A Modest Proposal

Our critic has a few ideas about how to put the new Museum of Modern Art in order

I can't stop thinking about the new Museum of Modern Art. Nor can I stop going there. Since its November reopening, I've been 14 times. I still love the building, but I often feel MOMA is so invested in its own myth of modernism that it and I can't breathe. Myths are monolithic and fixed; they accommodate modification but they don't really change. Art, which is quixotic, is timeless but not mythic. The alarming lack of space allotted for all the permanent collections may mean that MOMA is fated to stay stuck in a myth of its own making.

I know it will take years to understand how this building does and doesn't work. Still, I keep feeling that it brings us to the brink of discovering something about the Modern as an institution and about modernism itself that we haven't quite known before or experienced fully—something that's remained hidden just beneath the surface, something marvelous.

So far, the reactions to the reopening have been predictably either-or: MOMA is either failing the modernist past or the postmodern present; it's being too inclusive or not inclusive enough; it's betraying founding director Alfred Barr's teleological torpedo or torpedoing him altogether. Whatever, this back-and-forth isn't going to get us through this transitional time or bridge the gap between the achievement of this building and the museum's vaunted collection—or their tantalizing potential together. There have to be other ways between the polarities, and lots of people will have to be taking innovative stabs at reconciling the differences. Here's mine.

Beyond the myth of modernism: visitors to MOMA's Pollock installation
photo: Robin Holland
Beyond the myth of modernism: visitors to MOMA's Pollock installation

This is a grandiose scheme, but it could be done. In an exhibition called "75 Years," MOMA should integrate as much of its photography, drawing, painting, and sculpture collection as possible from 1925 to 2000, and install it in strictly chronological order. This would break the myth and begin to bridge the gaps. An attempt to do this was being led by former curator of painting and sculpture Kirk Varnedoe, who was handpicked by chief curator Bill Rubin, the overlord of linearity. Varnedoe, whose death is a tremendous loss to the museum, opened up Rubin's installation, then helped instigate "Modern Starts," the three thematic messes that filled the museum between 1999 and 2000, of which his, though flawed, was probably the best.

When I say strictly chronological, I mean it. Starting on the top floor and using every space including the atrium, whenever an exact date can be determined as to when a work was made, that date will determine exactlywhere the work will be installed. Instead of having a gallery of just Johns, Twombly, and Rauschenberg, as MOMA does now, we might see these artists with Jess, Jay DeFeo, Ray Johnson, Asger Jorn, Bob Thompson, and Bruce Conner; or see Jasper Johns's Flag (1954-55), a de Kooning Woman, a Picasso, a Joseph Cornell, a Jean Tinguely, an early Nam June Paik, and a late Giacometti one after the other. Europeans like Oyvind Fahlstrom, Konrad Klapheck, Blinky Palermo, and Bernd and Hilla Becher would hang with Claes Oldenburg, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, and Peter Saul. Good or bad, questionable or not, Louise Nevelson would be brought back into the mix, as would Marisol, Arman, Alice Neel, Paula Rego, Elaine de Kooning, and H.C. Westermann. The May 1964 section might contain these artists plus Warhol, Richter, Polke, Baselitz, Beuys, Bacon, Katz, Kusama, Avery, O'Keeffe, and people we barely remember.

Many will complain that there will be too much so-called "lesser" work on view. But you can't develop what Oscar Wilde called "the critical spirit" if you're mainly seeing masterpieces. Seeing only peaks doesn't tell you how high they are. As André Malraux wrote, "We can feel only by comparison. The Greek genius is better understood by comparing a Greek statue to an Egyptian or Asiatic one than by acquaintance with a hundred Greek statues." "75 Years" would allow people to exercise their own "critical spirit." It would begin with Mondrian, Stettheimer, and Picabia and proceed until we get to Chris Ofili, Kara Walker, and Steve McQueen. I'd put Charles Ray's Family Romance—his uncanny sculpture of a miniature family, all naked, and all the same size—in place of Newman's Broken Obelisk in the atrium, as it would compel viewers to go back to the beginning again to see how all this got started.

Everybody says that nobody owns ideas and that certain ideas are in the air. "75 Years" would create a sense of what the air was like. We would see who was doing what when and who was and wasn't original. We'd see just how shocking some of this art once looked. Imagine the jolt of Johns's Flag. We'd get a sense of what a copycat Robert Morris was, how soon Jim Dine started repeating himself, how Warhol was something that had never existed before, how out-of-it many Americans were, or why Barnett Newman's colleagues felt so betrayed by his work when he first started showing. We'd see dead ends, last gasps, flashes in the pan; Pollock struggling to change styles at the height of his fame, and Mondrian daring to be new even on his last day in the studio. A vision of the freight train of art history would appear before us. It would be chaos out of order and order out of chaos. It would be marvelous.

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