New York’s famous Museum of Modern Art turns the story of art upside down with its expanded $858 million new building complex

At the hands of Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, the MoMA has become twice its former size


On 20 November, the largest, grandest and richest modern art museum in the world reopens after a two and half year closure to allow for an $858m architectural expansion. The project to reshape the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), located between 54th and 53rd Streets in midtown Manhattan, is huge. At the hands of Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, it has become twice its former size. The revamped museum offers 50% more gallery space (125,000 sq ft), an enlarged sculpture garden, a new lobby and a set of column-free exhibition spaces designed to accommodate displays of ever vaster works of contemporary art.

MoMA possesses the widest and finest collection of its kind internationally: more than 100,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, design objects, architectural models and drawings; 14,000 films and four million film stills; more than 200,000 books and periodicals. MoMA’s magnetic pull on the dreams of donors, curators, artists, dealers and visitors, even before this latest building bonanza, has been unrivalled. Because of the stakes involved, whatever MoMA does has repercussions for galleries everywhere else. More than just a museum, it has become the crucible in which the very idea of the Modern was formed.

Seventy-five years ago, when MoMA was established by a few enthusiastic philanthropists on the 12th floor of the Heckscher Building at 730 Fifth Avenue, the idea that the new could be as exciting as the old was itself radical. In 1929, most museum directors believed that the past—a place filled with echoes of long-dead Mediterranean civilisations—was more important and beautiful than the present. Modernity itself was in its infancy.

That the museum’s founders gave it the name the Museum of Modern Art when it so easily could have been named after any of its major benefactors—the Rockefellers, for example—was a measure of their ambitions. Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director was aware of the unprecedented task he faced: to create a museum that was populist in spirit, in which a single story could be told of the development of art from 1880 (the approximate date at which it was agreed that “Modern Art” first manifested itself) to the present, and on into the future. Perhaps the cleverest move was a decision to collect by medium—painting, drawing, photography, film, and design objects—rather than by date. Instead of creating any one “department of contemporary art”, this allowed curators of each area to focus on adding to its collections as they saw fit.

MoMA’s first exhibition in 1929 focused on Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat and Van Gogh, a choice that sought to identify modern art’s roots in post-Impressionism. Establishing which artists, or which parts of their careers, stood this or that side of the line (Cézanne was one of the trickier cases) preoccupied Barr and his team as they sought to placate the sensitivities of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barr’s celebrated “torpedo” diagrams of 1933, in which he sketched out the ballooning evolution of post-Impressionist, modern European, American and Latin American art, were an attempt to establish a new canon, relying on an intuitive sense of what was to come as well as a shrewd dissection of what had passed. Artistic progress was thus unwittingly designed in the form of a lethal weapon that, in less than a decade, would explode the old connections between Europe and America and reverse the cultural dominance of the former over the latter in the years following World War II.

To stay new is the single most important challenge faced by MoMA today. “Modern art is still unfolding and its history is still being written”, claims Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director since 1995. But how can a museum of modern art, charged with the responsibilities of looking after increasingly precious works from the past, keep pace with the onward march of creative practice—it is not as if midtown is an avant-garde neighbourhood. “It’s unrelenting”, says Mr Lowry. “You have to keep up with what is happening today and be willing to go back to historical moments, identify what gaps there are and pursue them with a relentless commitment.”

This is a plate-spinning act Barr would have understood. In 1939, MoMA marked its 10th anniversary by moving from rented accommodation into its first purpose-built site at 11th West 53rd Street (now just one part of the current mammoth MoMA complex). The building, designed by Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, was a cool example of the new international style, self-consciously futuristic. But early on, Barr changed the temporary lighting fixtures and thin walls, which had allowed for flexibility in the displays, into fixed units. He must have sensed that at this formative stage the desire to produce an authoritative history of art would be a more powerful impulse than the need for constant re-interpretation.

The risk of fossilisation, meanwhile, was avoided by the accord MoMA’s authorities signed with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1949, which stated that the younger institution would transfer its masterworks of art aged 50 years and over to the older in exchange for acquisition funds to buy new art. It is a decision that MoMA curators must have subsequently regretted as they stood in front of, for example, Picasso’s Woman in White of 1923, now in the Metropolitan. Reading the typed list of proposed works for transfer to the Metropolitan drawn up on 4 July 1947, you see Barr’s handwritten notes to the right, adding years, and sometimes decades, to the proposed time periods masterpieces would be allowed to remain at MoMA prior to transfer. Though Barr knew that the discarding of works enabled the museum to stay fresh, his reluctance to part with great works is palpable. Many collectors had specifically donated pieces to MoMA, and it was MoMA that had taken the risk on establishing artists’ reputations. In 1953, the arrangement was terminated.

Thus MoMA’s love affair with architecture was born. With the decision to collect and not to discard, the only option was for the museum to grow. As the steel, concrete and glass piled up, so the size of the museum’s collections increased: 64,000 objects in 1980; over 100,000 objects in 1995, and several times that amount now. Audience growth has also been remarkable: 900,000 per year to over 1.8 million in less than a decade.

Any student of art history will read of the role patrons have played in commissioning works of art and defining the direction of taste. MoMA’s board has over the years included most of the major entrepreneurial names in America, although this most exclusive of clubs has become more international of late (the new Morita Media Gallery, for example, has been funded by the late chairman of the Sony Corporation whose widow is a board member). The board is discreet. Think austerely dressed 17th-century Amsterdam burgomasters rather than Renaissance princes. MoMA stands as one of the major achievements of American philanthropy, its funding coming largely from private rather than corporate sources, and Mr Lowry has seen more than $710 million of the museum’s $858 million capital campaign goal raised already.

Yoshio Taniguchi was an intriguing choice of architect. Although he had been acclaimed for his sensitive, ethereal compositions for museums in his native Japan, winning the competition for MoMA’s redesign in 1997 was his first international commission. Taniguchi’s aim, he says, has been to create an “environment for art” rather than an example of signature architecture. The size of the renovation project required that it be treated as an instance of urban planning. “As opposed to designing one thing of beauty, I design a museum within a city—a city within a city”, Taniguchi says. In fact, his solution has been strikingly simple: to define two different façades around the site that subtly emphasise rather than disguise the dual nature of the museum’s building, which faces north to a smart residential area just south of Central Park and south to the swish commercial hubbub of midtown. North, along 54th St, he has created a single unified façade of Zimbabwean black granite, aluminium, dark grey glass and clearer glass finely fritted in alternating clear and white lines. South, along 53rd St, he has preserved the Johnson, Goodwin, Stone and Pelli façades while adding one for the new gallery complex to their western side.

There are now multiple points of entry to the museum, a fashionable gesture providing metaphors of social inclusion (somewhat negated by the steep $20 cost of an entrance ticket). That said, Goodwin and Stone’s original building (its streetside canopy is now restored) was itself an innovation in this regard, dispensing with the traditional flight of steps, pillared and pedimented frontage, in favour of a building style that, with its street-level lobby, large glass elevation and unhierarchical entrance, underlined the democratic character of the institution.

Inside, the previous circulation, where visitors would enter galleries of older modern works before winding their way through to the contemporary galleries, has been reversed. Contemporary works are now encountered on the first gallery level in a massive space that has the advantage of being completely without columns.

The implications of this reversal of narrative circulation are considerable. By shop-fronting the contemporary in this way, the museum can claim to have surmounted its age-old concern about how to stay new. The decision about the contemporary spaces was arrived at through constant discussion between the architects and the curators. Glenn Lowry says the ambition was “to ensure that we constantly surprise visitors. Regularity kills the experience. We wanted more nuance, a less linear sense of art history, by encouraging serendipitous discoveries and juxtapositions”.

The result is a mix of galleries in which some spaces have a fixed function in the overall exhibition narrative, while others will be more variable in use. “The analogy of the museum as laboratory is an apt one”, continues Mr Lowry: “Just as with any scientific experiment, you never know how it’s going to come out. But it enables us to zero in on an artist in greater detail, to explore a particular historical moment, to address issues periodically on a thematic level, and to introduce works from other departments. We might have, for example, a Cubist ‘moment’, when paintings and sculptures meet photography and prints. We’re just going to play this out, take a breath and then see how it might change in six months.”

There is a monumental irony in this. Just as MoMA reaches its greatest size and impact, so the notion of art history itself is called into question. The choices made by Glenn Lowry and his team as to how their narratives are articulated—which work goes where and why; how will they start and end their displays of historic art movements—are bewildering in their possible outcomes.

A crucial aspect of this new arrangement is how the movement from post-Impressionism, that watershed moment at the turn of the 19th century, is managed. It used to be held that Cubism—the moment of fracture in art when the reliance on one-point perspective was challenged by the proposition that multiple perspectives more accurately reflect our experience of the world—was the next logical step in the narrative sequence. Other moments such as Fauvism, Futurism, and Surrealism served as important but subsidiary adjuncts. The new layout offers two exits from the post-Impressionist gallery, one leading to Cubism, where Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon” is as resplendent as ever; the other to Fauvism, the equal importance of which is now widely recognised.

Observant visitors will pay particular attention to the way MoMA has now reopened the story of the Modern. Instead of Rodin’s St John the Baptist, which used to stand outside the galleries pointing to Cézanne’s The Bathers, the collection now starts with Signac’s 1885 portrait of Félix Feneon. This, says Glenn Lowry, is “a great magical gesture that essentially raises the curtain on the very idea of modernity. It is Signac’s greatest picture, though he’s not the artist you’d usually pick”. Dispensing with the Cézanne (Mr Lowry claims it is a “rétardataire picture, still wrestling with Poussin”) and highlighting Feneon—the Parisian critic, collector, impresario and anarchist—is a telling move: “It’s about showmanship, the masses, about a fundamentally different moment. It’s almost the same date as The Bathers, but it’s about the curtain coming up on popular culture, breaking through the screen of avant-garde art. It pinpoints the notion of celebrity and offers us references to Warhol later in the hang”.

This, then, is how MoMA has re-cast the history of modern art as seen from our times, with showmanship and celebrity culture the dominant thread. For Glenn Lowry, the story of modern art is not complete without the canonisation of Andy Warhol, the original media-savvy, celebrity-driven artist: “Of the giants of this period, he is the guy. Pollock is already over.”

Most art dealers and artists, meanwhile, will be focusing on what the contemporary galleries have to show; and this is where it gets hot. “We’ve never been able to show Minimalism and post-Minimalism together. They’re really about a confrontation”, says Mr Lowry carefully. “You’ll see Judd, Martin, Flavin and Andre as one generation of Minimalists but then there are LeWitt, Whiteread and radically different artists like Beuys, Palermo and Nauman. There’s this pivotal moment in the mid 1970s, with lots of competing ideas and counter-sensibilities”.

The official line is that after the war New York took over from Paris as the centre of contemporary art, but since then suzerainty has shifted between America and Europe, with new centres also opening up in the Far East and Latin America. It is now the type of contemporary art, not where it is being made, that determines critical and commercial success. In this regard, Britain has recently proved to be an important hub. MoMA’s latest acquisition of Francis Bacon’s Triptych (1991), for example, “allows us to look at figure painting in the 1980s in a very different way”, says Mr Lowry.

With the edges between contemporary art, design, architecture, media and commerce increasingly blurred, the “contemporary” is a much trickier target to define than “the modern”. With such a vast collection, one wonders what MoMA would not collect. I noticed a helicopter—a crop-duster—hanging from a ceiling. Would the museum collect military hardware too? “MoMA has always shied away from accumulating military weapons”, says Mr Lowry. “The stealth bomber is pretty remarkable, though. I’d certainly make the argument that if we could acquire one it would be a mighty interesting object to have.”

In terms of defining the contemporary, the MoMA department with perhaps the most interesting future is that of film and media, the forms that now transfix people more than any others. Warhol is a star here too—his screen test movies and three-minute films (played slowly at 4.5 minutes) have been transferred by the department’s director Mary Lea Bandy from video to DVD. “There’s a great interest on the part of the traditional art world in embracing moving image artists”, says Ms Bandy. The founding premise of the department was, she says, “to collect those films produced by the inventors of the art of cinema, such as Thomas Edison. The decision was made pretty early on that the museum would collect self-consciously artistic cinema, documentary, animation—Walt Disney was an early supporter of the department—but that we would not collect three of the largest groups of films made annually: pornographic films, religious films or industrial films”.

This leaves Ms Bandy with a rather vague principle: to collect work that “tells you about the times you live in”. Asked which film-maker she believes has been most important, Ms Bandy does not hesitate: “Jean-Luc Godard. I think he’s to the second half of the 20th century what Picasso was to the first half. He’s influential, transformative and his greatest work was the videos he started making in the late 1970s. They’re these collage pieces where he’s layering voice, music, natural sound, text, and found images altogether. It’s a different way of reading visual imagery”.

It is one of MoMA’s virtues that its film and media department is able to integrate its artefacts with the rest of the collection in a way that highlights the syncretic relationship film has with other art forms. It is the same process that took place in photography in its gradual transition from a documentary medium to a fine art. The new Morita media galleries at MoMA give Ms Bandy the chance, for example, to showcase early films such as Fernand Léger’s “Ballet Mécanique”, a 20-minute masterpiece of mechanical movement. Lea Bandy is less than patient with museums such as Tate Modern that, she claims, do not give as much thought to displaying films as they do works of art.

Still, it is convenient that so many of the films in her collection are set in New York or take the city as their subject, and it is significant that so many films of late have depicted the destruction of the city, with New York being blasted by aliens, stamped on by dinosaurs, submerged under water, or buried in ice. It is as if they know the party is over, that the myth of Modernism, the myth of New York, is dying.

Since 9/11, of course, the fascination of the New York skyline has become the presence of the Twin Towers in earlier films, and their absence in recent ones. As a result, that skyline has itself acquired the character of a museum piece. The city has yet to be portrayed in a way that moves forward from loss, has yet to regain confidence of its place in the present.

This is why it is so striking that Taniguchi has protectively sheathed MoMA in black granite, the same durable material used in Washington’s Vietnam memorial. Is MoMA, at its moment of greatest expansion, prefiguring the end of so many dreams: Modernism; the idea that art could programme the fragmented nature of contemporary life; the belief that free expression can exist unprotected in a dangerous world?

This is an abridged version of an article first published in the November issue of Prospect magazine and the Swedish journal Axess.

Originally appeared at The Art Newspaper as 'MoMA reborn—back to front'


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