The New Criterion on Art

New Criterion, December 2004 | Go to article overview

The New Criterion on Art


In this issue, as has been our practice for the past three Decembers, we offer our readers a Special Section on art. This is over and above our usual coverage of the visual arts, which, though a regular feature, may still be described as "special" in its breadth and quality. Readers will find illuminating reviews of Aristide Maillol's sculpture (by Karen Wilkin), the painting of Romare Bearden (Eric Gibson), the objets of the Aztecs (by Peter Pettus), and the near-collaborations of Joan Miro and Alexander Calder (by James Panero). In addition, there is a conversation about art between the figurative painter Philip Pearlstein and the poet David Yezzi, an essay about taste by the conservator Marco Grassi, a brief review of a new book about Winslow Homer's Gulf Stream (by Roger Kimball), and excerpts from the memoirs of the art dealer Andre Emmerich about the critic Clement Greenberg and the painter Helen Frankenthaler. James Panero writes about his experience lecturing at Benton, a fictional college made famous by Randall Jarrell but which, in Mr. Panero's hands, bears a marked resemblance to an institution in Providence, Rhode Island, that Mr. Panero happened to attend as a graduate student.

The biggest event of the season for the art world is the long-awaited reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Gutted, enlarged, and transformed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi at a cost of $4-25 million, MOMA--which had been dosed since 2002--is a much bigger, much brighter, and altogether more imposing institution than anything Alfred H. Barr could have imagined when he founded the museum in 1929. The art historian Michael J. Lewis offers a thoughtful look at the architectural aspects of the new MOMA later in this issue. Here we would like to offer a few thoughts about what MOMA in its current incarnation says about the aesthetic and curatorial vision of the museum as it enters the twenty-first century.

It is one of the ironies of art history that although Alfred Barr was a prodigious (and astute) collector of the contemporary art of his time, the museum that he created was never a museum of contemporary art (a locution that teeters on self-contradiction) but a museum devoted to the representative art of a particular historical period, the period of high modernism: roughly from 1880-1950. This is a fact that has never sat easily with the trustees of MOMA, and it is a fact that, since the death of Barr in 1967, has been regarded with increasing neglect or disdain by MOMA's curators. More and more, MOMA has wanted to be all things to all interests in the art world, which meant that more and more it had to bracket its role as a museum of modern art in order to be come a museum of contemporary art. The huge expansion of the museum by Cesar Pelli in 1984 was, in part, an effort to accommodate the museum to this new role. The current expansion has sealed that ambition, so to speak, in stone.

What we have been given by Mr. Taniguchi and the museum's curators is a kind of replica of the Museum of Modern Art. The itinerary--or, to use a word much favored by MOMA's current administration, the "narrative"--envisioned by Barr has been relegated to the status of a sample storyline in a large, unwieldy, and inconclusive plot--a plot, moreover, whose connection with distinctively aesthetic values is often tenuous at best. In our view, Mr. Taniguchi's design--a mixture of gigantism and chilliness masquerading as elegance-reinforces this tenuousness. Many observers have already told us that Mr. Taniguchi's building does not "compete" with the art it houses. This is true enough: it doesn't compete because it doesn't relate to the art at all. In this sense, Mr. Taniguchi has admirably fulfilled the desire of his clients to provide a building that puts the original spirit of MOMA in its place by impressing the viewer as a kind of contemporary, white-walled Piranesian no-place.

It is too early to offer a definitive judgment about the new MOMA. …

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