"Precious." Ironic re-inscriptions of that word kept somersaulting through my head while viewing the new Museum of Modern Art. The history of modern art is the story of adventurous young artists producing offensive objects ("All profoundly original art looks ugly at first," wrote Clement Greenberg in 1945), born of their disdain for precious objet d'art ("Museums are tombs," said Robert Smithson in 1967) and a desire to revitalize culture. Yet when they were successful, their strange works themselves became devotional objects, rare and protected. And now, gratitude flows to MoMA for the attentive asylum and presentation it provides for successive formations of anti-precious works that -- for not only what they are, but what they stand for -- are particularly precious now.
Why this kissing of the oversized, coolly anonymous hand that is now feeding our desire to regularly consume stunning examples of the past century's visual culture? Because the fundamentally optimistic spirit that galvanized modernity and promoted continual expansions of the identity of art feels newly threatened. Our national elections are too recent, the resulting wound to the liberalism that is the milieu that produces so much creativity is still raw, for anyone engaged with contemporary society to separate this new world order from the grand celebration at the Modern.
New York City is exceptional in this country in both its residents' overwhelming affiliation with the Democratic Party and its substantial support of innovative culture in all media. Yet voting patterns, as well as political and legislative evidence on so many fronts, indicate that this country is unambiguously turning toward favoring ultraconservative, fundamentalist beliefs and economic, social and culturally regressive policies. The values that made New York the national Ground Zero not only of finance but of tolerant, progressive ideals and a major fount of cultural innovation are clearly under threat from the outside, and I don't mean from outside this country.
No one is naive enough to think that all good art has been produced by political progressives or even by artists who are morally "good." But as declared by the title of Meyer Schapiro's 1947 essay, "The Liberating Quality of Avant-Garde Art," inventive modern art has been ideologically linked to progressive ideals. Postwar abstraction was associated with both an individual's "inner freedom" and the U.S. leadership in Europe's political liberation from fascism. Such painting, Schapiro concluded, "helps to maintain the critical spirit and the ideals of creativeness, sincerity and self-reliance, which are indispensable to the life of the culture."
This belief led in the 1960s to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts. Within a couple of decades, the failure to recognize that art is supposed to oppose the status quo led to the government's decimation of the NEA's support of radically new works and genres. More recently, the Patriot Act, the White House's implications -- even to Cabinet members -- that dissent equals treason, and network broadcasting's fears of Federal Trade Commission retaliation for its war-related programming, exemplify constraints on our culture's "critical spirit."
This is a situation that can transform an art critic into a cultural cheerleader. Nostalgic for the vanguards of the past, one hails the alliance of business moguls and art mavens who, clearly sharing an appreciation for innovation, boldly brought forth MoMA's huge temple of past artistic experimentation. In this climate, how can one throw stones at this glass tower of art -- even if it radiates all the warmth of a stack of ice cubes?
Here's how: because to honor the art, and the artists, viewers must set aside sentimentality and come to it with a critical consciousness. I am ambivalent about the $20 admission charge. On the one hand, it's another demonstration of the current hubris of the rich, who having lowered their own tax rate, now think they can get away with instituting a flat tax to shift burdens onto the rest of us. On the other, relentless tax cuts effectively shift expenses for education and culture, like bridge tolls, onto end users. And a day at MOMA is still cheaper than a night at the opera.
Secondly, I'm a little alienated from the large scale and austerity of the Modern's galleries. The minimalist interior of white walls, brushed steel trim and glass panels, and the soaring atrium, form a spectacular public space with room for a few thousand visitors at once. Maybe this vast size is necessary. Maybe the 21st century art viewing experience, as another manifestation of the post World War II baby boom, is from the middle of a crowd.
The atrium is a great place for Barnett Newman's monumental Broken Obelisk; the sculpture will function as a landmark point for rendezvous. But those who remember the former enveloping experience of Monet's environmental Wate Lilies in a curved, enclosed room with low lighting can only wince at the panels' placement nearby. The scale of the space cuts Monet's panels down to size and promotes looking from 50 feet rather than one.
From there, the view upward evokes a business headquarters or a mall, with galleries, restaurants and shops on several crisscrossing layers, wide hallways, enclosures and openings -- "Metropolis" for the 21st century. The invisible corporate banner on the wall is "Ars longa, vita brevis." As in, "In this great space are the long lived heroes of modern visual culture, in comparison to which, trying to take it all in, is your puny and transient self." It reminds me of Kenneth Clark's remark in his TV series and book Civilisation -- "I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room:"
Ideally, a museum puts the art on view and gets out of the way. Of course a viewer's desire to incorporate art into oneself as pure presence, or to be entirely absorbed within it, is an impossible, and naive, dream. But at MoMA the iconophile's yearning to merge with the art is hindered not only by the public scale and mood of the galleries. The flooring is uniformly wood and the lighting consistently high beam. As a respite, some galleries could promote intimacy with the art by partitioning spaces, adding carpeting for sound absorption and comfort, and subduing and focusing the illumination.
As for the installation itself, MoMA is moving toward postmodern nonlinearity and inclusion. Rather than funneling history into a single "inevitable" trajectory, the sequence of presentations on the floors and arrangements across adjacent galleries demonstrate concurrent styles and international approaches. Opposite Picasso's Desmoiselles is Rousseau's Sleeping Gypsy jungle scene, stimulating cross-perceptions of disparate primitivisms. The Pop Art gallery groups work by Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, Warhol and Wesselman with Bearden, Kitaj, and Jacques de la Villegl.
Nearby, I discovered Donald Judd's 1961 Relief, a nubby black painting with, in the center, a recessed rectangular pan -- just right for meatloaf. Jules Olitski meets Betty Crocker! This pleasure of discovering previously stored treasures -- another is Sol LeWitt's 1963 bright, tall, Floor Structure -- is what MOMA's expanded gallery space is all about.
The contemporary gallery on the second floor is the most global, but its presentation of history is also spotty. The MoMA collection is phenomenal through about 1970. Then the curators seem to have lost interest in representing contemporary art. For example, the new subjects and materials introduced by the feminist art movement from the early 1970s are missing. There is no evidence of the aggressive "Bad Painting" that inaugurated the New Museum in 1978 and heralded a revived interest in painting, and almost none of the raucous German, American and Italian Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s.
The collection is very thin on figurative painting after Surrealism, whether Expressionist, realism a la Lucian Freud or the Photorealism of Robert Bechtle and others. A substantial integration of representational painting would actually be returning to MoMA's roots, as Edward Hopper's House by the Railroad (1930) was the first work by a living artist to enter the collection. The curators' first mandate is to decide whether to incorporate or abandon as impossible a substantial account in their collection of the art history of the past thirty years and forward.
Meanwhile, there's always the beloved Starry Night (and every viewer's own special favorites). Director Glenn Lowry described the opening presentations as "provisional ways of thinking and looking at art." At least in these dark days of chaos in Iraq and machinations in the White House, we can appreciate MoMA's belief in big scale thinking about and looking at art. And our own responses must also be provisional, while we all work out how to best experience art in this very 21st century institution.
SUZAAN BOETTGER is chair of the session "Robert Smithson's Dialectics of Death and Creativity" at the forthcoming College Art Association conference in Atlanta in February 2005.