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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.