Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The MoMA that Never Was

There was a long-running joke about England's now-defunct satire magazine Punch that went "It's not as funny as it used to be; it never was." That same idea has been applied to other humor institutions that are generally considered to be of high quality, but which on any given day cannot live up to our collected memories of their greatest hits (think "Saturday Night Live," The Onion, etc. and you get what that means).

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.

"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."
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:

"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.


Blogger Pseudo-intellectual lunatic said...

i like your pics
interesting site

7/12/2005 01:06:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I like your psuedonym (reminds me of Public Image Limited). Thanks for stopping by.

7/12/2005 01:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

There is much to commend about the new MoMa, especially the drawing and print room. The Water lillies feel overwhelmed in the big hall. Even the paint seems dull, possibly the lighting. A more intimate space would be better.

7/12/2005 01:17:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I agree aobut the lighting, Mark, but I didn't feel intimacay was needed. Again, I love the POV from the balcony. Perhaps switching the Water Lilies with the Elsworth Kelly on the 6th floor is the answer. That way the lower ceiling will help with the lighting and the vast space will still provide the distance.

7/12/2005 01:27:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Maybe it's me but there seems to be something about a "French space", more contained than big modern American space. Although Monet had a nice size studio at Giverny, without the gift shop of course, the Moma space is a bit much. Maybe the sith floor switch would work. Kelly and Newman would also be a better match.

7/12/2005 02:29:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Yeah, it probably wouldn't please Kelly to hear it, but that piece is no where near as precious as the Water Lilies are to most people.

7/12/2005 02:45:00 PM  
Anonymous bambino said...

I liked new MoMa. Ecspecially upper floor. I have never seen so ginormous (my new word) I thought would be nice to have a loft that size :)

7/12/2005 04:29:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I thought would be nice to have a loft that size :)

dream big, bambino...one day...one day. ;-)

7/12/2005 04:31:00 PM  
Anonymous la artist said...

While I agree that certain sections of the new MoMA are better and that the museum needed more space, I was startled by Monet's Waterlilies in the new space. I thought they were posters when I first walked into the large room. Quite a feat - making the originals look like the Monets in most people's home. But MoMA isn't about intimacy - it's perfect for promoting an imperial America. Somewhere between a corporate lobby and a shopping mall, it radiates power and money.

7/13/2005 02:58:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

l.a. artist,

I get that a lot of people feel that way, but that's not how it strikes me. I guess I see no significant difference between how much of a trophy case for the rich it was before the renovations versus after.

7/13/2005 03:33:00 PM  
Anonymous la artist said...

Museums have always been trophy cases for the rich. I don't have a problem with that at all - in fact I'm grateful that the discerning rich are willing to share their goodies. My reservation about the new MoMA is its view of what constitutes important art and this ties in with the imperial. Big, loud, entertaining, confrontational art objects work there. (Even the photo room is designed for large works.)

7/13/2005 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

la artist,

did you see this article? It suggests that an effort is being made at MoMA to raise the profile of objects in its collection not usually associated with "the imperial."

And while I agree MoMA's message is "big? we got the room for you" I think you can also choose to look at that as a commitment to continue to acquire new work, not merely a commitment to spectacle sized work.

7/13/2005 04:49:00 PM  
Anonymous la artist said...


Thanks but unfortunately I couldn't access the article. As for MoMA's intentions, I admit that the past five years have made me very skeptical of the veracity and intention of any bureaucratic pronouncements. Let's hope the bigger museum allows for greater inclusivity, a bigger heart, but my money is still on spectacle.

7/13/2005 05:43:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Sorry about that link...those cheap bastards seem to have taken down the article once they realized I had found the link for it.

7/13/2005 05:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Hmmm.....I think the Moma rooms are small. Not ready for contemporary arts at least.

I am not sure the temporal exhibit space at last floor is a good idea.
Some artworks won't lift that easily.

The main room with the lillies
should lend itself to artist projects. They shouldn't leave the works there forever as they waste a lot of space (physically, rest assured). It should vary. They got only that room for very tall works.

By the way, the contemporary art rooms are very disappointing, compared to others which all got their share of landmarks...

About education: I usually have a problem with temporal exhibits when each and every work gets a card with explanative notes (I think they can save much of the details for the catalogue), but when it concerns a permanent exhibit, maybe it would be interesting to position each art pieces within history (?). Or would that be annoying too ?

Cedric Caspesyan

7/19/2005 03:22:00 AM  

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