The Apostasy of MoMA

by James F. Cooper

Apostasy is a falling away from true faith. The Museum of Modern Art staked its faith in the greatness of modern art. In 1933, Alfred Barr, MoMA’s first director, initiated a series of exhibitions, showcasing Picasso and Matisse, followed by the groundbreaking show “Painting in Paris,” featuring Vincent van Gogh (1935). In 1936, “Cubism and Abstract Art” followed, then an exhibition of Bauhaus architecture and design. During the nineteenth century, the members of the great art academies of Europe believed they were under siege from a band of “savages” who were attempting to overthrow traditional art forms, which were closely tied to religious faith and the State. Today, the “savages” are wearing tuxedos and diamonds and living in penthouse condos erected seventy-five stories high above the city and the museum, while a new generation seeks relief from the cacophony of ugliness rising about us.

Founded in 1929 as an educational institution, the Museum of Modern Art aimed to preserve and document a permanent collection of the highest achievements in modern and contemporary art. The collection began with a donation of eight prints and one drawing. Today, MoMA’s collection consists of over 150,000 art works and 300,000 books. In 2014, the museum confronts a puzzling challenge to its original mission. Why is it expanding its facility to encompass, by 2019, more than 1,600,000 square feet? What is the point of modern art? The challenge today is more controversial than the one that divided museum members back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Abstract Expressionists and Action Painters (Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Philip Guston and others) protested they were being ostracized from the newly constructed MoMA on 53rd Street.

Today, the argument goes much deeper. But coming now—from ateliers, new schools and art movements—is a counter-insurgence of traditional art, which modernism rejected one hundred years ago. The attempt to internationalize modernism, with skyscrapers that overwhelm the great modern works, threatens the essence and aesthetic quality that motivated the founders to create MoMA in 1929. By all means, visit MoMA and consider whether the museum’s current standards have remained true to the mission that originally stirred their passion and imagination.

During the New Year holiday, I took the opportunity to tour the latest version of the Museum of Modern Art (reopened in 2004 after a massive expansion and renovation). I don’t visit it much anymore, although, for many years in the 1960s and 70s, the old museum was an oasis for many like myself. In the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, Aristide Maillol’s giant bronze The River (1943, cast 1948) dippped gracefully into the water, Alberto Giacometti’s Tall Figure III (1960), Rodin’s Balzac (1879, cast 1954) and Matisse’s Back II (1911–13), four stunning bas-reliefs, held center stage. This was in the halcyon days, before incessant international wars, urban unrest and drugfueled crime waves began to turn the city into a fortress of brut architectural glass business-and-luxury towers, while iconic art works were replaced with those not deemed scatological enough for the Whitney Biennials. The garden is barely recognizable now, as construction of an enormous trench slowly takes shape, which will introduce several new structures into the museum’s streamlined urban embrace. Meanwhile, outraged critics rant in numerous articles about plans to tear down significant buildings such as the American Folk Art Museum, which until last year had abutted MoMA, to further real estate schemes in the center of Manhattan.

Commenting on Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s plans to demolish the American Folk Art Museum and several other buildings, The New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, in his article “The Museum with a Bulldozer’s Heart,” wrote that the planned demolition is “madness.” The big publicity campaign about the museum’s expansion, about its potential benefits to the city, is the “the same old flimflam” about flexible spaces planned for as-yet-unspecified programs, offices and galleries. The impending colossus “is really all about real estate.”1 In addition, directly across the street from MoMA, the Donnell Library Center is being rebuilt, reduced in size, to fit at the base of a new high-rise hotel, with two of the library’s three floors now located underground. In the empty site reserved to redouble the size of MoMA is an unintentionally interesting pile of broken stone blocks, braced with iron and rusted barbed wire. The workmen have unconsciously created a funeral monument in the way the stones are arranged, blocking access to the desolate lot between the buildings. The footprint of the demolished buildings outlines the perimeter of the tapered extension to be added to the new section of the museum. When completed, the greatly enlarged MoMA will become the largest exhibition and scholarly resource devoted to modern art. The new tower (scheduled to open in 2019) will force substantial changes upon the 2004 tower. The tapered rear of the MoMA building points like the tip of a spear, which stretches half the length of the city block, to flatten at the other end into a triple-door entrance to the present museum. Plans for the new 75-story, 145-unit residential condominium call for a tower adjacent to the present condominium, looming above the eastern section of the museum. This might explain why the new lobby interior is almost three stories high, with three tiers, and covers the size of two football fields.

Right now, the lobby contains only a cloak room and a ticket booth. The walls are painted a mordant greyish-white, and the space above contains one large art work best observed from the second tier. The main collection of modern art is housed on the upper floors, accessible by escalators and broad staircases befitting those designed by Albert Speer.

Missing in the 2004 version of MoMA are the quiet, contemplative spaces that were once part of the 1939 building. The greatest works of modernist art deserve a proper setting. If the museum’s intent is to stimulate future development in the arts, it needs to showcase the collection better and to maintain standards of excellence. Both the current installation of modernist work and many works acquired later seem boring and unimaginative. To foster everdeeper understanding and enjoyment, the mission statement of the museum states: “If the Museum is to honor the ideals with which it was founded and to remain vital and engaged with the present….it is essential to affirm the importance originated in the exploration of the ideals and interests generated in the new artistic traditions that began in the late nineteenth century.”2

The present collection of European modern masterpieces is hung pedantically, one after another, across the vast acreage of greyish walls on the fourth and fifth floors. The sheetrock, the same color as the walls in the lobby, sucks the color even out of van Gogh’s passionate landscapes. It has been ten years since the most recent incarnation of the museum opened, yet very little seems to have changed—one of the reasons I have avoided visiting it. One cannot help contrasting the enormous empty gallery spaces and passageways with the recent handsome renovations at the Frick Collection, Morgan Library and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then again, these museums have no plans to add 75-story towers to their edifices.

Meanwhile, this past February, the Art Students League voted to approve the sale of 6,000 square feet of air rights above its Beaux-Arts facility for over 30 million dollars. The deal will allow the developers of Extell’s 1,423-foot Nordstrom Towers to go forward with a cantilever, which will begin nearly thirty stories above the base of the League’s four-story building. True, modern technology and science have spurred advances in construction. But the operators of the handsome “business cathedrals” built a century ago in lower Manhattan took as profound an interest in architectural aesthetics as they did in the quality of the goods they manufactured, as seen in the Chrysler, Woolworth, Flatiron and Singer Buildings, as well as many handsome memorials, bridges and parks. In our own era, Steve Jobs wrote that he considered form (design) inseparable from function in his Apple and Macintosh computers.

The enormity of the empty rooms at MoMA will prompt artists and patrons to measure their worth by size instead of quality. The size of an object has little relevance to the universal standards of art. Vermeer’s exquisite Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665), recently on loan to the Frick Collection, has no place in a gallery the size of an auditorium. The original mission statement written by Alfred Barr in 1929 for the Museum of Modern Art focused upon beauty and ideas. Barr had studied in Germany at the Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius, whose faculty included Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Naturally, Barr was highly influenced by the Bauhaus approach to architecture and the arts. His mission statement for MoMA included his belief that

“the artist led and the museum followed and not the other way around.”3 The construction process employed by MoMA’s current board seems just the opposite. The decision to acquire and demolish all the rest of the buildings on 53rd Street was made before the museum had chosen its architect, allocated the use for all of its new space, or set a budget.

The New York Times has reported that MoMA’s decision to destroy the Folk Art Museum building was based upon the board’s view that the latter’s opaque façade “was not in keeping with the glass aesthetic of the rest of the museum.” Ned Cramer responded in an Architect magazine article titled “The Day that MoMA Died”: “It’s as though the board voted to incinerate a Gerhard Richter painting because it didn’t match the floor tile or fit through the doorway.”4 James Panero captured the present mood in his essay on the future plans for MoMA in the February 2014 issue of The New Criterion:

What we see here is the endgame for large-scale work that began with Minimalism in the 1970s. Whether by accident or design, a movement that was supposed to liberate the avant-garde from the walls of the bourgeois salon has instead taken art away from the people and given it over to ever expanding institutions, which have become sick and bloated as they attempt to swallow all that mass and volume.5

Truly revelatory work has never been size-specific. According to MoMA’s plan, future works seem doomed to be created to fit the available space rather than follow the vision that motivates the artist. Since there is nothing to see of the new buildings—there are no books or publications in the MoMA bookstore which address the goals of the museum expansion—most of the criticism has been justly aimed at the size and dimensions of the new construction. Such “plans” are closer in spirit to a construction of the Athenian theater before the playwrights Euripides, Aeschylus and Aristophanes ever wrote a line.

Justifying the enormous increase in size, the museum website refers in the vaguest terms to future projects, subject matter, mediums and time periods, significant developments in the visual arts and new interpretations of art historical movements. In addition, there is some talk of vastly increasing the photography, archives, music, theater and architecture departments.

I see no point in heaping more criticism upon this outrageous project—as so many critics have already done, some brilliantly—or challenging the motivation that spurs constructing hundreds of thousands of square feet of lavish condominium space for the one-percenters, or even—toying with the obvious—noting that the primary objectives for the entire project are money and real estate. Instead, one might consider that here is an opportunity to improve the arts in America. Let us consider for one moment devoting part of this gigantic space to examining, judging, sponsoring and advising on the merits of the civic, spiritual and aesthetic uses the arts serve. Could we find a permanent working space to evaluate the quality of public buildings, bridges, parks, rivers, interiors, churches, schools and monuments?6 Let this space become a Ministry of Culture, a national academy, attracting scholars, artists, engineers and leaders from many fields, including government, business and education. For a hundred years, the word “Academy” has been anathema. The present convoluted process of planning an important civic or national project reminds one of recent mishandled projects, such as the rebuilding of New York City’s World Trade Center, the destruction of New York’s Pennsylvania Station and its ugly replacement, and the virtually useless pavilion designed by Daniel Libeskind for the Denver Art Museum.

There was once a purpose and need to create a museum for modern art. There was a need to understand why and how 2,500 years of Western civilization underwent such a radical change in the fine arts. Unless we understand the radical cultural transition that took shape at the beginning of the twentieth century, we cannot address the ills that presently afflict us as a nation. Nor can we imagine the standards and culture that will reshape America’s future. Standing at the rear of MoMA, looking across the empty, weed-strewn field stretching from it to the edge of Sixth Avenue, one asks: What will fill this giant mordant space? How will this affect the future or purpose of contemporary art? 

NOTES

  1. Michael Kimmelman, “The Museum with a Bulldozer’s Heart,” The New York Times (January 13, 2014), p. C1.

  2. http//:www.moma.org/about, p.1.

  3. http//:www.moma.org/about, p.1.

  4. Ned Cramer, “The Day that MoMA Died,” Architect (May, 2013).

  5. James Panero, “Gallery Chronicle,” The New Criterion (February, 2014), p. 46.

  6. Of immediate concern, especially in this time of perpetual war, is the puerile moral and aesthetic state of memorials to heroes on the National Mall. Robert M. Gates, former Secretary of Defense, has warned that, if America continues to decline culturally, we will have to become a nation of Spartans to retain our honor. If we create ignoble memorials and architecture, can we continue to expect to remain a nation that strives for greatness?

 

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2014, Volume 31, Number 2