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MoMA: How to Look at Modern Art-Wei

The Museum of Modern Art, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium looking east towards 5th Avenue with Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” (1963-69) and Willem de Kooning’s “Pirate (Untitled II)” (1981). © 2005 Timothy Hursley.


By now, everyone knows that the renovated and greatly expanded Museum of Modern Art has re-opened, returning after a two and a half year residency—or exile, depending upon whom you’re talking to—in Queens. Leading the welcome home committee was the New York Times, which turned into the MoMA Times for the duration, reporting on every conceivable aspect of the project—before, during, after, still—omitting, it seems, only the brand of toilet paper available in the shining new bathrooms. Its devotion was such that on Friday, November 19, 2004, the day before it opened to the public, The Weekend Arts section reviewed not one other exhibition, focusing all reportage on MoMA. However, no matter how over zealous and eventually off-putting the fanfare there and elsewhere became, the costly ($425 million) fourth incarnation of the museum is well worth it. As a house for art, it is both supremely intelligent and breathtakingly beautiful, based on an architecture of reticence. Designed with classic understatement and elegance by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, the gleaming glass curtain walls link the museum’s interior directly with the city outside, a strategy that is used throughout this sky-lighted, extraordinarily transparent construct. One of the many pleasures of the Taniguchi museum is its clearly articulated, neutral spaces that function in collaboration with the art—in its keeping, rather than in competition with it—unlike the run of recent museums. As for its corporate look, no corporate space has ever looked this good, but then, no corporation has this collection, and the invitingly restored and enlarged sculpture garden based on Philip Johnson’s unsurpassed 1953 design will no doubt become a destination within a destination.


There are those who would turn the clock back to when MoMA was less imposing, more intimate, when the art it championed was more contemporary. However, that’s not possible. MoMA has changed over the years as everything does, but it remains vital and viewers should be grateful for the opportunity to see a greater selection of what it has acquired over the years. There are problems with the present installation, to be sure, but certainly the installations are works in progress and will be tweaked and rotated as the curators become more accustomed to the physicality of this dream museum. Everyone probably has suggestions. Three of mine are: take the Matisse out of the stairway, the Monet out of the atrium, and figure out better ways to shape the great open space of the second floor contemporary gallery. But not only will the curators need time to adjust, so will the viewer. The complexity and depth of the art on display and the introduction of many new works need to be absorbed, sorted out. For this viewer, on subsequent visits, reservations began to fall away, the awe subsided, the smell and look of money dissipated by the smell and look of great art. Indeed, the new MoMA is ravishing, irresistible. It seems impossible not to be smitten by room after astonishing room of such incomparable art.


But the voices demanding greater inclusivity are not wrong. It is also clearly evident that this is not and will never be the place for revised and alternative readings of history, for work that is messy, confrontational, hot off the press. For that, and more destabilized and utopian projects, there is the less buttoned P.S. 1, MoMA’s adopted child, as well as other flexible, less freighted venues. While it will be of great interest to see what it will do in its new temporary spaces, MoMA, more than ever, is what i t has become: the temple of the canonized.


Lilly Wei


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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