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The curators of the Museum of Modern Art as photographed by Sara Krulwich of the New York Times, from left: Anne Umland, Ann Temkin and Joachim Pissarro

MoMA's new 54th Street faade under construction, 12/30/03

Rendering of Yoshio Taniguchi's new MoMA

Pablo Picasso
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

Pavel Tchelitchew
Hide and Seek
Will MoMA Lose Its Soul?
by Charlie Finch

Museum of Modern Art chief curator John Elderfield is a shrewd tactician, a chameleon who quickly adapted to the corporate models of museum director Glenn Lowry and smoothly rode them to glory, while former painting and sculpture chief Kirk Varnedoe was dying and contemporary curator Robert Storr stumbled into the wilderness.

Elderfield's program for a new MoMA was foreshadowed by his hydra-headed millennial survey "Modern Starts," a kaleidoscopic carnival of new discoveries and postmodern clichés which sought to bury the myth of the great artist (so beloved by influential MoMA curators Alfred Barr, Bill Rubin and Varnedoe), forever.

And who shall replace "the great artist"? Why, the great curator, of course, peering through the camouflage of a relatively powerless curatorial team, like the large spectacles in The Great Gatsby.

According to a recent story in the New York Times, the trio of Joachim Pissarro, Ann Temkin and Anne Umland, all 44, are a navel-gazing group obsessed with being "the middle child" or discovering a distinguished painter grandfather, all too typical of the homogenized curatorial class that now rules the USA from the Getty to the Kimball to Miami: minor personalities with one "vision."

Puppeteer Elderfield silkily pulls the strings, and since the new MoMA plant will be so spectacular, offering unprecedented freedom to roam, no one will even notice the arrangement of great works of art until the diamond dust settles after the opening.

Then what?

We can guess what won't be there: All the strengths, however limited in retrospect, of 20th-century MoMA -- Demoiselles surrounded by little Picassos; the disjointed Ab-Ex room with the familiar Rothkos, Newmans and Pollocks; Water Lillies in a restaurant cul de sac; Matisses reflecting in the windows of 53rd Street; Duchamp flitting amusedly and inconsequentially through the precincts of his visual betters; the muted presence of Warhol.

And let's guess what we might see: A room of Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills; Koons, the new century's Pavel Tchelitchew, muscling into the rooms of Pablo and Andy; acres of repetitive Impressionist painting and less Cubism; Pollock bowdlerized with his inferiors and less Mondrian; Brancusi scattered about, among Miró, Leger and Giacometti, in short a disjointed ride through the Postmodern tunnel of horrors, in which every artwork shouts for attention and every dead artist rolls over in his grave.

Every sacred space may become a pleasure chest trying, for a few visual seconds, to amuse.

Such is the triumph of the curator at MoMA, the dealer in Chelsea, the producer in music, the book chain in publishing, the spin and the sound bite in politics.

Is that what MoMA will become? One more American Idol?

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).