The Vatican, Kremlin, and Valhalla of modernism—home of the faith, the sway, and the glamour—that is the Museum of Modern Art is reopening, after an expansion that adds forty-seven thousand square feet and many new galleries, inserted into a moma-owned apartment tower next door and built on neighboring land gobbled from the late, by some of us lamented, digs of the American Folk Art Museum. Far more, though still a fraction, of moma’s nonpareil collection is now on display, arranged roughly chronologically but studded with such mutually provoking juxtapositions as a 1967 painting that fantasizes a race riot, by the African-American artist Faith Ringgold, with Picasso’s gospel “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907). The renovation is a big deal for the global art world, and certainly for New York. It runs up against problems old and new. Generously enlarged quarters will only marginally relieve a chronic crush of visitors, the museum victimized by its own charisma. Enhanced representations of art by women, African-Americans, Africans, Latin-Americans, and Asians can feel tentative, pitched between self-evident justice and noblesse oblige. But such efforts are important and must continue. We will have a diverse cosmopolitan culture or none worth bothering about.
In addition, the design provides flexible space for temporary installations that will serve the museum’s duty to entertain. A spectacular affair by the South Korean artist Haegue Yang in the museum’s still space-squandering atrium features wheeled assemblages that jingle as, at intervals, they are pushed around by performers, and colorful vinyl reliefs that cling to the high walls like mutant lepidoptera. The work’s political, spiritual, and whatnot themes are arcane, but never mind. It makes for an elating circus atmosphere, hospitable to audiences only cursorily versed in art history. Popular engagement has become a necessary face, or fate, of any current art-making that isn’t adjudicated by a plutocratic market. Without it, contemporary art is a buyers’ club.
Decisions to stitch works of formerly segregated mediums, such as graphic art, photography, design, architecture, artists’ books, and film, into the historic course of painting and sculpture come off pleasantly—the museum owns gems in all fields—though you sense the strain of the forced equivalencies of art and artifacts. Moma laid the groundwork for this dilemma nine decades ago, when the founders envisaged an encyclopedic approach to products of modernity, eliding bohemian studios with commercial industries. That mandate, though still guiding new acquisitions, has devolved from evangelical avant-gardism to the preservation of multitudinous brainstorms of yesteryear. The adorable 1945-vintage Bell helicopter, acquired in 1984, yet hovers above the stairs to the second floor, gamely signifying something epochal, or not so epochal, or bizarre, depending on your predilection. So vast is the frame of reference adopted at the museum’s outset that, by now, no survey of the collection can amount to more than a walk-through brochure of choice examples. Obligatory breadth renders depth moot. There’s no help for this.
“Rainforest V (variation 1),” from 1973-2015, conceived by David Tudor and realized by Composers Inside Electronics Inc.
Photograph by Ward Roberts for The New Yorker
It’s time to say that the reconfiguration of the museum is, all in all, terrific, and that I don’t care very much about the strenuous calculations that determined it. This is only another chapter in the life stories of all of us who were imprinted by our initial epiphanies with the museum’s treasures. Some of the rehangs electrify, notably in the first room of the permanent collection, where a sequence of Symbolist work, by the likes of Redon, Vuillard, Ensor, Munch, Gauguin, and Henri Rousseau, leaps (after a de-rigueur pause for van Gogh) to Cézanne, who comes off more than ever as revolutionary. An old formalist chronicle of the era thus gives way to the torrid poetic intensities of the nineteenth-century European fin de siècle. But it’s plenty enough for me to come upon Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” (1942-43) freshly recontextualized, as an outrigger to an eye-opening historical show of Latin-American art, “Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction,” which includes work by the ingenious Brazilians Lygia Pape and Hélio Oiticica. (The rationale for Mondrian’s placement there is a Latin-American preference, after the Second World War, for European rigor over New York’s perfervid painterly originalities.)
How did Mondrian do it? And what is it, exactly, and how does whatever that may be matter? The fifty-inch-square canvas presents rectangular blocks and little squares of red, yellow, and blue paint in and across asymmetrically gridded horizontal and vertical bands, against an off-white ground. Boogie-woogie is apt, like the left and right hands at a piano seeming to ignore each other but generating intricate, exuberant rhythmic agreements.
The term “abstract” feels too dry—the painting is so concretely active and urgently optimistic. It motors along as you look, engaging your attention in hops, skips, and jumps. The excruciatingly hard work that’s evident (try to imagine any detail scaled, placed, or colored differently) bespeaks a conviction so compelling that your heart pledges allegiance to it without your mind having any clear idea of what that involves. Call the value utopian modernity. Call it anything. Only luxuriate in the good luck of having eyes to see with and a body that responds to bopping suggestion. “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” by a starchy Dutchman enamored of the foxtrot and ideal democracy, feels foundational, as if nothing in the world quite eludes its gravitational tug. The excitement fades from the mind as you turn away—it’s only art—but the experience leaves a moral residue of the strivingly good and true.
The best time to visit the revamped moma is your first, punctuated with reintroductions to old artistic companions. Masterpieces dulled by overfamiliarity in an account that had become as rote as a college textbook spring to second lives by being repositioned. (I left out, while describing the collection’s first room, the presence of six lyrical ceramics by George E. Ohr, the nineteenth-century “Mad Potter of Biloxi”—one of several invigorating nods to formerly scanted outsiders.) Refreshed, Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, and Pollock reaffirm, by our awe, their trailblazing toward a future that, never arriving, continues to beckon even as it recedes in time, like the Doppler effect of a train passing by. Anew, I come to a dead stop in front of Matisse’s “The Piano Lesson” (1917), an idyll of bourgeois family life and an exercise of formal audacity, made at the same time that the abattoir battles at Verdun were unfolding, some hundred and sixty miles away.
Gallery view of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” by Pablo Picasso, from 1907 (left), and “Quarantania, I,” by Louise Bourgeois, from 1947-53 (center).
Photograph by Ward Roberts for The New Yorker
The Matisse, like Arshile Gorky’s “Diary of a Seducer” (1945), a plunge into angst-ridden sensuality in another time of crisis, is about art as a frivolity indispensable to a civilization that periodically verges on bloody collapse—a modest but robust instance of poise amid rushing, dire events. Or don’t you feel that way? Can we talk? Moma’s revision of its master narrative should trigger no end of conversations about issues of the century past and how they preface, or fail to, our anxiety-prone times. Not despite but because the focus is “only art,” it supplements serious thought about the world with registrations of what it’s like to live in it—the out-there of news squared up to the in-here of spirit. After absorbing the general themes of the reinstallation, which will take time, we can get down to the quibbling that is the elixir of art talk in the big city. Go with a gabby friend or two, to jump-start your share.
As ever, the sharpest departure in the hanging’s tale is between future-oriented modernism and the shocks of Pop art and minimalism, which commenced to bask or to brood in a discontinuous present tense: the tumbling condition of culture both lofty and demotic since the rock-and-roll, corporatizing, brutally divisive nineteen-sixties. But history avenges itself as history does, freezing the breaks for freedom in their bygone day.
After this, avant-gardes turn inward. Disproportionate space is given to conceptual artists of the seventies: fledgling baby boomers, for the most part, who presumed to conjoin art and life in the moment but mainly muddled them with work that, as if on perverse principle, is visually boring. To be important then as much as entailed being unappealing. This is a gross generalization, unfair to many, but the impression of a slough in art history is unshakable. The apposite galleries document the formation of a bubble culture that, coasting on institutional and academic embraces, drifted afield of aesthetic appetite, which, from the eighties onward, has become the criterion of a market-defined alternate tradition of epicurean chic. A few artists, such as Cindy Sherman and (for a while) Jeff Koons, now and then split the difference between artistic challenge and commercial catnip.
I’m veering around here, as you will in your turn. So many stories! One that thrills me is that of a room devoted to the work, the influence, and the aura of the moma curator and major American poet Frank O’Hara. His accidental death, in 1966, at the age of forty, ripped the heart out of an overlap of artistic and literary communities in New York. He couldn’t be replaced. Prints by leading artists from a memorial book that the museum issued in 1967, “In Memory of My Feelings,” emanate the deep charm of a moment when a fully fleshed, buoyant, democratic sophistication seemed afoot. I know. I was a kid poet and tyro critic then. I met O’Hara. He inscribed my copy of a catalogue that he had written the introduction to: “For Peter with palship, Frank.” He made pals of all the world. He drank too much, as people then tended to, gesticulating with cigarettes in their other hands. For many, with O’Hara gone, New York took on the trembly cast of an interminable hangover. Moma’s inclusion of him gladdens. ♦