It kills me to write this because I love the Museum of Modern Art. Aesthetically speaking it’s where we all come from, where we go to commune with our ancestors and become new again. Yet the more I go to the new MOMA—and I’ve been there over 50 times since it reopened a year ago this week—the more I think this crown jewel is becoming a beautiful tomb. At MOMA the unruly juice of art history, the chaos, contradiction, radicality, and rebellion, are being bleached out. Instead, we’re getting the taming of modernism—modernism as elevator music.
An observation by Jacques Lacan might describe the dire straits MOMA is in: “A madman who believes he is king is no more mad than a king who believes he is king.” Of course, this statement means a king who believes he possesses an inherent “king gene” is implicitly mad. Second, and more pressing, it means that to be king the people must believe you are king. Being king is a relationship.
MOMA is becoming a madman who thinks it is king. It is telling a story of modern art that only the museum itself believes. Many have grumbled that the new museum is too big and posh. On the contrary—and catastrophically—not enough room was built for the exhibition of the museum’s vaunted collection of painting and sculpture. Figures are fuzzy, but the amount of space currently allotted to art from Postimpressionism to 1969 on the fourth and fifth floors is roughly the same as in the old building—less if you factor in added doorways.
This is devastating. Just when everyone is ready to see modernism and the Modern anew, the new building only allows MOMA to exhibit a tiny fraction of its collection. Worse, the lack of space means MOMA must show mainly masterpieces. Obviously, everyone wants to see the peaks. But if you’re only seeing mountaintops you can never know how high they are. Often more can be learned from so-called “lesser art” than “great art.” These days too many alleged “geniuses” are being propped up by their isms and would be of little interest otherwise (e.g., Motherwell, Hofmann, and Gottlieb).
At MOMA everything has been civilized, neutralized, tidied up, and pruned to death. Even the giants are ill served. So far on the fourth and fifth floors there hasn’t been a single Modigliani, Rouault, or Soutine, no Toulouse-Lautrec, Balthus, Hartley, or Alice Neel. A titan like Stuart Davis, who deserves his own gallery, hangs by an escalator. Ditto Georgia O’Keefe. Forget about oddballs and kooks like Morandi and Florine Stettheimer; there’s no Adolf Wolfli, Bill Traylor, Martin Ramirez, or Henry Darger, all of whom rank among the greatest artists of the 20th century.
Even more appalling, of the approximately 410 works in the fourth-and fifth-floor galleries, only a paltry 16 are by women. Four percent is shameless, reprehensible, and unacceptable. Moreover, it’s lower than it was a year ago. While art historians moan about donor names being too large in galleries and theoreticians carp about poor “sight lines,” this arrogantly parochial misrepresentation undermines many of the institution’s good intentions. If this insidiousness isn’t corrected at once, those responsible should be held accountable, and we should think about not going to MOMA until the distortion is corrected.
Foucault famously wrote about the Panopticon, a circular prison whereby a warden could keep watch over an entire population, instilling “self-discipline from paranoia.” MOMA isn’t round, but it proceeds in such lockstep, by-the-book order that audiences fall into anesthetized stupors of mindless acceptance. MOMA has become a machine whose primary purpose is to impart an aura of respectability to objects that are inherently unorthodox and anti-authoritarian. It is engaged in a ruthless cleansing operation meant mainly to reinforce the canon.
MOMA needn’t have built a Bilbao-like behemoth. Yet as horrendous as it is to say, MOMA already needs to expand to the property it owns next door and quintuple the amount of space for the permanent collection and stupendous drawing and photography collections. It should also attempt to relocate its tremendous neighbor, the American Folk Art Museum, to a bigger, better space and then either tear down AFAM’s hideous, ridiculously narrow building or use it for offices, storage, or education.
Last season I made a number of suggestions for a better MOMA, including an 18-month exhibition titled “75 Years” in which as much of the permanent collection as possible from 1925 to 2000 would be integrated and installed in strictly chronological order. This would break MOMA’s stultifying he-begat-him story. When Glenn Lowry, MOMA’s director, told me “the museum was seriously considering” some of my suggestions, I asked, “What about ’75 Years’?” He blithely replied, “We considered that but it would be dog food,” meaning, I think, it would be confusing. I responded, “No, it would be chaos from order and order from chaos. It would bring 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 just beneath the surface.”
I didn’t mention that the follow-up exhibition would be to install the entire collection by acquisition dates to pull back the curtain on institutional taste.
It isn’t too late for our beloved MOMA to shock itself out of its complacent self-parody. But the clock is ticking.
A balky commitment to rethinking postwar art
As far as programming, vision, mission, and ambition are concerned, MOMA must reconnect with its wildcat roots and remember it was created to take on the whole world. It’s time to get beyond its orderly version of postwar art: namely that abstraction was essentially invented by a bunch of white guys in the Cedar bar, pop art was primarily an American phenomenon, women didn’t become good artists until after 1970, and conceptualism was a hiccup.
MOMA’s commitment to rethinking postwar art feels balky at best, averse at worst. Yet it must wholeheartedly and creatively re-examine and reimagine the art of the last 50 years—although it’s hard to envision this without a single designated “project gallery” in the new building. Things are so far off at MOMA that Tate director Nicholas Serota recently accused it of suffering a “loss of nerve.”
The situation isn’t hopeless. The current reinstallation of contemporary art is excellent. “Safe,” the design show, is feisty and sharp; the gigantic Lee Friedlander survey was great, although the Thomas Demand retrospective was only OK because too much Demand got monotonous. The Elizabeth Murray survey was terrific. Now MOMA needs to mount at least one retrospective of a living woman artist every year for the next 15 years.
The point is MOMA needs to stop confirming and start experimenting.
Other museums are light-years ahead of MOMA
When MOMA opened a year ago it seemed as if other local museums would be eclipsed. The opposite has happened. The Whitney now looks scrappy and sassy by comparison and is infused with a nothing-to-lose drive. Having two Europeans curate the upcoming Biennial may provide a nifty dose of anti-provincialism. Even the big, bad Guggenheim, run as it is by a kind of tough guy, has lately been putting on good, weird shows and taking risks (although this doesn’t undo the terrible things it did to art recently).
For an idea of how safe MOMA is playing it, compare it to Tate Modern, the Walker Art Center, L.A.’s MOCA, UCLA Hammer, Chicago’s MCA, or even the Studio Museum in Harlem and Philadelphia’s little ICA. All these institutions feel light-years ahead of MOMA when it comes to dynamism, vision, and nerve.