Return Engagement

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

Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (left) reinstalled at MOMA
photo: Robin Holland
Backdoor Entry

A private high point in the Museum of Modern Art's new painting and sculpture galleries was the exoneration I felt in the side alcove entry into the fifth-floor galleries. This otherwise cramped space takes you past two Hoppers, a Sheeler, and a Wyeth to surrealism and beyond to Otto Dix, George Grosz, and the Mexican muralists. Conversely, the grand entrance on the same floor ushers you past Cézanne, Seurat, and Degas to Picasso and Braque. The in-elegant, peripheral way felt like a personal vindication, an acknowledgment that—as humiliating as it is to admit—many of us suburbanites came to modernism through the back door of realism and surrealism.

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


Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street

More on the MOMA:

  • Photo Finish
    By Vince Aletti
  • Elsewhere, MOMA owns four paintings that should be confronted totally alone, and therefore deserve their own wall. Pollock's One: Number 31, 1950 is one such work. It's been installed alone at the end of a gallery and will blow you away. The three other paintings are Monet's Water Lilies, Newman's Vir Heroicus Sublimis, and, of course, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.

    Monet's multi-paneled painting has been utterly defanged in the atrium. It belongs where smelly kids in scruffy clothes can sit on the floor and ogle it for hours. Newman's retinal wow has its own wall, but the wall is too big. The painting gets lost, the color dims, and the internal scale dissolves. Meanwhile, Picasso's shot over everyone's bow shares a wall with five other paintings. It looks alluring, but is rendered decorative—just one of many paintings. It isn't, wasn't, and probably never will be.

    Finally, many will say hanging Matisse's Dance (I) over a staircase is a travesty, but a version of it was painted for the stairwell in the Moscow home of collector Sergei Shchukin.


    After the shock of seeing the glorious new Museum of Modern Art building and the awe of beholding its permanent collection installed in the fourth- and fifth-floor galleries, there is the disappointment and frustration about how this institution handles the art of the last 30 years. The current, admittedly impermanent but nevertheless desultory arrangement of the art of this period in the museum's gleaming second-floor galleries—a space so high-ceilinged and immense that it feels as if it were designed with Richard Serra in mind—is so lackluster that it makes you wonder how this institution views itself.

    If the upstairs galleries were installed with as little inspiration and as much slackness, the museum would have a massive fiasco on its hands. Here, one wanders aimlessly, as if in an auction house or an airport.

    Over the last 10 years, MOMA has excelled at mounting solid monographic exhibitions. We've seen Richter, Polke, Gursky, and Kusama, among others. These in-depth surveys are indispensable—although they needn't be so slanted towards the Germans. Regardless, except for several notable "Project" shows—many organized by ex-curator Laura Hoptman, now at the Carnegie Museum of Art—and a tiny number of group shows (e.g. "Museum as Muse"), MOMA has essentially dropped the ball when it comes to mounting large thematic exhibitions of contemporary art and the art of the last 30 years. Big, messy group outings are the hardest, most ambitious exhibitions to do. They're difficult to fund and everyone grumbles. However, they create a vital discourse.

    Clearly, MOMA wants to do spectacular things around the art of this period. If it does inconsequential, conservative shows—if the curators play it safe, or if management is too top-down—MOMA will only be a 20th-century museum, the end rather than continuation of something amazing.

    « Previous Page