MoMA Spiffs Up Contemporary Art Galleries

Rirkrit Tiravanija: Untitled (Free/Still), 1992/1995/2007/2011, refrigerator, table, chairs, wood, drywall, food and other materials. Photo © Scott Rudd.


Contemporary art recently got a fresh look in the Museum of Modern Art’s second-floor galleries. Spanning the 1980s to today and for the first time representing a collaboration by all seven curatorial departments, the reinstallation includes about 150 works, many of them recent acquisitions. Another development is that the galleries will be subject to change more often, with overhauls every few months instead of every nine or so, and some changes, perhaps of one room at a time, coming piecemeal.

Greeting the visitor (so to speak) is Cady Noland’s Tanya as Bandit (1989), a photo-cutout aluminum sculpture showing a Symbionese Liberation Army press photo of Patty Hearst holding a gun, here pointed toward the gallery entrance. It’s hard not to notice, in the age of Occupy Wall Street, that Noland’s work, based on a media image of countercultural violence–by an heiress, no less!–is a gift of Lehman Brothers CEO Richard S. Fuld, Jr., and his wife, Kathy. Ironies abound. Facing it is another piece that urges us to question images and received values of the very sort that museums generally enshrine: Barbara Kruger’s 1982 Photostat Untitled (You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece).

These works introduce several rooms devoted to New York in the ‘80s. The parade of art stars–Goldin, Holzer, Levine, Prince–is leavened somewhat by ephemera from low-rent sources, like a vitrine of flyers for shows and events at ABC No Rio, the East Village center for art and activism, and a goofy 1984 music video by Beth B for Dominatrix’s synth-pop hit “The Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” (the monitor incommodiously set on the floor). The New York display also includes the first MoMA acquisition of work by Martin Wong, his painting Stanton near Forsyth Street (1983). MoMA couldn’t have made a better start collecting him than with this painting, a night cityscape of the burned-out Lower East Side with sign-language hands looming in the sky.

Cologne in the ‘80s is the subject of a neighboring gallery. There are posters and sculptures by Martin Kippenberger, including a figure of the artist: Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself (1982), which was commissioned by the museum and, in deference to casual American fashion, wears blue jeans. A gestural 1989 Albert Oehlen oil painting nicely offsets a 1987 Rosemarie Trockel machine-knitted wool work that reads “Made in Western Germany” in mechanically produced rows.

In another first, the contemporary galleries feature a selection of objects from the architecture and design department. Especially eye-catching as protests rage worldwide is Ralph Borland’s Suited for Subversion (2002), a prototype of padded armor to defend protestors against police nightsticks.

The splashiest inclusion is Untitled (Free/Still), a re-creation of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s performance-installation, first presented in 1992 at 303 Gallery, in which he turned the gallery’s office into a kitchen where he (or his friend Udomsak Krisanamis) cooked Thai food and offered it free to all visitors. The MoMA curators and Tiravanija are smart enough to know that a museum presentation of the piece could never be the same. But eating a tiny serving of curry prepared by MoMA’s kitchen staff and spooned out by white-jacketed servers at certain hours of the day under the watchful eye of guards monitoring the line (“now you two can go . . . wait, please, sir . . . now you two”) was just depressing. It suggested the final corporatization of relational esthetics. Ironically, Jerry Saltz wrote for A.i.A. in 1996 that “to give something free is to undermine wealth. Tiravanija seems to suggest that as wealth is accumulated, fewer and fewer people can enjoy it.” Especially when a thimbleful of Thai curry comes only with the $25 price of admission.