Stop Making Sense


The Museum of Modern Art has finally reached the present. “Open Ends,” the third installment of MOMA’s three-part, 18-month examination of its collection—and the last 120 years of European and American art and design—covers 1960 to 2000. It’s the segment we’ve all been waiting for. The one we lived through. And guess what? It’s a perfect mess—emphasis on perfect.

Everything makes sense. No end is left open. Art is ordered and sorted, paired and packaged, aestheticized and anesthetized. All match and no mix, uncertainty is out, expedience is in. Overall, “Open Ends” is less like an art show than a TV show: Lessons are dispensed, chuckles come on cue, ideas are simplistic, and everything is resolved in 30 minutes. Of the 11 segments that make up this final chapter of MOMA’s retelling of the story of modern art, six are tedious, formally obvious, and didactic to the core. Here, the extraordinary is rendered ordinary, the resistant made palatable; the discordant passes unnoticed. Little vision for the future is evident; next to nothing is said about contemporary art; positions aren’t taken; outlooks are narrow; risk is nonexistent.

Curators seem bent on negating art’s advantages: its inherent bad taste, surliness, mystery, poetry, and complexity. Disinfecting everything in their path, salaried professionals pare work down to single essences. They eliminate the intuitive and shun multiplicity, ruthlessly reducing art to the lowest common denominators of theme, subject matter, and material. In the segment titled “White Spectrum,” some of the most vexing paintings made in this century—near-monochromes by Kasimir Malevich, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, and Barnett Newman—are sequestered in a ghetto. Susan Rothenberg’s desperado late- ’70s attempt at subject matter is here because the horse and the ground in her painting are white. Even sadder is “Matter.” Here, art is arranged according to materials like twigs, wax, poop, or plastic. See Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s elegiac work made of 42 lightbulbs reduced to lightbulb art, alongside a sculpture and a chandelier made from the same materials. Or witness Joseph Beuys’s felt suit transformed into department-store display next to Robert Morris’s felt wall work.

Over and over, like is mercilessly paired with like. In “Pop and After”—one of five exhibitions organized by Kirk Varnedoe, MOMA’s chief curator of paintings and drawings—Jasper Johns’s unfathomable encaustic Flag is equated with David Hammons’s caustic African-American Flag. Nearby, we get targets by the same two artists. Warhol’s hammer-and-sickle painting faces Polke’s portrait of Mao; images of women by Lichtenstein, Koons, Sherman, and Wesselmann hang side by side. Thus is the air let out of art.

Continuing the simplemindedness, in “Innocence and Experience,” Robert Gober’s peculiar three-sided playpen is short-circuited and rendered one-dimensional next to Mona Hatoum’s glass crib. Gone are insinuations of suppression, metaphysics, process, or escape. Nearby, Brancusi’s The Newborn is turned into a one-liner next to photographs of babies. A few works away, Joseph Cornell’s doll in a box just dies. If we don’t stop doing this to art, art may stop doing what it does to us.

Five shows look good: “Sets and Situations,” “Actual Size”—which makes some nice points about scale, materialism, and illusion—”The Path of Resistance,” and especially “Counter Monuments and Memory,” in which Marcel Odenbach’s videotape, Annette Messager’s assemblage, and Anselm Kiefer’s The Red Sea combine to create a specter of history and a shadow of doubt. “Architecture Hot and Cold,” organized by Terence Riley, chief curator of architecture and design, is corny, but its obsessive overcrowding of images of buildings by everyone from R. Buckminster Fuller and Andreas Gursky to Rem Koolhaas and Toba Khedoori is hysterical and invigorating—even if you can’t look at any one thing. It’s a 50-yard dash through the history of postwar architecture, but the minute you leave this breathless sprint, you return to the forced march. Through one of the doors leading from the architecture show, you enter a printmaking exhibition titled “One Thing After Another.” Here, instead of a shot of how radical, risky, and revolutionary seriality is, the curator lulls you into a stupor with just grids. Watch as Gerhard Richter, Ellsworth Kelly, Brice Marden, and others are turned into wallpaper.

Still, there are thrilling moments. Individual rooms fair well. Pipilotti Rist’s lethal video, Ever Is Over All, is alive and dangerous. The gallery of Richter’s Baader-Meinhof paintings, collectively titled October 18, 1977, is stunning, and nearby, Sue Coe’s rendition of a woman being raped on a pool table holds its own. Vito Acconci’s Adjustable Wall Bra is truly aberrant, Charles Ray’s Family Romance stops people in their tracks and makes them turn away at the same time, Rachel Whitread’s library is haunting, and James Turrell’s A Frontal Passage is trance-inducing.

Curiously, the landings are memorable. Barnett Newman’s towering Broken Obelisk, squeezed in just off the second-floor escalator, turns this stately monument of minimalism wildly charismatic and scary. Cai Guo-Qiang’s hanging sculpture of a boat pierced by thousands of arrows and Chris Burden’s five-ton, scorched-earth hanging planetoid, Medusa’s Head, both look compelling. Nearby, the ever insidious Mel Bochner diagrams the museum’s deadest end, the fourth-floor freight elevator. Isn’t this what the show’s supposed to be about: vertigo, reverie, looking for openings, old objects made new, daring—all that?

But high points are few and always held in check. Perched in the middle of the “Innocence” show, Jeff Koons’s incomprehensible, ungiving stainless-steel Rabbit elicits curiosity. Had it been installed in a room with Johns’s Flag and Matthew Barney’s The Cabinet of Baby Fay La Foe (which is in the “Matter” show with other works that employ wax), a powerful black hole might have formed in the museum.

But this just gets you thinking about what’s missing. About how extraordinary it would have been to see genius outsiders like Henry Darger, James Castle, and Morton Bartlett. Or a cluster of late Picassos, just to suggest that he may have been one of the best painters of the ’60s. As for newish work by Laura Owens, Chris Ofili, John Currin, or Kara Walker—forget it; according to “Open Ends,” they haven’t happened. For that matter, neither did the dematerialization of art in the ’60s, Barry LeVa, or the paintings of Frank Stella.

Worst of all is the total elimination of the American painting of the ’80s. There’s not a single canvas by Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Elizabeth Murray, Eric Fischl, Terry Winters, Joan Snyder, Lari Pittman, Carroll Dunham, Peter Halley, or Philip Taaffe. This would be comical if it weren’t so creepy and disturbing. Evidently, painting’s OK as long as it’s German. So closed-minded is “Open Ends” that its title turns ominously literal: Openness ends.

I love that MOMA’s experimenting with their collection, playing with themselves. A glance at the catalog confirms they’re doing a superb job of collecting the art of the last 20 years. But after 18 months of investigating alternative ways of looking at their holdings—some ways more successful than others—the drudgery of “Open Ends” suggests the museum is tired of all this summarizing. Presumably, they—like us—want to put “MOMA2000” behind them.

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