Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2004
 
My other cultural excursion was to the newly expanded, renovated and reopened Museum of Modern Art. I've never been a big MOMA fan; the place is cold and forbidding and too full of itself. But they have some wonderful things in the collection, and I really wanted to see what the renovation amounted to.

There's been a lot of good stuff written already about the MOMA renovation; see, for example, Jed Perl's review in The New Republic. I'm sure I won't surpass their efforts, or even come close. Hopefully my own personal impressions are not empty of interest.

First: the building is beautiful, at least on the inside, if no less chilly (emotionally) than it was before. It reminded me a great deal of the office of the firm where I used to work, which was designed by Steven Holl about fifteen years ago.

But on the outside, at least on 54th street, the building presents about as brutal a front as possible. Which is, at least, honest in its high modernist way: modernist architecture never did give a damn what it did to the city around it, so presenting a fa├žade of unadorned corrugated steel half a block long is in its way very traditional. But it's no less hideous and appalling for that.

Next: the use of space. It's strange. The second and sixth floors appear to be almost empty. The sixth floor especially is like a warehouse, a vast open space with only a handful of artworks hanging along the walls. I understand that the new museum wanted space to display monumental works, but the effect is weird. You no longer feel, for one thing, like you are in New York, nor like you are in a museum. Monumental works need an appropriate context for their size to play against. But these vast, roofed spaces don't provide that context, so the works either look simply oversized or, strangely, diminished. Or, in the case of Monet's waterlilies (which I never really liked that much, to tell the truth), both.

I tried to hit pretty much every gallery, at least briefly. The most pleasant surprise was the gallery of works on paper: lots of really lovely pieces from the whole history of modern art, and because most are of modest size and relatively muted color you really can cram a room full of stuff without making the viewer's eyes water. I could spend a lot of time wandering through these rooms, stopping to look at a Klee or a Gorky that particularly grabs me.

Among the contemporary art, which occupies a surprising amount of space, I found very little to like, and, even more so, little sense of order. MOMA's famous "story" about modern art is about the purification of aesthetic principles; modern art begins with a questioning of academic conventions, and proceeds to break down more and more fundamental aspects of a particular art form, questioning perspective, illusionistic color, and so forth. The "march of styles" from impressionism through cubism and fauvism to an ultimate apotheosis in abstract expressionism is, according to the "story", the tangible result of a series of experiments whose aim is to reveal the underlying principles of aesthetic experience. Needless to say, art since abstract expressionism doesn't fit this narrative at all, and since the late 1950s MOMA has been engaged in "picking winners" rather than making sense of the history of modern art. Of course, much modern art never fit the "story" as articulated here, and MOMA has always paid attention to artists - Georgia O'Keefe, for example, or Paul Klee - whose work is not part of the "march of styles" towards abstraction. But while MOMA was instrumental in crowning such princes of the postwar art world as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, they have never (to my mind at least) been persuasive in defending them on aesthetic grounds. And as we come down to contemporary art, there is no coherence at all. What the art world sees in a clown like Matthew Barney I have no idea; the piece MOMA has selected for display is both ugly and stupid, but it is also indistinguishable from any number of other pieces of conceptual dreck on display.

I should emphasize, as an aside, that I'm not absolutely averse to conceptual art. Conceptual art is properly understood not as painting or sculture but as theater; imagine a theatrical piece in which set design and the written program must carry all the aesthetic freight, with no script or actors to carry the main load. One "installation artist" I like: Ilya Kabakov. I've seen two works of his, one, "The Bridge", was exhibited in the 1990s at MOMA, and the other, "Treatment with Memories", at the Whitney Biennial. Both had the requisite theatricality and narrative quality; both had a quirkiness and particularity that this sort of art needs; and, while each was making a "statement" of sorts (which this sort of art inevitably does), that "statement" was neither trite nor ugly and propagandistic, as is almost universally the case with conceptual art of this sort. So my problem is not so much that you can't do this sort of thing well, as that almost nobody does, and when it's bad it's awful. And also that this sort of theater is no substitute for painting and sculpture, aesthetically.

In any event, I was unimpressed by the contemporary art on display; probably the piece I liked best was a sculpture that consisted of a series of mirrored-glass bottles of varying shape placed in a mirrored box, which one viewed through a one-way mirror. The multiplicity of reflections regressing to infinity in all directions produced an effect rather like looking at an Escher print. I won't say it was a profound experience, but I enjoyed it, and I could actually spend time looking at it, which is more than I can say of much of the work on display on these galleries. But I didn't have a much better time wandering through the galleries devoted to post-1950s art. There are individual artists I appreciated - Chuck Close, for example, or Helen Frankenthaler - but most of what I saw was ugly or boring, and that includes "masterpieces" like Rauschenberg's bed or Twombly's monumental scribbles. I looked at these works and tried to remember what was important about them, because I didn't get it from direct experience. The great Ab Ex masterpieces - Rothko, Pollack, Newmann, Stills - meanwhile, seemed diminished by being treated as merely part of a series of art movements of, apparently, equal significance. These are paintings that you can install in a temple, that practically announce that they must be installed in a temple to be properly appreciated. Why not do so? It's not like MOMA doesn't have the space.

I saved the heart of the collection for last. But here, too, I was surprised by my reactions. The room that stunned me most, aesthetically, was one that was rather "off track" in terms of the MOMA narrative: a room that opened with two early Kandinskys, bursting with the deep yet bright blues and reds of Russian box painting; followed by four additional tall thin works by Kandinsky that formed a series, full of energy, pulling your eye this way and that; then a lurid and beautiful painting by Kirchner; a portrait by Kokoschka; three pieces by Egon Schiele; a gorgeous work by Klimt; I forget what else. This gallery, displaying the best that Germany and Austria (and refugees thereto from points farther east) could do in the decade prior to World War I, delivered such a concentrated dose of sheer pleasure - and diverse pleasure; these artists have radically different styles and emotional tones - that I realized how much I'd been missing elsewhere in the museum. And that includes in the heart of the permanent collection on the fifth floor; the endless procession of Picassos was somehow ennervating by comparison.

There's something wrong with looking at art as an experiment done for its own sake. Failed experiments are just that: failures. There were modernists who never lost sight of the centrality of aesthetic experience in art, and there were those who went so far as to repudiate the very idea of the aesthetic. The latter have been ascendant for some time now. Modernism should never have been about novelty for novelty's sake; it should have been about finding new ways to do what art is supposed to do. Matisse, Braque, Klimt, Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Gorky, Rothko: in radically different ways, each of these artists pursued an idea of modern art that had an aesthetic objective. Too many other artists, and entire movements, came to art with other objectives entirely.

The new MOMA is a beautiful space for exploring modern art; it is, itself, a monument to what modernism can achieve, aesthetically. I hope that MOMA's curators take that achievement to heart. MOMA's "story" was a good thing, if, like all good things, limited. They should come up with a new story, one that they believe, and build the institution around it, rather than come up with extra-aesthetic justifications for whatever rut the art world found itself in at a given point in history. If the 1950s produced greater art than the 1970s, give the 1950s more gallery space and don't apologize.