Observer Piece: inspired and a triumph, seemingly
Miracle on 54th Street
The building is beautifully simple, the placing of the works inspired - New York's new Museum of Modern Art is a triumph
Sunday November 21, 2004
Museum of Modern Art New York
When he inaugurated New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1939, Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose to dedicate it, with an optimism that went unrewarded, 'to the cause of peace and to the pursuits of peace'. 'In encouraging the creation and enjoyment of beautiful things,' the President proclaimed, 'we are furthering democracy itself.'
Well, times have certainly changed and New Yorkers are still smarting from an election they feel gave democracy a bad name. But the Museum of Modern Art has reopened its doors, after a four-year, $858-million overhaul which has resulted in a spectacular new home nearly twice the size of the original.
But the new Modern is not just beautiful, though Yoshio Taniguchi's building is that and then some. It offers a new way of looking at art, a new way of living with it and a bracing enthusiasm that has not been felt for years. The museum's presence in the city, a city that has been in need of renewal since another of its landmarks fell, has been much vaunted; Midtown Manhattan seems to open out from its expanded sculpture garden, like giant, magical bric-a-brac.
But MoMA has an influence that extends well beyond New York. It was founded with the aim of creating, in the words of its first director, Alfred H Barr, 'the greatest museum of modern art in the world'. It opened, inauspiciously, in rented rooms 10 days after the stock market crash in 1929, but now Barr's vain hope looks more like a well-kept promise.
You walk in from 53rd Street or 54th - the lobby now stretches across an entire city block and is open to the public - and find yourself in an atrium 110 feet tall. Right there, in the middle of your shortcut to work, is a huge MirÃ³ and, on the other side, the rainbow stripes of an Ellsworth Kelly. One wall is made of glass and leads out into the sculpture garden. In front of it stands Rodin's Balzac, a statue made to live outside, so that there is a wonderful feeling of transparency and porousness: Balzac might be inside or out; it's merely an invitation to look and look beyond it.
Upstairs, on a massive mezzanine, is a marvellous mishmash of periods and styles: Monet's Water Lilies, a de Kooning, a Brice Marden and, rising from the middle, Barnett Newman's Broken Obelisk, an inverted needle in heavy metal, balanced on the tip of a triangle. Towering yet fragile, and seemingly impossible, Broken Obelisk sets, along with its unexpected companions, a bold agenda: it's a symbol of iconoclasm at the core of a new art-world order. Floor by floor, a museum that was once criticised for being too didactic has transformed itself into a master of open-ended suggestion. John Elderfield, chief curator of painting and sculpture, explains that he sought to 'take iconic pictures away from their iconic status, to make new work seem familiar, and old work a little strange again, as it was when it was made'.
He has done so with great care, through galleries designed to open out into each other, offering accidental vistas, sideways glances, shifting shapes - a semblance of serendipity.
In a room devoted to Surrealism, there is a vitrine filled with objects - two Joseph Cornell boxes, a Hans Bellmer photograph, a collage by AndrÃ© Breton. But foremost among these otherwise cohesive things is a famous self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. At first, you're not sure why it's there, but then you look a little longer and her hair, shorn and strewn all over the floor, seems to mirror the thatch of twigs covering the face of Cornell's boxed-up doll.
Behind that seep ideas about femininity - Frida is wearing a man's suit, Bellmer's subject is one of his trademark disarticulated sex dolls. And somewhere in there, too, is a fondness for found objects - Kahlo's, though painted, is made to look like the kind of folk-art ex-votos she collected and pasted all over her walls.
As you're looking at the Kahlo in the vitrine, you see, in a gallery beyond it, a mural painting by her husband, Diego Rivera. Rivera is in a gallery of social realists, but from some angles, or even merely subliminally, the lovers are side by side. There is another husband-and-wife echo downstairs. Jackson Pollock is one of the few artists to have a gallery to himself, but that doesn't mean he's isolated. On a wall in a gallery behind his is a painting by Lee Krasner - their works are displayed as if looking at each other from afar.
In a room full of Abstract Expressionists, you'll find a newly acquired Sol LeWitt sculpture next to a Bridget Riley, an Ad Reinhardt and an Agnes Martin. So far, so straightforward. But walk past the LeWitt on your way through another room and you'll see that part of it is hollow. If you look through one end of it, you find the black fragment of a Joseph Beuys, several sections away. Look through the other end - a glimpse of a white Marcel Broodthaers.
John Elderfield says he had a hard time convincing everyone, including himself, of his choices. For every work in the museum, a mock-up was made and put in place. Colour photocopies stood for paintings, and cardboard models were made of each sculpture, including the Brobdingnagian obelisk. But the result is a triumph and the ultimate overarching sense is of a place that can embrace the monumental while remaining perfectly casual. Matisse's dancers, which would have been trumped-up in another museum, are decorating the stairwell here; on the top floor, near the shop, is Francis Bacon's magnificent triptych; there are three beautiful Medardo Rosso's by the lift and a Damien Hirst outside the loo. But nothing is thrown away; it's all important, as if to say this is life and art comes with it.
In the basement is a different kind of museum. Mark Dion's project, Rescue Archeology, involved excavating the sculpture garden and adjoining sites before construction was underway. He found fragments of many moments in the museum's history and beyond: cornices from John D Rockefeller's 19th-century townhouse, matchboxes from an old hotel, the remains of 1940s constructions by Marcel Breuer and Buckminster Fuller, traces of a Bruce Nauman from the 1970s. In a cabinet of muckraked curiosities, he has exhibited some of his findings: buttons, doorbells, bits of porcelain, children's marbles; new taxonomies of discarded razor blades and rusty screws. On six salvaged mantelpieces are a series of fond displays: photos of the old buildings in silver frames (as if they were family members), a pile of doorknobs, a bunch of test tubes full of dust, as if the sametenor of affection extended to it all.
Dion's project echoes the museum's enterprise as a whole: what are museums for? Are they exercises in nostalgia or can they be furnaces for the future? Who establishes the hierarchy and how many stories are there to be told? On celebrating the institution's 75th anniversary this month, Glenn Lowry, MoMA's director, describes the new hang as 'a series of hypotheses, provisional ways of thinking about art'. He emphasises the temporary qualities of the arrangements, as if they now had the confidence to think ardently about change and possibility.
MoMA was designed, in the words of its founders, to be 'frankly devoted to the works of artists who most truly reflect the tendencies of the day'. But in more recent years, it has been decidedly uncontemporary and taken as its main role that of giving a historical account of predominantly 20th-century art.
Now, a substantial part of what's on show are recent acquisitions. They've built their first gallery for works on film and video and have, for the first time, a dedicated space for contemporary art - a majestic floor full of breathtaking objects - by Matthew Barney, Rachel Whiteread, Kiki Smith, Cy Twombly, Richard Serra, Lorna Simpson. Even with the new 640,000 square feet, only about 10 per cent of the museum's collection can be shown at any one time and some of the displays will be rotated every nine months. The galleries are, in John Elderfield's description, less like instructions and more like debates. MoMa is a series of near-miraculous unfoldings, a place that feels like a maze but turns out to be a map: a way of looking at art anew.