The MoMA that Never Was
A similarly romanticized, but ultimately false nostalgia has been gaining ground with regard to the recently renovated Museum of Modern Art. A wave of criticism met its grand reopening and has hardly abetted since then. One critic who's been particularly harsh and IMO rather pointless in being so has been artnet.com's Charlie Finch (btw, Walter, new design might take some getting used to, but I appreciate the effort).
Don't get me wrong. I have nothing invested in the new and improved MoMA. I just like criticism to be a bit more universally applicable, self-aware, and focused than Finch's notes on MoMA have been. In at least three columns (1, 2, 3) , Finch has blasted MoMA for what boils down to selling its soul to the rich (The OC Art Blog noted this recently as well). One can only assume that it's not wealth itself Finch finds offensive, but the wealth of the particular persons involved in this case, as he has no problem sucking up to other wealthy folks in the art world.
But that's perhaps a bit harsh on my part. In general, Charlie's made good observations about how the balance has shifted over the past 5 years to where super-rich collectors (or just movers and shakers--it's euphemistic to call some of them "collectors"), who may or may not know much about art, are changing the rules, not to mentions the standards at institutions. Still, this message gets watered down and thus becomes dismissable when he loses focus and begins bemoaning the loss of an era that really never was. Take this passage from his latest smackdown of MoMA (titled "The Hollow Museum"):
We were sitting in the Museum of Modern Art garden last week with a curator friend from Hamburg trying to assimilate the new Museum of Modern Art, and failing.This is a frivolous, eventually meaningless, cheap shot. There is nothing inherent about Water Lilies that demanded the previous installation. Perhaps as many people thought it failed in that old location as were "so inspired" by it. I found the old installation, off by itself, usually with an overbearing guard hovering threateningly, a wholly forced attempt. And personally, I find the POV from the balcony of the piece as it's newly installed a good way to see/explain one of Monet's major accomplishments in it. That sort of distance wasn't possible in the old installation. Finch goes on:
"One still can't get used to Monet's Water Lilies as wallpaper for cocktail parties," we remarked.
"I was always so inspired by the old Water Lilies sitting room," Catarina replied. "It was meditative. It energized me before I returned to the streets of New York."
"It's the height of arrogance," we continued, "to install Rodin's Balzac and Newman's Broken Obelisk indoors like trophies of the rich."One could say this about a whole slew of works in any museum though (not to mention pieces installed in hallways, along staircases, etc.). Here's a bigger image of the space Charlie's moaning about; you can see the Water Lilies from the angle I mentioned above and the Obelisk. Yes, there's something grand about Newman's piece in the open air, but the old sculpture court it was installed in (seen here) didn't let it stretch as far upward as it does in the atrium now. The nearby buildings seemed to push it down and oppress it a bit.
This sort of selected nitpicking takes on its own brand of arrogance and, again, weakens Finch's overall critique. With all due respect, I get the sense Finch wants MoMA to fossilize. Consider this nugget:
The problem with wishing for the demise of these wealthy cheeseballs is that they've rigged everything to take us down with them. Destroying the intimacy, respect for art, sense of adventure and grand amateurism of MoMA should damn them to hell forever.MoMA could not stand still, despite how much Charlie felt comfortable with the intimacy of the old space. For as many disappointments I found in the new installation at MoMA, I found just as many pleasant surprises (this gallery, in particular, I found exhilarating). And I think its "sense of adventure" has been totally rejuvinated by the new approach. If there's a single message the new building carries, it would have to be "anticipate the future." That would seem, above all else, the best way to respect the mission of the museum. Come up to speed Charlie, the future's fine, and the MoMA you think you're missing never really existed.
UPDATE: Tyler Green agrees that Finch's anti-MoMA rants are silly and points to some better thought-out critiques, but disagrees with me about the Minimalism gallery linked to above being one of the new MoMA's better moments.
But c'mon EW, that gallery you love is a horrid mish-mash, jigsaw-puzzle curating at its most simplistic.
It's a bit of a leap from my noting I was pleasantly surprised in finding the installation exhilarating to noting that I "love" that gallery, but I did point it out, so fair enough to call me on it. I guess it was the first time Minimalism had been so instantly activated by an installation for me. I toured the new MoMA with someone for whom Modern art is one big question mark, and I found that installation made it easy to quickly summarize some of the accomplishments of Minimalism. Perhaps I'm putting too much emphasis on accessibility (and surely what works for the neophite will frustrate or bore the better acquainted), but MoMA is to my mind, first and foremost, about education (actually to their mind as well; it's in their mission statement: "Founded in 1929 as an educational institution"), so, again, I found that gallery exhilarating.