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Is 'the greatest collection of modern art in the world' already running out of space?

I love the new Museum of Modern Art. I love that it's not some glitzy, historicizing trophy building, that it's been built with exquisite attention to volume and light, and that as our country flirts with hell this heavenly thing has happened.

I don't love the way paintings are reduced to lobby decor in the soaring but art-killing atrium or the rambling contemporary installation on the adjacent second floor. Nevertheless, I love the way the building looks and feels—so much so that I've been having bizarre fantasies about working there. Architect Yoshio Taniguchi has struck such a brilliant truce between modernism and postmodernism that this building should give anyone interested in designing museums food for thought—especially institutions with deconstructivist renovations under way. The new MOMA is an immeasurable improvement over the 1984 Cesar Pelli addition, not least because much of that museum-as-mall has been concealed or destroyed.

But as much as I love the new MOMA, there's a terrible gnawing sensation in the pit of my stomach that tells me something is dreadfully wrong. In the midst of all this success there is a serious shortcoming: The amount of space allotted to painting and sculpture from post-impressionism to 1969 on the fourth and fifth floors is roughly the same as in the Pelli building. In other words, the total square footage of the galleries housing what is often called "the greatest collection of modern art in the world" is just too small. This spells trouble.

Taniguchi's atrium with Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk and Monet's Water Lilies
photo: Robin Holland
Taniguchi's atrium with Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk and Monet's Water Lilies

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Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street

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    John Elderfield, the curator who oversaw the installation of these crucial floors, has chosen a middle path between MOMA's bygone Old Testament, this-begat-that, "beads on a string" approach and the awful arbitrary thematizing of art so popular of late (e.g., Elderfield's egregious segment of "MOMA 2000"). In his catalog essay, Elderfield acknowledges that previous MOMA installations were "less real than ideal," and admits that the museum was "overemphatic" and "narrative-driven." He maintains MOMA is now interested in "multiple narratives" and being "juxtapositional rather than continuous." This is all good, although by now everyone knows that the history of modernism was spaghetti and simultaneity, that everything fed off everything else, and that MOMA's former arrangement was too linear and its cast of characters too pale and male.

    MOMA is trying to get beyond the art-historical myth it created. That's why it's so heartbreaking to say that this gallant effort is already being impeded by lack of space. How an institution could go to this much trouble, get so much right, spend $858 million, and not allow this portion of this vaunted collection more space is beyond me. The canon is being tweaked, but only slightly. One senses MOMA is dying to loosen up, but it's still operating well within its comfort zone. Unfortunately, it's also operating in a disturbingly familiar one: Of more than 415 works (excluding books) in the fourth- and fifth-floor galleries, only 20 are by women! This dispiriting fact undermines many good intentions.

    To its credit, the instal-lation proceeds chronologically and stylistically. Unexpected works by lesser names do pop up, which is great. But so far, MOMA has essentially replaced so-called minor Americans and Europeans with minor non-Americans and non-Europeans. When Venezuelans like Armando Reverón, Alejandro Otero, and Jesús Rafael Soto appear, they feel like asides to the big guns.

    I'm not suggesting that MOMA should refrain from exhibiting its masterpieces. This collection is staggering. My knees were buckling for galleries at a time. The Pollock room is hair-raising, and the many early and middle-period Picassos are astonishing, although a late one would establish that he was also one of the greatest painters of the 1960s. However, presenting the wild, insurrectionary history of modernism mainly in high points distorts the landscape. Seeing a Fautrier and a Soulages (even though I don't really like their work) and a Wols (whose I do) next to a de Kooning would allow you to grasp an idea about abstraction, and not just the New York School of it. They do this in a gallery with Fontana, Stella, Kusama, and Dieter Roth, and it works well. Seeing only peaks means that eventually you won't be able to appreciate hills or valleys, let alone basins and caves. Personal taste is stunted, everyone ends up on the same page, and modernism grows corporate.

    Subsequent hangings will rotate artists. This particular installation is dense with quality. But if you think about what easily could have been here as well had there only been more space, you'll see how close MOMA came to having it all. In the painting and sculpture galleries, there's no Ensor, Modigliani, Morandi, or Soutine; no Balthus, Hartley, Dove, or Albers; no Sonia Delaunay, Alice Neel, Vuillard, or Toulouse-Lautrec. The only Stuart Davis is hung by the escalators. Ditto O'Keeffe. Also sadly missing are eccentrics and visionaries like Christian Schad, Florine Stettheimer, Charles Burchfield, and Martin Ramirez.

    Everyone wants the new MOMA to be marvelous. In a way, if it isn't, we're not. MOMA is more than just a museum. It's the holy seat of modernism. The Met is our walk-in encyclopedia; MOMA is the story of our lives. It's who we are, where we come from, and where we're going; where we go to make our spirit journeys, to commune with our ancestors. At MOMA we grow new again. We have to hope that this is what will happen to this remarkable institution in this superb new building.

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