would have been constructive compromise between the traditionalists and the disrupters.

In last week’s post on the new MoMA, I noted that some of the works that both regular visitors and tourists most want to see (i.e., Monet‘s “Water Lilies” triptych; van Gogh‘s “Starry Night”) have become harder to access in the reconfigured displays.

Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night,” tucked away at rear, left, in the “19th-Century Innovators” gallery
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

By deliberately eschewing a linear narrative of art history [the chronological, oversimplified march of “isms”], while juxtaposing works with sometimes tenuous connections to one another (more on that in a future post), MoMA has unmoored its visitors.

It doesn’t help that many of the labels are less illuminating than they were in the old hang. Compare the previous text for Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon…

…to the new text:

The earlier label analyzes why this work is groundbreaking and important. The new label is mostly descriptive.

The impetus driving MoMA’s new hang is the perceived need to enliven timeworn, relatively static permanent-collection displays by transforming them into a series of curator-conceived temporary exhibitions. In other words, if you think you know MoMA’s collection, think again: Rarely shown works are being retrieved from storage; tried-and-true masterworks are being shown in new contexts or even rotated off view—the surprising fate of this one:

Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948
Image from MoMA’s website

Also not currently on view, but fondly photographed by me during my farewell tour of the galleries on June 14 (the day before MoMA shut its doors for four months of renovation and installation) is this one:

Van Gogh, “The Olive Trees,” 1889
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As it happens, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is also planning a fluid remix of its permanent collection, as part of the sweeping transformation of its physical plant. LACMA’s new galleries, like MoMA’s newest spaces, are to be named for mega-donor David Geffen.

MoMA’s new Geffen Wing, at the base of a 1,050-foot-high residential tower (still not quite finished) designed by Jean Nouvel
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

According to LACMA’s Message from the Director (Michael Govan), there will be a “shift in LACMA’s curatorial strategy from fixed presentations to rotating exhibitions of the permanent collection.”

Here’s what LA Times art critic Christopher Knight had to say about LACMA’s plans in An Open Letter to LACMA architect Peter Zumthor: Depriving artworks of “authentic context” from related artworks “insults the insightful, considered labor over more than five decades of scores of LACMA professionals, benefactors and volunteers, men and women whose work has tried to make sense of global artistic plenitude.”

Is this form of collection-redirection going to become a trend or a dead end? Might MoMA exploit the removal of major works from view (making space for seldom-shown pieces) as an opportunity to dispatch high-quality, high-priced loan shows to benefit its bottom line? (Here’s what I’ve written about MoMA’s previous forays into mega-loan shows.)

I’ll have more to say later about the new MoMA, including a look at its strategic new acquisitions and at some of the strange bedfellows cohabiting in its reconceived galleries. And I haven’t yet touched on the architecture.

For now, though, come join me in its “Paris 1920s” gallery, as Ann Temkin explains how and why MoMA is provocatively overturning installation conventions. The painting behind her is Picasso’s “The Studio,” 1927-28. In the same gallery, you’ll glimpse Picasso’s “Three Musicians,” 1921, and works by Brancusi, Eileen Gray, Man Ray, Léger and Tarsila do Amarai— the Brazilian artist whose “The Moon,” 1928, was purchased by MoMA this year:

A NOTE TO MY READERS: I’ll have more commentary about the new MoMA in future posts.

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