Taking a Step Back to Move Forward

The new MoMA relinquishes its position as the model museum in order embrace diverse, queer, and complex subjectivities, and give modernism a new beginning.

David Tudor, Rainforest V (variation 1), 1973/2015. Objects, sound. Realised by Composers Inside Electronics, Inc. (John Driscoll, Phil Edelstein, and Matt Rogalsky). Installation view, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Committee on Media and Performance Art Funds. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

Early last month, the Museum of Modern Art in New York reopened to the public following a five-year renovation plan that had a first phase in 2017 with the completion of the east end. By increasing exhibition space thirty per cent, the new building offers MoMA the chance to articulate its position in the twenty-first century museological discourse about rethinking collecting and displaying. 

As the visitors step into the museum’s lobby, multiple circulation routes lead into a labyrinth of galleries. Differently from the ‘old’ display, which was characterised by an enfilade of rooms that would guide the visitor from one artistic movement to the next in chronological order, the current presentation gets rid of  linear narration to present artworks that voice geographically dislocated histories of modernity. It also displaces hierarchies between artistic movements and their main protagonists. 

This curatorial approach is the result of a ten-year research project called C_MAP (Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives) – that MoMA initiated in 2009 to explore the multiple complex histories of modernity. Conceived as a cross-departmental internal research, C_MAP has fostered the study of art histories outside North America and Western Europe, gathering over sixty staff members from sixteen departments into four research groups focusing on modern and contemporary art produced in Africa, Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and Latin America. 

Indeed, MoMA has responded late to the call that, since the early 2000s, saw modern and contemporary art museums re-conceptualise the research supporting acquisitions as well as collecting and displaying processes. However, MoMA’s display takes its distance from the conceptual groupings of artworks proposed by Tate Modern, and from more radical understandings of history as suggested by the collection displays at Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, among others.

The new MoMA display shows a radical understanding of the medium (performance, painting, sculpture, film, design object) as a tool for deploying artistic research rather than as a form of expression. In this light, film and performance are integrated in the galleries in a critical manner. Even the most punctilious of critics would admit that hierarchies between media have now disappeared, along with the prejudice that certain media belong to a certain gender.

In the midst of the fourth floor galleries, a newly conceived space called Kravis studio has been designed to host artists’ residencies, and to promote understanding of performance as a process rather than a product. Currently, the space presents a piece from the collection by David Tudor called Rainforest V (1973–2015), a sound installation constructed from everyday objects, such as a metal barrel, a vintage computer hard disc, and plastic tubing, and which originally served as the musical score for Merce Cunningham’s ballet of the same name.

Similarly, the film galleries were inaugurated with an exhibition of ‘home movies’ titled Private Lives Public Spaces, drawn from the museum collection, along with a series of screenings of selected films that pays tribute to Iris Barr, the first woman curator at MoMA and also the founder, in 1935, of the first film department at a modern art museum. 

Anny Aviram, Kate Keller, The Departure of Guernica, 1981. From Super 8mm. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art. Image part of Private Lives Public Spaces program.

The repeated use of the indefinite article in the press materials surrounding MoMA’s reopening emphasises a moment of transition for the institution. From THE (old) MoMA – the paradigm for modern and contemporary art both in the West and the East of the world – to ‘A new MoMA’, a hybrid institution with an identity under construction. There is a palpable desire to queer the institution, and explore less conventional ways in which the collection could go beyond its origins to inhabit history differently. The collection display still follows the standard chronological order of the collection hanging (from 1880 up to now), but the presentation highlights very crucial encounters among art histories which refresh this chronology completely.

On the new building’s fifth floor, Amy Sillman’s artist-curated room reflects on the notions of form and shape, gathering artworks of various media and temporalities in a chaotic display that visualises art history as a stream of consciousness. On the same floor, a rehanging of the collection presents a gallery painted pink and divided by a labyrinthine path of temporary walls on which artworks hang spaciously. Here, the museum declares a new beginning for modern art history. This beginning is represented by Surrealism and its pioneers, women and men in equal number. Frida Kahlo, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Salvador Dalí, and many more have replaced Picasso, Braque, Balla, and Boccioni as the forerunners of ‘Western’ modernity.

Art history unfolds throughout the following rooms with substantial variations and historical digressions. The disquieting aesthetics of  Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is surprisingly paired together with a significant early piece by Faith Ringgold American People Series #20: Die (1967), a decision which Thomas J. Lax, curator in the New Media and Performance department, has discussed in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement to criticize the banal pervasiveness of racial violence in everyday life.

Installation view of Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Gallery 503), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

On the fourth floor, Jacob Lawrence’s ‘Migration Series’, a series of small-format realist paintings showing the discrimination of black people, is placed in proximity to Jackson Pollock’s Number (1948) and Barnett Newman’s abstract minimalism. This curatorial choice demonstrates the hybridity of ideas that coexisted in New York’s artistic milieu during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Women artists too seem to take back their place in history. Yayoi Kusama’s Accumulation 1 (1962) – the famous phallus-covered sofa – is placed at the centre of a gallery where the new avant-garde of the 1960s Carol Rama and Marisa Merz hold place among Minimalist artists Robert Morris, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin. Louise Lawler, Dara Birnbaum, and Cindy Sherman lead the way to the art of the 1970s, and their works anticipate very diverse artistic practices – from Basquiat to Jeff Koons to Jimmy de Sana. Joan Jonas’s Mirage (1976/1994/2005) unfolds within an entire room nearby a gallery that presents the work of Ana Medieta, Valie Export, and Martha Rosler. In general, each artwork seems to become a tag, a keyword to be employed for further investigations within a museum that is used more as an archive 

While a new MoMA shows a commitment to enforce a new understanding of modern art, it also confirms its interest in nourishing contemporary artists. In fact, the sixth floor presents eleven large-scale installations of living artists including Allora & Calzadilla, Sou Fujimoto, Sheila Hicks, Arthur Jafa, and Dayanita Singh, ong others. Other highlights include an exhibition on Pope L. and Wu Tsang’s film We Hold Where Study (2017). 

Installation view of Artist’s Choice: Amy Sillman—The Shape of Shape, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2019. Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp.

MoMA seems committed to re-working the paradox of the Western modern art museum, a model that the institution conceptualised almost a century ago, and which was subsequently taken as a point of reference by modern and contemporary art museums operating within the same capitalistic, social, and economic structure. Despite this contradiction, a new MoMA persists in the eternal search of defining, collecting, and displaying modern and contemporary art. In fact, the plan is to rotate the permanent collection installations every six months to assign to the art histories the same mobility experienced by their protagonists.

Last year’s Berlin Biennial carried the title “We don’t need another hero” to denounce the necessity of exploring different configurations of knowledge and power that enable contradictions and complications. Indeed, we do not want another museum to become the hero or the model of another ‘global’ art historical canon. We need an institution that embraces contradictions and accepts complications. We need to queer the institution of the art museum, to question its modernist premises and to infiltrate – if not plant ex novo – a new decolonial, feminist, and versatile approach. 

We do not need MoMA (or any other institution) to patronise how art history should be interpreted or categorised. Museums are not influencers, but beings which try to understand their subjectivities in relation to their past, present, and future – and to their ever-changing contexts. A new MoMA seems to have embraced its queer, complex, complicated subjectivity. How the rest of the modern art museums will respond to this challenge, only time will tell. 

– Irene Campolmi works as an independent curator and a researcher. She’s based in Copenhagen but lives and works in transit.