A very modern museum
by Martin Fisher and Martin Mullin
[ places - january 05 ]
The approach of the 21st century shocked many institutions into questioning how they could fulfil their original mission while retaining contemporary vitality and relevance. On November 20, 2004 (its 75th anniversary), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, responded by opening a new facility on West 53rd Street, where it has been since 1932. It was over eight years in the works and doubles the building's capacity. The $858 million cost included land acquisition and temporary quarters across the East River in Queens.
In the late 1920s, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie P Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan founded The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to show and collect the work of contemporary living artists. The first exhibition in 1929 showed Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat and Van Gogh in order to identify modern art's roots in Post-Impressionism.
America's exposure to innovative European art at the turn of the century was limited: serious art had to be rooted in the academy. Artists and patrons returned from abroad with ideas and works of art which radically changed this paradigm. 'Modernism' came to Manhattan, and Rockefeller and her friends became its patrons and champions. Their generous patronage, in turn, eased the development and growth of Modernism in Europe in tandem with its growth in the US.
Modernism sustained MoMA until just after World War II. American Abstraction challenged MoMA to identify the cutting-edge art in addition to its original function of caretaking Modernism, which still represented the core of its valued collection. 'The Modern' was not only 'Modern': it was, from that time forward, 'of the moment'.
Since its inception, MoMA has been on the same city block bordered by Fifth and Sixth Avenues, and West 53rd to West 54th Streets; only two blocks from Rockefeller Center, the world's highest-end retail, hotel and now residential facilities. As it acquired land, it employed outstanding architects such as Edward Durell Stone, Phillip Johnson, Cesar Pelli and, most recently, Yoshoi Tnanguchi, who respected the purity of the original international style, while inserting their own inventive inspiration.
On the 10th anniversary in 1939, Edward Durell Stone and Phillip Goodwin constructed a new 'International Style' building. In 1951, Phillip Johnson's seven-storey annexe and (in 1953) sculpture garden were added. In 1964, the museum building was extensively renovated, with new East and garden wings, and new galleries by Johnson. In 1984 a new West Wing and museum expansion by Cesar Pelli (who also designed the Museum Tower, which rises 53 floors above the museum) were added, and the sculpture garden was refurbished.
Construction and design in New York City are subject to the amount of land that can be assembled, tenants' rights, community boards, local zoning, and - in the case of MoMA - the preservation and integration of their existing buildings into the new structure. Over 25,000 square feet of additional land was assembled, including two buildings on 53rd Street with rent-controlled sitting tenants; the Hotel Dorset on 54th Street, a building considered an impractical acquisition only 12 years ago; space on the seventh floor of the Museum Tower bought back from the condominium board; and a loading dock which blocked the flow of traffic between the old and the new buildings. Connolly's Bar on 54th and a 4,000 square foot site owned by the American Folk Art Museum could not be acquired.
Yoshi Taniguchi was selected from the 10 architects chosen after the initial idea stage. The largely sustained applause he is receiving from the press and the public in a reactionary city like New York is truly impressive, but there is no question that this building works. His radical, understated design weaves the building into the urban fabric of New York and invites in the city's vitality. The design combines superb natural light and its own interior lighting design into a structure offering many visual surprises. As Paola Antonelli, MoMA's curator of architecture and design described it, "it is so minimal as to be baroque".
The original entrance on 53rd Street and the new one on 54th Street lead into a large, bright, six-storey atrium: the soaring view adds to the anticipation of what each floor holds; the eye-level view of the sculpture garden simultaneously invites visitors to 'step outside', even in winter.
The scale and proportion of the column-free exhibition spaces on the first two levels, designed to accommodate large - mostly contemporary - works, raise one's expectations like no other urban museum in this country. The new installation dynamically illustrates the movements, artists and influences which shaped modern and contemporary art from 1880 to 2004.
Beginning on the sixth floor, the installation spirals down and forward in time.
The exhibition space on the sixth floor, which will be devoted to special shows, has currently installed in it two gigantic pieces: Ellsworth Kelly's recently-acquired 1957 Sculpture for a Large Wall; and James Rosenquist's F-111 (1964-65), which - at 10ft x 86ft - is bigger than the actual fighter plane. The new galleries follow a layout established by John Elderfield, Chief Curator for Painting and Sculpture, in collaboration with Jerome Neuner, Director of Exhibition Design. Physical and visual crossroads allow the visitor to explore the collection in a non-linear way or by chronological sequence, picking and choosing different periods and influences. This "porous" gallery style works particularly well with the early collection. Standing in the fifth-floor galleries with Miró, Duchamp and Mondrian to one's left, right and center, one chooses which door to enter and exit, enabling unexpected connections with familiar artists. You can veer from a room of Matisses filled with color to Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907, definitely a destination work), then branch into rooms displaying Constructivism, Dada, Neo Plasticicm and Surrealism.
 Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for the New York Times, argues that this type of installation disrupts and dilutes the art-viewing experience; one always has to edit out the works in one's peripheral vision. He claims that this experience makes it difficult for the viewer to commune with an especially appealing or "destination" work without distracting visual seepage from neighboring galleries. Other critics find this presentation challenging and stimulating.
The fourth floor picks up the 1950s and 60s with seminal works such as The Chariot (1950) by Alberto Giacometti, Andy Warhol's Soup Cans (1962) and the radical "drip" or pouring technique that Jackon Pollock riffed through in ONE (NUMBER31, 1950).
The ambiance changes in the architecture and design, photography and drawing galleries on the third floor. Off the atrium, peaceful, simple rooms give intimacy and focus to the works and a museum-within-a-museum feeling. MoMA's 20th Century collection has some stellar holdings of drawings which radicalized the medium as we know it. They include masters such as Kurt Schwitters, who composed with detritus, found chocolate wrappers and discarded ticket stubs; and Aleksandr Rodchenko, who rejected the brush in favor of ruler and compass to achieve mechanical geometries and an ordered world.
 The second floor houses the contemporary galleries, and prints and illustrated books. This department holds the largest of the Museum's curatorial collection, comprising some 53,000 works. The print gallery's inaugural exhibition displays masterpieces which convey the range of experimentation in the medium. Solicitor's Head (2003) is an etching by Lucien Freud, who has redefined portraiture and the nude through a dispassionate scrutiny of the human body. Martin Puryear, known for his elegant and refined sculpture in wood, extends his informed use of wood here in an illustrated book and portfolio of woodblock prints entitled Cane (2002). Damien Hirst re-conceived the printmaking process with Burning Wheel (2002). He placed a copper etching plate onto a spinning machine and scraped and scratched it with needles, screwdrivers and other sharp tools. This method became a performance-like ritual resulting in a portfolio of prints. Related to Hirst's spin paintings, Burning Wheel demonstrates how an artist adapts his artistic practice to the challenge of a new medium. The work here can be seen with unusual clarity in new frames with non-reflective glass.
The lofty and expansive contemporary galleries on the second floor present a selection of work made since 1970. The galleries juxtapose work from the Museum's six curatorial departments: painting and sculpture; drawing; photography; prints and illustrated books; architecture and design; and film and media. The Seventies are currently represented by a large-scale work by Gordon Matta Clark, Bingo (1974), which comprises three sections of a house façade, which he originally cut and reassembled from a condemned house in Albany, NY, not unlike a bingo-game card.
From the Eighties, a period in which artists played with how visual and verbal language was addressed in our media-saturated society, Jeff Koon's New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker (1981) explores American consumerism with a wry comment. Two identical, industrial-grade vacuum cleaners are placed in a vacuum inside a plexiglass box which renders them useless, their status as self-contradictory as the function inscribed on the machines themselves: "wet dry".
 The Nineties are represented by Rachel Whiteread's Untitled (Room) (1993) a plaster cast of a life-size room she built in Berlin. This decade is also represented by Matthew Barney's The Cabinet of Baby Fayla Foe (2000), a work related to his Cremaster film cycle. Chris Ofili and Elizabeth Peyton, both painters, represent the younger generation of artists. The presentation in these galleries will change every nine months to accommodate the museum's significant holdings and to help put the entire collection in perspective.
For those who used to meditate in The Water Lily Room at the "Old Modern", and were turned off by the paintings' installation by the entrance to the restaurant in the 1984 renovation, there is a surprise in the second-floor atrium. Monet's Water Lilies now sing out in this huge space, juxtaposed by a steel sculpture Broken Obelisk by Barnett Newman. From this vantage point, the visitor is at a crossroad, poised to go out into the garden, visit the MoMA 6,000 sq ft store, or have a drink in the café overlooking the sculpture garden.
The Lewis and Dorothy Culman Education and Research Center is under construction and will open in 2006 with a mission to inform and encourage museum visitors of all ages to participate in exploring the world of art.
Admission is $20.00 per person, the highest in the US. Despite protests, attendance has been brisk. For those who find this pricey, the museum is open Friday and Saturday nights on a "pay what you like" basis. For aficionados, memberships, which permit unlimited access, are unchanged and start at $75.00, which also entitles the member to a 10% discount at the museum store - one of the best design stores in the city.
1 Pablo Picasso
Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
Oil on canvas, 8' x 7' 8" (243.9 x 233.7 cm)
Acquired through the Lillie P Bliss Bequest
© 2004 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York [Back]
2 Alberto Giacometti
The Chariot, 1950
Painted bronze on wooden base
57 x 26 x 26 1/8" (144.8 x 65.8 x 66.2 cm), base 9 3/4 x 4 1/2 x 9 1/4" (24.8 x 11.5 x 23.5 cm)
© 2004 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris [Back]
3 Lucian Freud (British, born Germany, 1922)
Solicitor's Head. 2003
Plate: 14 1/2 x 11" (36.8 x 28 cm);
Sheet: 23 1/4 x 19" (59.1 x 48.2 cm)
Publisher: Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
Printer: Studio Prints, London
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fractional and promised gift of an anonymous donor in celebration of the Museum's 75th anniversary, 2004
© 2004 Lucian Freud [Back]