I know runners can under-train for a marathon, but until I visited the new supersize Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) — all additional 47,000 square feet of it — I didn’t know it was possible to be out of shape for a museum. This is not a place to breeze through in a morning.
The renovation aims to be big enough to not only hold the institution’s art, but its promises. Early reports touted a more inclusive MoMA, one that reckoned with what and who it was missing in its collection, particularly artists who aren’t white and male. One that recognized the importance of multiple mediums, including video and performance art, and mixed them within a single gallery.
Mostly, the new MoMA has made innovative choices. Sometimes that feels like leveling the playing field for certain art movements, as with Grace Hartigan’s “Shinnecock Canal (1957)” hung next to Willem de Kooning’s “Untitled XIX” (1977). They’re both color-heavy paintings by Abstract Expressionists, and it feels right that for such a macho art scene, Hartigan should be right alongside de Kooning.
It’s heartening to see more performance and time-based art, like Ana Mendieta’s “Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints—face)” (1972), photographs in which the artist, by pressing her face up against a glass window, turns her body not simply into a canvas, but into material, like paint or clay. Her nose meets her eyes, her cheeks become balloons. Those orb-like eyes look out onto Eleanor Antin’s “100 Boots” as if avidly following the postcards depicting the boots’ adventures from California to New York.
The rehang also better integrates film and video art. An excerpt from Jacques Tati’s “Playtime” plays through the glass and steel planks of a building facade that was lifted from the original United Nations. It’s the kind of structure that the film’s characters get hilariously lost in.
Other times, it feels like the museum hasn’t gone far enough. The collection remains largely chronological: the fifth floor has art from 1880 to 1940, the fourth floor spans 1940 to 1970, and then the second floor ends with 1970 to the present (the third floor is devoted to special exhibitions). Some of that is expected, even welcome. Claude Monet’s “Waterlilies” gets its own room, which is a great visual palate cleanser, a recharging station for tired eyes and legs.
The “19th Century Innovators” gallery contains the greatest hits of Impressionism, like Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” and other works by Paul Gauguin and Henri Rousseau. While it’s important to visit old friends, and there’s an attempt at juxtaposition — with a case in the center of the room featuring bronze and black earthenware pots by George Ohr — I still wondered whether there were additional options for introducing less heralded artists from the same time.
Still, Picasso is around every corner of the fifth floor. And for all the promises of inclusion, the museum has kept its “In And Around Harlem” gallery, which despite excellent work from Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and Alice Neel, still feels uncomfortably like shoving Black subjects into their own corner.
Before this renovation, Faith Ringgold’s “American People Series #20: Die” (1967) hung in a hallway, directly across from an escalator (an unfortunate transitory space, although one with a captive audience). Now it’s moved next to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” whose posed, angular nudes also echo Louise Bourgeois’s “Quarantania, I” (1947-53), its wooden, white figures, resembling needles, huddled together.
It’s heartening to see that Ringgold get prime real estate alongside Picasso, but her piece is just one among a sea of his. The wall text discusses Picasso’s “Guernica” as an inspiration for Ringgold’s frank depictions of fear and violence (though that painting is in Madrid) and while the comparison is striking, Picasso remains the focal point of the room, making her inclusion feel unbalanced, if not tokenistic. Why not more Ringgolds?
There’s a similar feeling with Alma Woodsey Thomas’s 1973 “Fiery Sunset” — the lone work by a person of color in a room dedicated to Matisse. Its abstract blue swirls against a red background pairs well with Matisse’s “The Red Studio” nearby, the slight variations in their shades in friendly competition. But again, why not more?
The opening rehang will have a rehang of its own in April, as a third of the permanent collection is set to change every six months. Perhaps it’s a pilot program to test the abilities of MoMA’s audience to handle change. I hope it’s only the beginning.
The Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, Midtown, Manhattan) opens to the public on Monday, October 21.
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