Wednesday, November 16, 2005

What We Learn (or Don't) from Masterpieces

As much as I've criticized Jerry Saltz for critiquing the system and not the art, if every such piece he's written so far was leading up to his masterful critique of MoMA that appeared in the Village Voice last week, then I take it all back. This is a brilliant assessment that only someone who has really been paying attention could write:

As far as programming, vision, mission, and ambition are concerned, MOMA must reconnect with its wildcat roots and remember it was created to take on the whole world. It's time to get beyond its orderly version of postwar art: namely that abstraction was essentially invented by a bunch of white guys in the Cedar bar, pop art was primarily an American phenomenon, women didn't become good artists until after 1970, and conceptualism was a hiccup.

MOMA's commitment to rethinking postwar art feels balky at best, averse at worst. Yet it must wholeheartedly and creatively re-examine and reimagine the art of the last 50 years—although it's hard to envision this without a single designated "project gallery" in the new building. Things are so far off at MOMA that Tate director Nicholas Serota recently accused it of suffering a "loss of nerve."

Others have noted it's a must-read, and I agree, but there's one observation Saltz makes among many excellent ones that I want to flesh out a bit:

Just when everyone is ready to see modernism and the Modern anew, the new building only allows MOMA to exhibit a tiny fraction of its collection. Worse, the lack of space means MOMA must show mainly masterpieces. Obviously, everyone wants to see the peaks. But if you're only seeing mountaintops you can never know how high they are. [emphasis mine]
More than never understanding how high they are (and it's true that we begin to take masterpieces for granted when that's all we see), we miss the very important instructional things we can learn from lesser works, like the cues they offer on how to connect the dots. Remember, the mission of MoMA (and many other such institutions) is largely education:

Founded in 1929 as an educational institution, The Museum of Modern Art is dedicated to being the foremost museum of modern art in the world.
Take Mondrian for example. MoMA's retrospective of his work several years ago was spectaular...truly world class, but, of course, such exhibitions cannot be housed indefinitely. Still there was a very important lesson about abstraction and particularly how it can borrow its sense of rhythm from nature that I had no clear sense of at all until I saw that restrospective. It took juxtaposing one of Modrian's early tree pieces (see above) with his later 1913-1915 pastel-ish abstractions and then a much later masterpiece like Broadway Boogie Woogie for me to see it, but eventually I did. Those somewhat earlier tree pieces can't touch the masterpieces he would create and become famous for later, in my opinion, but according to MoMA's website it doesn't look like the own any of the tree pieces at all, which is not only a mistake, but a significant lost opportunity for the public. What a wasted chance to help enlighten the public about a complicated issue.

Of course, this is a very specific example, and MoMA would need to cover 20 city blocks to even attempt to teach all things to all people, but in this sense, Saltz is right when he notes:

At MOMA everything has been civilized, neutralized, tidied up, and pruned to death. Even the giants are ill served. [emphasis mine]
The giants, and we the public.


Anonymous Chris said...

"Things are so far off at MOMA that Tate director Nicholas Serota recently accused it of suffering a "loss of nerve."

Sorry, Nicholas Serota throwing a stone at MOMA doesn't legitimize his argument....I mean, have you been to the Tate??

11/16/2005 11:54:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I have been to the Tate, and while I think it has it's problems, lack of nerve doesn't seem to be one.

What was your experience?

11/16/2005 12:08:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Could it possibly something to do with money? Play it safe and you keep your corporate funders. A little controversy, and bye-bye Target.

11/16/2005 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous ML said...

The new MoMA to me has more in common with a really nice high end department store - all those aisles and escalators - than a museum.

A show idea, borrowed from the Philadelphia Museum's show of Brancusi - if MoMA can't do Saltz' idea of 75 years of development, recreate an artist's studio once or twice a year. Show the clutter, the developed ideas, the ones which die on the wall, a few older works assigned to a corner. Make art seem alive, instead of the religious art of a forgotten culture.

That said, the bathrooms at MoMA are wonderful. Modernism translates beautifully into fixtures.

11/16/2005 04:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Nerve is not something I would attach to the Tate. They have their permanent collection displayed in themes; Body/Nudes/memory, etc. Boring. But in all fairness their permanent collection is not in the same state as MOMA's....probably not in the same country. If MOMA had try do do that sun thingy they would have been slammed for bringing in a crowd pleaser for all the mid-west folk. They can't win.

11/16/2005 05:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Oft Optic said...

I'm led to understand a Chelsea gallery owner is selling their 5-floor townhouse at 441 West 21st St. (The building houses three separate units, of which one is their residence). Recently reduced from $7.995m to $5.995m (25% off!). Note the Donald Judd work shown in photos 3 and 4.

11/16/2005 06:33:00 PM  
Anonymous james leonard said...

Risk. Nerve. I wonder, at this moment in history, how these would manifest in an American museum?

I have cotton in my head tonight. Maybe its the two weeks of instensive studio time followed by one week of late days on a new freelance gig that have me feeling off kilter.

But I gotta admit that the news these days--with indications that the GOP's sweaty stranglehold may be slipping--has me feeling like I'm treading through marshmallow goo. Nothing feels quite real and everything is in slow motion. Hope has been deferred so long that I feel like my sense of anticipation has been hobbled. My mind is full of questions and desire to find orientation. And history--cultural history--is a part of this desire. But can an institution as big as a barge ever be adroit enough to take these tight turns?

But maybe I'm after personal touchstones--like paintings I've spent years looking at--rather than commonalities with my neighbors. If that is all I'm after, isn't a wall with good light all that really counts. I really can't say at this moment.

MOMA's current incarnation feels like a sixteen frame blur in a centurian time lapse. I feel little connection other than it too will someday be in memories of personal experience.

I don't mean any of this to be snarky or off topic. On many days, even just a few weeks ago, I would have understood and maybe even agreed with Saltz's critique of the MOMA. But at the moment, I'm not even sure I can wrap my mind around his demands.

11/17/2005 01:01:00 AM  

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