Dissident Modernism Meets Peak Philanthropy at the New MoMA

Exterior view of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2017 Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

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In October 1996, the director, chief curators, and trustees of the Museum of Modern Art, along with select artists, critics, art historians, and architects, met for a retreat at the Pocantico Center, a manicured estate in Tarrytown, New York, managed by the philanthropic Rockefeller Brothers Fund, to discuss the future of the museum. The retreat was part of the process that eventually led to the appointment of architect Yoshio Taniguchi to renovate and expand the Midtown Manhattan institution, a project completed in 2004. But the Tarrytown conversations were meant to extend beyond immediate architectural needs and catalyze a “still-continuing process of discovery,” as director Glenn Lowry explained in the introduction to the published transcripts of the proceedings.1 The participants were charged with reimagining not just MoMA’s physical home but its intellectual mission—and that second, more consequential project has come to fruition only now, reflected in an additional expansion by architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler.

Notwithstanding the $450-million price tag for this latest physical upgrade, the extra gallery space, an addition of some 30 percent, is secondary in importance to the transformative steps MoMA’s curatorial staff have taken toward making the process of discovery initiated in the ’90s a reality for the public. As the many critics writing about this effort have detailed, the dramatic reinstallation of the permanent collection within the new building announces a museum-wide effort to establish a history of modernism that’s more global, feminist, and racially diverse than ever before.

Some readers might respond to that announcement (and the effusive commentary it has inspired) with a really slow clap and a really long eye roll. Does MoMA deserve praise for including works by artists who were, in fact, central to modern culture in the first place, even if they’ve been downplayed for years by the museum itself? The attention this reopening has received is warranted, however, because MoMA has an almost tautological relationship to its subject: the history of modern art is inextricable from its telling by the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA literally owns its field in the sense that its collection includes a great many of the best examples, and the institution has the resources to acquire quite a lot of what might be missing. MoMA’s dominance is also the source of inherent contradictions that are themselves features of modernism. The new MoMA story emphasizes cultural and political rebellion, often that instigated by marginalized artists—and the institution is so deeply intertwined with existing power structures that it can mobilize billions of dollars to tell that story.

Appropriately, one of the most animated conversations in Pocantico focused on what story MoMA should tell, and even whether it should tell one at all. Architect Bernard Tschumi (who was in the running for the expansion commission at the time) introduced a metaphorical dichotomy that many other speakers adopted: should the institution maintain a “spine”—the strong linear narrative for which it was known—or should it become a “sponge,” characterized by “an endless combination of linkages and of configurations . . . a seamless whole of sorts that preserves the possibility of heterogeneity”? 2

Kirk Varnedoe, the chief curator of painting and sculpture, was among the stiffest advocates for the spine model. Cheered on by architect Rem Koolhaas, Varnedoe argued that MoMA “has a tradition that on any given day you should be able to walk in and have some coherent, synoptic overview of how history happened.” Cézanne’s The Bather (ca. 1885) articulated “a set of permissions given for new things to happen,” and therefore should be seen first. “In fact, that Cézanne was painted before that Picasso was painted, and that Picasso was painted before that Mondrian was painted,” Varnedoe continued, “and that’s not an insignificant fact to know about history.”3 Visitors encountered history as a knotty and multifaceted but ultimately coherent argument among singular artists offering propositions and counter-propositions about the experience of modernity. Taniguchi’s building afforded space for this spine to extend. And, Varnedoe believed, it could extend indefinitely. As he later wrote of the museum’s contemporary art collection:

There is an argument to be made that the revolutions that originally produced modern art, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, have not been concluded or superseded—and thus that contemporary art today can be understood as the ongoing extension and revision of those founding innovations and debates.4

For Varnedoe, MoMA’s collection was that argument. The “contemporary” referred to new chapters in old debates that he had catalogued in exquisite detail, building on the work of his predecessors. Each new decade had the potential to become a new period within the terms of this great story. And each new work collected was another potential vertebra for the spine.

The museum accommodated linear growth by acquiring more real estate adjacent to the institution’s first purpose-built home, the 1939 Goodwin/Stone building on Fifty-third Street. Over the course of three expansion projects, a glass-and-steel centipede made its way down the block, gobbling up neighboring structures. With the DS+R/G addition, which connects the Taniguchi structure to new gallery spaces in the David Geffen Wing housed mostly under a supertall residential building by Jean Nouvel, the effect of spreading out is less pronounced than the feeling that a real limit has been reached. There’s nowhere left to go now, unless MoMA absorbs the church to its east (too on-the-nose?) or muscles in on the high-rise office tower to the west (too pricey, even for MoMA’s megadonors?). With air rights leveraged to put the museum high in the worldwide running to boast the most luxury residential units rising in the footprint of a cultural institution, MoMA is now as physically big as it can get for the foreseeable future.

 

In retrospect, the Taniguchi building, as much as it added substantial space, may have bought time for the classic MoMA story to exhaust itself. Now, as outward expansion has crested, the museum’s curatorial staff has taken up the work of doubling back to the core questions of mission broached in Pocantico. The new approach to the permanent collection still presents work by Cézanne, Picasso, and Mondrian, in that order. The collection is still divided between three floors, with breaks at 1940 and 1970. But the causal links that Varnedoe and his colleagues once emphasized are now looser. The overall structure is heterogeneous, and, well, spongelike. As Holland Cotter writes in the New York Times, “What’s primarily different about the reopened MoMA is the integrated presence of ‘difference’ itself.”5 Women, artists of color, and self-trained artists who had been mostly shut out of the history that MoMA’s collection put forward in Varnedoe’s time are now cast as protagonists in a variety of intersecting narratives.

If Cézanne previously launched a trajectory through a succession of white cubes, the new mauve-walled Surrealist gallery may be the spiritual center of the revamped museum. Miró, Picasso, and Magritte are balanced out by Kahlo, Oppenheim, and Carrington. A photograph from around the 1930s by Japanese artist Osamu Shiihara, depicting shampooed hair as uncanny tendrils, hints at efforts to push the geography of Surrealism beyond Europe and the Americas. But a small paper sculpture resembling a circular tent by an unknown artist may be the most revealing work in the room. The piece, along with Hanging Sphere (ca. 1875) by the self-taught artist Elizabeth King Hawley, was included in MoMA’s seminal “Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism” (1936). That show linked the then contemporary avant-garde fascination with the irrational with the work of children, untrained artists, and the mentally ill (some of whom went uncredited). A lot of what’s new about the reopened MoMA involves the return of repressed museological ideas. Founding director Alfred Barr Jr. described the institution as “a laboratory: in its experiments the public is invited to participate.”6 He located the “modern spirit” not only in advanced painting and sculpture, but also in popular crafts, decorated shoe-shine boxes, and even well-cultivated flowers, as seen, for example, in the 1936 exhibition “Edward Steichen’s Delphiniums.” Works from the exhibition “Masters of Popular Painting: Modern Primitives of Europe and America” (1938), featuring self-taught artists like John Kane, Joseph Pickett, and André Bauchant form the basis of another gallery. These nods to the institution’s past have the effect of foregrounding the inherent contingency of the canon-formation process. Modernism was messy as it happened, before it could be pared down to a sequence of masterpieces made to appear self-evident. The great spine may have always been more flexible than it seemed, and MoMA’s new promise to change major sections of the permanent collection galleries every six months reflects a more open and critical approach to its own historiography.

While today’s curators stop short of going full delphinium, it’s hard to overstate how much is added by the inclusion of films, photographs, works on paper, and displays of architectural models and designs throughout the permanent collection. The interstitial spaces between the “old” Taniguchi building and the new Geffen Wing house mini exhibitions focused on illustrated books, and together these presentations comprise a kind of vertical spine that runs through the museum’s cross section. On the fifth floor, Natalia Goncharova’s lithographs for A Game in Hell (1912) join Olga Rozanova’s prints for A Little Duck’s Nest . . . of Bad Words (1913) in an exploration of illustrated Russian poems. The pairing documents a search for an avant-garde visual vocabulary able to capture the spiritual and patriotic dimensions of warfare. One floor below, another mini exhibition features illustrations by dozens of artists who contributed to In Memory of My Feelings (1967), a volume of Frank O’Hara’s poems published by MoMA as a memorial tribute to the writer who, before his untimely death, worked as a curator at the museum and became a luminary in the 1950s New York art world. In the contemporary collection galleries, an analogous display focuses on mail art and underground publishing in Latin America, with work by Grupo Porno (exactly as hedonistic as the name implies) and the subversive mail art of fellow Brazilian Paulo Bruscky. These displays suggest how limited the brand-name “isms” that once structured MoMA art history really were. (What would you even call Goncharova’s cubo-futuristic patriotic spiritualism?) Indeed, they mark a welcome new sensitivity to the nuanced links between and within communities of working artists.

The sponge structure also facilitates different scales from gallery to gallery. The new circuit through the permanent collection facilitates echoes and resonances, even if linear arguments are more obscure. Most of the galleries have thematic titles. “Circa 1913,” for example, is a compressed global survey of abstract painting and sculpture on the cusp of World War I, featuring artists ranging from Liubov Popova to Georgia O’Keeffe to Diego Rivera. Nearby is “Machines, Mannequins, and Monsters,” a primer on the psychological fallout of that war. Photographs of distorted figures (some deliberate formal experiments, others documentary shots of disfigured soldiers) and film stills from Metropolis (1927) and Frankenstein (1931) convey strategies for coping with the shock to the human form issued by industrial capitalism. The depth of the museum’s holdings is evident in its cataloguing of modernist photographers’ obsessive fascination with mannequins, going well beyond Eugène Atget’s classic images of Parisian storefronts to show how Bill Brandt, Iwao Yamawaki, and even Josef Albers were drawn to the same uncanny subject.

The more diverse MoMA collection shouldn’t be mistaken for a simple expansion of the canon. Diversity allows for an expanded understanding of the twentieth-century—and that fuller picture is much bleaker than before. Pop looks especially grim. The inclusion of tough work by women artists like Rosalyn Drexler, whose painting Hold Your Fire (Men and Machines), 1966, a high-contrast rendering of a figure working with what could be a car axle or a machine gun, evokes a climate of brutal pulp noir, and underscores gendered violence as one of the era’s main tropes. In this context, the subject of Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (1963) really looks to be drowning, and the deathly overtones of Warhol’s Marilyn are more pronounced. Vija Celmins’s Bikini (1968) is a careful graphite drawing of a photograph depicting an atomic bomb test, and an image of an American bomber dumps a payload of lipstick in Wolf Vostell’s B 52 Lipstick Bomber (1968). Pop now looks like an aesthetic of desperation, a death mask for a bloated empire gone insane. With his painting No Title (The Ugly American), 1962/64, Haitian artist Hervé Télémaque twists the knife, skewering the clueless New York art world that shunned him with biting caricatures of WASP cultural gatekeepers as nattering surrealist blobs.

A lot has been made of the anachronistic juxtapositions throughout the permanent collection galleries on the fourth and fifth floors. Alma Woodsey Thomas’s Fiery Sunset (1973) is adjacent to Matisse’s Red Studio (1911). Jutta Koether’s neon pink confection Bitches Brew (2010) is adjacent to a typically rococo Florine Stettheimer. These moves could be dismissed as false morphologies (Fiery Sunset includes a lot of red, for example), but the act of importing contemporary art into the narrative of historical modernism should be taken as a signal that the curators are now asking contemporary questions of modernist art.

In a reversal of Varnedoe’s vision, rather than setting the terms of debate, the modernist works are being confronted with the debates that preoccupy us now: about gender equality, race, power, and the legacies of colonialism. In this sense, MoMA is neither doing away with narratives nor sticking to old ones, but implementing new historical arcs driven by the moral calculus of the present. “History, of course, demands that something couldn’t have happened before something else happened,” Lowry said in 1996 while speaking in favor of the sponge, “but from the perspective of today, everything that’s happened before can be realigned by what is of interest at the moment.”7 What is of interest now are not the pioneers, geniuses, and formal risk-takers of the avant-garde, but figures who are more akin to dissidents. The artists who offered singular visions that clashed with prevailing cultural orders still fit the bill, but dissidents in a more literal sense have pride of place within the collection: the black artists like Benny Andrews and David Hammons who were shut out of the art world on top of being denied civil rights; the Polish conceptualist Ewa Partum, who refused to toe a party line in the 1970s; or Bruscky, whose primary medium was mail art because other avenues for expression were not available under Brazil’s military dictatorship.

The fourth-floor galleries, devoted to covering the 1940s through the 1970s, close with Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Prison Notebook (1976), a volume of sketches, prose, and poetry the artist composed while he was a political prisoner in his native Sudan. The humble form of the diary belies its profound influence in Africa and the Middle East, and its odd placement (near a Philip Guston painting and a sculpture by Tetsumi Kudo) seems almost like a call to arms to establish an acquisitions program that can properly contextualize the work within Arab modernism. And one presumes that this call will be taken up, that MoMA will continue to celebrate those who challenged power and resisted the status quo. There’s certainly enough funding to do so; after all, the donors who would support such a mission are among the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world.

 

About that: in February 2012, I had one of the more awkward social interactions of my life while working as a gallery lecturer at MoMA. The job involved giving after-hours tours of exhibitions to private groups. Valentine’s Day was a special event, because well-heeled couples could book these tours. Most years, we guides were asked to focus on “the hits”—Starry Night, Dance (1), and Water Lilies—with the expectation that we’d be waxing as best we could about transcendent aesthetic values. But in this case, the Valentine’s tour was of a special exhibition of Diego Rivera’s murals, works in which Rivera employed transcendent aesthetic values in the service of explicit revolutionary content. Agrarian Leader Zapata (1931), for example, is a beautiful fresco showing an armed landlord being trampled to death under the hooves of his own horse, now expropriated by a peasant army. Some of the paying guests struggled to understand which figures they were meant to identify with, and the discussion became heated in a bad, unromantic way.

I’m relating this anecdote to suggest that the tension between modern art’s radical aspirations and the normalizing enclosure of the museum is integral to MoMA’s history, as it is to the history of modernism in general. Rivera painted Agrarian Leader Zapata and other “portable” versions of his murals in the galleries of the museum—which was cofounded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller—where he also worked on a bigger commission for his major patron, industrialist John D. Rockefeller Jr. This last work was a mural that would have appeared at Rockefeller Center had it not been for Rivera’s insistence on including pro-Lenin/anti-Rockefeller imagery. But the act of censorship was the exception rather than the rule. No radical development in art, regardless of how outwardly subversive, has stopped successive generations of Rockefellers and their foundations from providing hundreds of millions of dollars to the museum, which is why it was apt to discuss the institution’s future at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund estate in Tarrytown.

MoMA could very well have been called “The Rockefeller,” in line with the Guggenheim and the Whitney. Instead, it has become the most successful institution among its peers in part because it took a corporate approach to philanthropy, inviting other extremely wealthy people to contribute to a mission that looked less like an exercise in personal vanity than like the establishment of a public trust. The museum’s clunky facade—as eclectic as a glass-and-steel structure can be—is sometimes decried because it lacks the coherence of an iconic architectural form, like the whimsical Guggenheim. (You often hear that MoMA is like a soulless airport terminal, but I think airports are exciting places to be and soulful buildings are often terrible for viewing art.) MoMA’s motley look is also testament to how the institution has been funded over time: in installments and by a wide circle of major donors that now includes recording industry titan David Geffen. The collaborative reinstallation, which involved curators in all departments, reflects an institutional ethos and can be read as an affirmation of this sense of public trust among the staff over the individual professional aspirations that characterize a lot of curatorial endeavors these days.

The new MoMA should be regarded as among the highest cultural achievements of a philanthropic system that incentivizes private donors with public tax breaks. But just as the expanded building signals the reaching of a physical limit, the new MoMA may also indicate that we’ve hit another kind of limit point: peak philanthropy. MoMA has reopened at a time when the system behind its finances is under intense scrutiny. Protesters gathered outside the institution during its opening to call for the resignation of trustee Larry Fink, and for the museum to divest from the prison industry. Fink is a founder of BlackRock, a major capital management firm with a portion of its investments in private for-profit prison operators like the GEO Group. This is just the latest chapter in an ongoing global struggle to highlight how culture is financed. The protesters are essentially asking: how can an institution celebrate the Prison Notebook while simultaneously accepting funds from the prison industry? But perhaps it’s also worth asking why a figure like Fink would want to support MoMA’s offerings in the first place.

In some ways it’s easier to understand how a formalist narrative of modernism, emphasizing refined masterpieces, could harmonize with the values of elite donors. But how could an explicitly dissident modernism appeal to donors who are by definition part of the status quo? For one thing, there is some strategic avoidance. An entire separate essay could examine reasons why MoMA seems to have downplayed Communism as a major twentieth-century cultural force, even in an abbreviated display of Soviet avant-garde art. (For that matter, the Surrealist mauve could have been a few shades redder.) Sponges are also better able than spines to contort themselves to fit any kind of shape. With enough historical distance, radicals can start to look like “outside-the-box” thinkers who “disrupted” stale ideas. The winners of our economic system might find kinship with the past dissidents who share an out-of-context penchant for taking risks and adapting quickly to new realities. A wonderful 1907 self-portrait by Paula Modersohn-Becker is presented with clickbait-style wall text: “What makes this self-portrait so radical?” You have to log onto the MoMA web audio guide to find out. I ended up wandering the Geffen wing while trying to locate radicality on my smartphone.

 

Dissidents of the past are easily neutralized, especially if visitors accept it. Varnedoe, along with William Rubin and John Elderfield, represent an old school of MoMA curators. Their vision for the collection may be passé, but their curatorial approaches sprang from an essential faith in the visitor’s ability to struggle with the propositions offered them. “The art that the Museum was founded on was truculently difficult,” Varnedoe said in Tarrytown,

and in that sense was inherently elitist, but in a particular way. It defied the traditional leaps of academic knowledge. It didn’t make a damn whether you knew your Greek or Latin or your mythology when you were looking at one of these pictures. It reinvented the notion of what the commitment to thinking about pictures meant; it took away all the inherited baggage and opened up the possibility of what Peter [Galassi] once called a “self-elected elite”—that is, that people who really wanted to get into it could get into it.8

There are clear problems with this ideal of a meritocratic museum, as membership in this self-elected elite is open only to those with the ability to spend idle hours in midtown Manhattan. But Varnedoe is also expressing a level of trust in visitors that may be waning now. It’s one thing to ask contemporary questions of modernism, and quite another to expect palatable answers. The art in MoMA’s collection is still difficult—probably more so because the set of possible complications is now larger—but all too often it is presented as accessible and aligned with aspirational values of the moment.

For example, why is Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967) hung near Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)? Wall text explains that Ringgold’s monumental depiction of a bloody race riot was influenced by Guernica (1937), Picasso’s wrenching, iconic response to warfare. This explanation may be fair enough, even if Guernica isn’t on view.  But it obscures other ideological effects. In the mid-1900s, Picasso appropriated the forms of African masks to create images that are once groundbreaking in the history of Western painting and steeped in misogyny. Now we are able to see that his work, in turn, could inspire a black woman to express her experience of racist violence in the US. Some critics have bemoaned how the Ringgold intrudes on the hallowed terrain of Cubism, but perhaps it’s better to question, as Chloe Wyma does in Artforum, whether it’s fair to position Ringgold’s work as an alibi for Picasso.

You might notice as well that the Gauguin on display is a portrait of a fellow European and decidedly not a South Sea colonial fantasy of sexualized girls. It’s difficult, maybe truculently so, to confront aesthetic innovators who would also be regarded today as reactionaries. The Italian Futurists responded to the twentieth century’s exhilarating tumult while also being implicated in its horrors. A starker, harder view of the twentieth century structures the reopened MoMA, but there’s also a softening of the contradictions within the institutional presentations, where the appearance of accessible radicality masks the elitism and recalcitrant power behind its funding.

This may be why the only truly disappointing aspects of the collection rehang are found in the contemporary collection galleries. It’s revealing that the anachronistic juxtapositions seen on the fourth and fifth floors go only in one direction: there were no nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century works among the contemporary art on the second floor. If anachronism brings contemporary questions into the modernist field, the rigor and historical specificity characteristic of the modernist curation is less in evidence in MoMA’s approach to the present. Recent art is displayed instead in the breezy style of biennials—there are stunning pieces, like Gretchen Bender’s massive video installation Dumping Core (1984), but links between them at times feel superficial. One gallery includes work by Ana Mendieta, Cecilia Vicuña, and Cady Noland, examples of artists who explore “how the female form—through both defiant and poetic means—inhabits the world.” The wall text bromide seems to dull the militant edge of Noland’s portrait of Patty Hearst on metal and the politicized poetry of Vicuña’s self-portrait Black Panther and Me (1978). Another gallery highlights contemporary approaches to painting with works by Christopher Wool, Laura Owens, and Kerry James Marshall, all of which apparently “reflect the fragmentation of the physical and digital worlds we inhabit, admitting the impossibility of a cohesive image.” We expect contemporary art to be, at a minimum, transnational, feminist, and inclusive. Many of the second floor galleries feel like flat attempts to reassert those values, rendering them as easy takeaways, safe and uncontroversial.

The moral vision MoMA cast backward into the past rebounds into the present, creating an all-too-neat narrative that leaves little sense of what’s at stake and little room for the kinds of questions that the protestors outside the galleries are asking. Now that MoMA has written a new story for itself, the difficult work that remains may be resisting the impulse to reach conclusions so as to allow the art of our time to remain an open experiment. Though perhaps under the condition of peak philanthropy such a project is simply not possible: the dissident art of our moment may be too close for comfort.