The Museum of Modern Art first opened its doors in 1929 with a loan exhibition of four artists whose works dated from the 1880s: Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat. Starting with that show, the museum's founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., proposed a forward-looking metaphor for keeping MOMA's artistic mission and art possessions fresh as an evergreen.
Barr likened the notion of the museum to a torpedo moving through time, and proposed that the institution keep its "nose" solidly in the present and its "tail" slicing through the past. By constantly divesting itself of works of "classic" art, the idea went, the institution could advance without fealty to the art of any one period. The fact that the museum decided, sometime around the early 1950s, to retain its collection of postimpressionist masterworks (among them Cezanne's The Bather and van Gogh's Starry Night) clipped the wings from the director's futuristic metaphor. From that point forward, the tail of Barr's torpedo would be permanently pinned to around 1880. The nose, unable to stretch itself away from its increasingly canonical anchor, would rarely venture forward to meet the accomplishments of working artists with the gusto befitting the institution's name.
Since then the notion of a Museum of Modern Art has contained within it a rather spiny paradox. Made worse by the social, artistic and philosophical revolts of the 1960s and 70s, MOMA's tautological view of modern art as a succession of past "movements" largely resident at its 53rd St. address has come under heavy criticism and not a little derision. The worldwide proliferation of arts institutions primarily devoted to contemporary art has only hastened what can be termed the chronicle of an institutional crisis foretold.
Modern or contemporary? Contemporary or modern? This has been a critical question for MOMA and its development, especially during the past decade. The answer, for which museum supporters have long been holding their breath, has just begun to be formulated with the advent of the museum's ambitious new satellite, MoMA QNS.
MOMA's temporary move of its massive collection, staff and offices from its legendary headquarters in Manhattan to its newfangled home in a redesigned staple factory in Long Island City brings the museum closer, geographically at least, to recent developments in contemporary art. For decades artists have been flocking to the outer boroughs to establish their studios and thriving art communities. Long Island City, once a largely industrial and blue-collar neighborhood, has also recently become a mecca for contemporary cultural institutions (among them the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, the American Museum of the Moving Image, SculptureCenter, Socrates Sculpture Park and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, a MOMA affiliate since 1999). These and other reasons?like the museum's promotion of a chic-er self-image, a hipper curatorial approach and a general trend in culture toward decentralization?make it possible to read MOMA's physical transition from Manhattan to the boroughs as a first giant step in an historical transformation that is both absolutely necessary and tremendously overdue.
"Traditions are wonderful things?to create," the artist Franz Marc said. Looking to escape the traditional linearity and august formalism of the old W. 53rd St. building, the architects Michael Maltzan and Scott Newman, the latter of Cooper, Robertson & Partners, have turned a plain, low, 160,000-square-foot hangar into a flexible, elegant and expanded version of an industrial loft. Featuring some 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, dramatic but functional ramps, polished cement floors, exposed ductwork and movable partitions to accommodate objects, videos and installations, MOMA's new structure has been intelligently designed to be both handsome and neutral. In contradistinction to the current theme-park wave of museum-building (read the Getty Center and the Guggenheim Bilbao), the museum's new facility is capable of putting on challenging shows without robbing the art of its protagonism.
Cool without seeming standoffish, sizable without being monumental, the 21-foot white walls of MoMA QNS are capable of displaying multiple video projections while hosting old classics like Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon and Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie. Looking appropriately blustery in their understated new metal frames, many of the museum's trademark gems, among them Gauguin's The Seed of the Areoi and Seurat's The Channel at Gravelines, gain clear advantage from the no-frills approach. More direct and fresher in their appeal, the temporary descent of these masterworks from art's Olympus has the effect of revalidating their artistic chops. MOMA's best hang alongside newer works by artists like Robert Gober and John Baldessari in a changing view of the museum's collection?titled, rather prosaically, "To Be Looked At"?occupying the role of baseball greats stooping to play a group of youngsters in a sandlot game.
Besides "To Be Looked At," the other exhibitions currently on view at MoMA QNS are, in order of declining achievement and ascending populism: "AUTObodies," a large room filled with the six mostly sexy automobiles in the museum's collection; "A Walk through Astoria," a selection of photographs of Queens taken in the 1930s and 40s by the filmmaker Rudy Burckardt; "Tempo," an expansive, fuzzy-headed yet undeniably contemporary exhibition that presumes to "examine the cultural differences in the construction of time"; and "Projects 76: Francis Alÿs," a yawner of a video quoted verbatim from the Duchamp textbook.
Featuring the work of artists from Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe, "Tempo" walks and talks the part of every conceptually heavy-handed international biennial from Istanbul to the current Documenta in Kassel. It pauses every so often to reveal originality in the work of a few of its artists, but the show trudges through the usual curatorial pap: the history of postcolonialism, the fetishization of difference, transgressive bodies. That this sort of exhibition is never about the art and always about the narrow notion into which it is shoehorned does not mean that "Tempo" does not include some good art. It does.
Standouts include Adriana Varejão's gorgeously baroque, room-sized painting installation Tiles and Charles Ray's efficiently minimal Rotating Circle, a motorized white disc that sits flush with the exhibition wall. In the generously apportioned video department, the work of two very good artists comes to mind. There is Pipilotti Rist's earthy, funny Mutaflor, a repeated round-trip voyage that goes in the artist's mouth and exits her rosy rectum; and Douglas Gordon's Monument to X, a video of a passionate kiss made epic by its length (14 hours) and the loop's slow-motion duration (14 minutes).
The presence of these works and the space and resources the curators have allotted them hints at the potential a reinvigorated MOMA might bring to discussions of art made by artists living, as opposed to long dead. Scheduled for completion in 2005, the new Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan will dwarf MoMA QNS in every possible way. As of now, the museum's stated plan is to turn its Queens space into storage when that happens.
But another possibility remains: that the museum will commit the MoMA QNS facility to art that is contemporary modern as opposed to modern historically. Witness the example provided by the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles, an industrial space outfitted by the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art during similar renovations. Many of contemporary art's and the MOMA's staunchest advocates will be keeping their fingers crossed.
MoMA QNS, 33rd St. (Queens Blvd.), Long Island City, open Thurs.-Mon. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., to 7:45 p.m. on Fridays, 708-9400, [www.moma.org](http://www.moma.org).
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