Going Global: Insights on the Newly Reopened MoMA in New York

Exterior view of The Museum of Modern Art, Blade Stair Atrium, 53rd Street
The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA
Interior view of The Museum of Modern Art, Flagship Museum Store. The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA
Installation view of Daylit gallery 212, Sheela Gowda’s of all people, overlooking Projects Gallery, featuring Projects 110: Michael Armitage, The Museum of Modern Art. The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA
Installation view of Action Painting I (gallery 403), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp
Installation View of Fossil Psychics for Christa (2019) by Kerstin Brätsch in The Caroll and Milton Petrie Terrace Sixth Floor Café, The Museum of Modern Art. The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA
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As the highly anticipated US$450 million, 47,000 square foot expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened to the public this week, Barbara Pollack takes a close look at the new galleries, new hangs and the new ways MoMA is contributing to the histories of modernism.

TEXT: Barbara Pollack
IMAGES: Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art, New York

Exterior view of The Museum of Modern Art, Blade Stair Atrium, 53rd Street
The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA

 

Strolling through the miles of galleries at the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York, it is impossible to resist the allure of the treasures on view. As much as I have had my own perspective on modernism dissected, interrogated, rearranged and reconfigured by post-colonial and feminist theory, I still have a soft spot for the first time I encountered these masterpieces when I was a child and didn’t know better about the museum’s male, Eurocentric bias. From Starry Night to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans—these are the hallmarks from my first art history books and seeing them in the museum again let loose waves of nostalgia.

But, after a US$450 million, 47,000 square foot expansion, the new MoMA turns out to be much more than a guilty pleasure. This time around, the team has rethought the story of modernism to include many more women, African American, Latin American and to some extent Asian artists, opening the door to a new interpretation of art in the 20th century. The galleries are packed with surprising juxtapositions that only prove that art history is big enough to include many more diverse participants and will not be destroyed by inclusivity. The addition of new artists to the canon only proves that a door could be cracked open to the modernist trope without diluting the quality and complexity of the story the museum has to tell.

 

Interior view of The Museum of Modern Art, Flagship Museum Store. The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA

 

This is all that activists have been asking from MoMA for years. Since the 1980s and the first wave of multiculturalism, MoMA has been at the center of a critique of curatorial practice. Controversy dogged the museum when it opened the notorious “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” exhibition in 1984 in which it paired African tribal objects with modern paintings and sculptures in ways that turned the African continent into a flea market for Western artists to rummage through, rather than a parallel and equal partner in art history. That same year, when the museum organized “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” it excluded artists from Africa and Asia in its definition of “international” and only admitted 20 women artists out of 165 included in the show. This so outraged feminists artists that a group of them gathered and formed the Guerrilla Girls in response.

The current reinstallation of the permanent collection is intended to be an antidote to these infamous historic moments. And to a large extent, it is corrective, especially in its inclusion of women artists. Now, you will find Lee Krasner, Hedda Sterne, Helen Frankenthaler and Grace Hartigan in the halls of Action Painting, alongside Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup is joined by works by Claude Cahun, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Frida Kahlo in the room devoted to Surrealism. Other startling juxtapositions are encouraged as when Faith Ringgold’s 1967 canvas, Die, is hung in the gallery adjacent to Picasso’s Les Demoisselles d’ Avignon, underscoring the violence in both paintings. Or when Alma Woodsey Thomas’s 1973 painting, Fiery Sunset hangs near Matisse’s exquisite 1911 masterpiece, L’Atelier Rouge.

 

Installation view of Daylit gallery 212, Sheela Gowda’s of all people, overlooking Projects Gallery, featuring Projects 110: Michael Armitage, The Museum of Modern Art. The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA

 

Much as I am delighted by these inclusions, I could not help noticing that this is barely a revision of art history from a global point of view, at least the globalism I experience by regularly traveling from New York to Asia several times a year. Sure, there is a gallery devoted to Russian books and another to Latin American mail art. The Latin American contribution is particularly strengthened by an adjoining exhibition, “Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction―The Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift,” a major exhibition drawn primarily from the paintings, sculptures, and works on paper donated to the Museum by the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros between 1997 and 2016. But Tokyo, which had its own history of modern art movements, is barely mentioned and large swaths of Asia are left out of the equation.

 

Installation view of Action Painting I (gallery 403), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

 

Perhaps to compensate for this oversight, MoMA has devoted one gallery to Chinese contemporary art. In this single expansive room, visitors are greeted by a diptych of photographs, Breathing (1996), depicting artist Song Dong laying down in Tiananmen Square, at night and in the daytime and a extensive line of 1999 images by artist Cang Xin, his famous self-portraits with his tongue stuck out, tasting a variety of objects. In the center of the room hangs Huang Yong Ping’s 1997 installation Palanquin in which a salon seat made of bamboo with cushions and a pith helmet seems to be waiting for a rider to arrive. Xu Bing’s 1987 woodcuts, Series of Repetition, line another wall of the gallery. While in one corner hangs the famous photograph of artist Xiao Lu firing a gun at her work Dialogue when it was exhibited at the 1989 China/Avant Garde exhibition in Beijing. Finally, enlivening the space is Zhang Peili’s 1991 video, Document on Hygiene No.3, in which the artist is seen washing a chicken.

This selection of works to represent Chinese contemporary art, mainly of the 1990s, emphasizes conceptual work, perhaps to create a bridge between the works made in Beijing and the contemporary art of New York in the surrounding galleries. Xu Bing’s black-and-white markings bare a strong relationship to minimalism and Huang Yong Ping’s installation looks very post-Rauschenberg in this context. But without greater contextualization, these works of Chinese contemporary art are left out of the conversation taking place across the rest of the museum. Though with a little research a case can be made that Beijing in the 1990s had close parallels to New York’s East Village art scene, this is not mentioned on the wall labels so China’s contributions to contemporary art seem very much out of context here.

 

Installation View of Fossil Psychics for Christa (2019) by Kerstin Brätsch in The Caroll and Milton Petrie Terrace Sixth Floor Café, The Museum of Modern Art. The Museum of Modern Art Renovation and Expansion. Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with Gensler. Photography by Iwan Baan, Courtesy of MoMA

 

The good news is that MoMA is open to such criticism and will be rehanging the permanent collection every six months over the course of the next year and a half. It therefore is possible that whatever shortcoming the current iteration has, it can be adjusted in the next edition. Still, the museum is restricted to whatever is already in their permanent collection, though from the wall labels on view, they have been making many acquisitions in the last two years to correct any myopia on their part. It will be interesting to see if these acquisitions expand to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia and the Middle East. These are regions with histories of modernism worth considering in MoMA’s treatment of history.

Perhaps, it is too much to expect that an institution so rooted in a particular geographical version of art history to be able to change its determinants and reorient itself to a whole new locale. Perhaps, we will have to wait for an Asian museum with an encyclopedic reach to retell the story of modernism from the other side of the globe. That museum may very well be M+ which hopes to open its doors by the end of 2020. It’s been a long time in the making but I think in the end, Asia itself will have to offer the antidote to the American-Eurocentric version of art history. No one else can write it for them.

 
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