Roger Kimball

Museum without a soul

Roger Kimball on how Yoshio Taniguchi has transformed New York’s Museum of Modern Art

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Roger Kimball on how Yoshio Taniguchi has transformed New York’s Museum of Modern Art

We are told that our individualist art has touched its limit, and its expression can go no further. That’s often been said; but if it cannot go further, it may still go elsewhere.

André Malraux, The Voices of Silence

‘An institution,’ said Emerson, ‘is the lengthened shadow of one man.’ In the case of the Museum of Modern Art, the man in question is Alfred H. Barr (1902–81). Barr founded MOMA (the acronym by which the museum is universally known) in 1929. From then until Barr’s retirement in 1967, MOMA was to an extraordinary extent the incarnation of the modernist vision that Barr — along with a handful of collaborators — had formulated in the Twenties and early Thirties.

Barr’s idea of Modernism — his idea of how the visual arts might be most vitally integrated into modern life — was complex and multi-faceted. But at its core were two radical (as they seemed then) ideas. One involved rearranging the constellation of the arts so that design, architecture, and photography had (at least in theory) a claim on our attention equal to that exerted by painting and sculpture. Barr’s second conviction had to do with formal aesthetic values.

Just as Barr’s vision of Modernism granted a certain parity among the arts, so he assumed that the expressive novelties of the early 20th-century avant-garde had forged a place in the universe of aesthetic achievement that was equal to the artistic achievements of the past.

It sounds tame now. But at the time it was a seductively revolutionary idea. Barr came of age at a moment when aesthetic passion seemed to offer a vital response to the diminishments of modernity. ‘All art,’ Malraux wrote in the 1940s, ‘is a revolt against man’s fate.’ There was a time when it seemed as if that revolt might succeed, or at least when the question of its failure was not bruited. A concentration on the aesthetic, although it deliberately excluded much, turned out to have an existential corollary, or at any event to issue an existential promise.

Under Barr’s guidance, MOMA came to define or at least to epitomise the heights of high Modernism in the visual arts. It was a large but discriminating vision that Barr propounded. At the centre were such disparate impulses as School of Paris painting (Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse), the Russian avant-garde (Malevich, Kandinsky, Goncharova), the chaster forms of Surrealism (early Giacometti, Magritte), and Bauhaus Modernism, represented above all for Barr by the cool abstract classicism of Mies van der Rohe.

Barr wasn’t right about everything. We can be grateful that, when it came time to build a new museum for MOMA in the mid-1930s, Mies, who was Barr’s first choice, was overlooked in favour of a couple of architects who, though undistinguished as architects, at least provided a building that did not compete with the art that was on view. Had Mies been commissioned to design MOMA in 1936 instead of the Rockefeller factota Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone, we would probably have had an elegant pavilion street-level with a suite of galleries tucked away below ground.

Still, Mies made his mark on MOMA by indirection, for his one-time epigone Philip Johnson designed two expansions for the museum as well as its elegant sculpture garden (a small thing, but still his single best work). Expansion increasingly became a principle of survival at MOMA. In the early 1980s, the museum embarked on a huge expansion and hired Cesar Pelli to design its new galleries and revenue-producing residential tower next door. It seemed like a huge project at the time. It was a huge project. And it succeeded in turning MOMA from a place of aesthetic pilgrimage into a contemporary art-emporium. Pelli’s escalators, plonked down towards the back of the main atrium, bespoke the museum’s demotic transformation, its new-found affinity with the department store and mall.

Pelli’s expansion of MOMA, though it seemed like a definitive insult at the time, turned out to be mere prolegomenon. MOMA had been ‘democratised’, ‘opened up’: it was no longer the stuffy shrine to the (unstuffy) taste of high Modernism. Now it was more and more a museum of contemporary art — not at all the same thing as a museum of modern art. In the hands of the late Kirk Varnedoe and trendy curators like Robert Storr and Kynaston McShine, MOMA more and more became an imitation of itself: full of avant-garde gestures, but performed ironically, with no fundamental seriousness.

The process of self-parody that began in 1984 has now come to fruition in Yoshio Taniguchi’s gigantic expansion, renovation, transformation of the Museum of Modern Art. The 630,000 square-foot, $425 million project (part of an $858 million capital campaign that includes new storage facilities in Queens) ingested the old MOMA whole; what came out the other end is a sombre, elegant, imposing conglomeration in which Alfred Barr’s MOMA survives as a kind of posthumous echo. It is, as the Marxists used to say, no accident that the classic works of Post-Impressionism are huddled away in a warren of galleries on the fourth and fifth floors.

Taniguchi’s new MOMA has two principal focuses. One is the huge pedestrian thoroughfare that connects 53rd and 54th Street. This curious space — at once anonymous and bureaucratic — is open to the public free of charge. To trespass into the museum proper will cost you $20. After you empty your wallet, you process up and around into Taniguchi’s pièce de résistance: an enormous atrium off which are clustered the new museum’s galleries. As you walk up into the atrium, you pass under the 1960s Bell Helicopter, a signature artefact from MOMA’s department of design. It seems both minatory and diminutive in that barn-like foyer, but the real diminishments come when you step into the atrium proper. Visitors to Cesar Pelli’s MOMA will remember Monet’s gigantic, mural-like paintings of waterlilies. Well, they seemed gigantic in that old space. In Taniguchi’s depot, they seem like a couple of oversized postage stamps.

One repeatedly experiences that feeling of diminishment in Taniguchi’s new museum. The diminishment comes in several modalities. The first is simply a matter of scale. Many of the new galleries are so large and box-like that the art is swallowed up by the space. Oddly enough, however, that physical diminishment may be the least damaging to one’s experience of the art. More caustic is the diminishment caused by the sterility of the environment. Almost all the walls of the new MOMA are an antiseptic, omnivorous white; they act as a drain on visual intensity, bleaching even the most vibrant works of vitality.

The Museum of Modern Art was first the creation and then the legacy of Alfred Barr. It has taken several decades, but now at last it is a parody of everything Barr struggled for. ‘Narrative’ is a word much beloved by Glenn Lowry, MOMA’s director. The museum, he wrote recently, ‘is constantly revising the narrative of its own history’. And how. In Taniguchi, they have found an architect who has given them exactly the building they need for this revision. It is an expert Postmodernist imitation of a Modernist building. Everything is still there, but ironised or hypertrophied. The only thing lacking is the soul, the conviction, that once animated it.