What We Learn (or Don't) from Masterpieces
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:
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."
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.