The Shock of the Modern

The scene outside 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue was chaos. At noon on Nov. 20, the day of the Museum of Modern Art's grand reopening, metal barricades penned in five serpentine rows of expectant MoMA visitors, all waiting in the rain for their opportunity to see the new building. Police officers and MoMA employees together tried to direct pedestrian traffic, but still anyone not waiting on the MoMA line was forced out into the street, left to their own devices to avoid interference with the Falun Gong protest parading up Fifth Avenue. Earlier that morning, the line had stretched from 53rd up Fifth Avenue, across to Sixth on 54th, and back down to 53rd. It both began and terminated in front of the MoMA building, stretching around a full city block.

But inside the MoMA, all was calm. The expansive lobby, though certainly bustling, belied the mayhem outside, where people were waiting on average an hour and a half for opening day's special free entrance. (The next day, ticket prices would leap to $20.) Surveying the scene from the ground floor – a level devoted to the shedding of coats, the formulating of plans of attack for the oversized collection, relaxing, and viewing the MoMA's original sculpture garden – Director of Security Ron Simoncini nodded, hands on hips. With a breath of relief, he declared, "the building really, really works."

And so it does: Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, in his six-story renovation of the MoMA building, has created an elegant, cohesive, and understated space. Housed in this location since 1932, and renovated a number of times by various architects, the MoMA has been closed for renovation since May 2002. While monumental and impressive, the MoMA's new building is nonetheless impossible to fetishize. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has managed to avoid overshadowing the MoMA's art collection with the building that houses it. Although Taniguchi's MoMA has been created in an era marked by lavish and expensive museum construction, its expansion seems more a matter of necessity than a matter of spectacle. According to Museum Director Glenn Lowry, the MoMA has about 100,000 works in its collection. A couple thousand, he said, are currently on display. The MoMA's collection needs this massive home, but it is not for Taniguchi's structure that art lovers will pilgrimage here – and that is a mark of his success.

Taniguchi presents modern art from the end to the beginning – top to bottom – in his new design. The sixth floor of the gallery is devoted to special exhibitions, leaving the MOMA's famous tale of modernism to begin one floor below. Two floor-wide permanent installations, "Painting and Sculpture I and II," wind their way from top to bottom, fifth to fourth. "Painting and Sculpture II" closes the curtain on the Modern's choice holdings up through Minimalism, the disputed end of the modern – or beginning of the contemporary – in art. While certainly larger than their predecessors, the fifth and fourth floor galleries in the MoMA maintain a tight warmth foreign to the large exhibition halls of some other new museum projects. The rooms in "Painting and Sculpture I and II" seem much more enclosed and traditional than many other new museum exhibition spaces.

Next, the third floor sweeps up and collects the messy outlanders of every art museum's collection: design, architecture, photography, and works on paper – art's beautiful orphans – are all housed in galleries on this floor.

And then we break.

After the intimate galleries of the fourth and fifth floors, the second-floor rooms are expansive, refreshing, airy. The floors are stone instead of wood. Much of the area is visible both from overlooks above and from the floor below. We have entered a different type of exhibition space, and a different type of art – the contemporary.

It is in the juxtaposition of the architecture of the fifth and fourth with that of the second floor that Taniguchi's architectural sensitivity to the history of twentieth century art is exposed. These differences make plain that Taniguchi is content to let his architecture ride shotgun to the MoMA's holdings. Modern art, at its purest, is said to follow an "art for art's sake" mantra; from Paul Cezanne to Jackson Pollock, meaning in modern art is said to exist within the artwork itself. The spare but intimate galleries of "Painting and Sculpture I and II" provide the MoMA's earlier artworks with an art-viewing atmosphere consistent with this aesthetic philosophy. Modernist art, under this premise, should not be taken as a visual reflection of the outside world. The viewer is to contemplate an artist's manipulation of the qualities of an artwork that are unique to its medium: in a painting, these would be paint, color, and line. The confined, simple spaces of the fifth and fourth floor galleries allow viewers to concentrate on the works in front of them, and contemplate them as complete entities.

In contrast, contemporary art generally calls upon the viewer to be involved on a far more physical level, and to reflect upon the concept of the art museum as well as upon the viewer's place in such a venue. Artist Gordon Matta-Clark's installation consists of three incongruous sections of a house dropped in the middle of the gallery. The viewer must negotiate a path around them, and contemplate what, for Pete's sake, they are doing in an art museum. The experience becomes a negotiation between viewer and artwork. The overwhelming and open space of MoMA's second floor galleries foster this type of aesthetic experience. Taniguchi's architecture thoughtfully envelops the art within it, and subtly provides the architectural complement to MoMA's collection.

The major difference between the MoMA's new face and that of many other new art museum renovations lies in its purpose. The MoMA absolutely needed the space. Rather than exploiting his level of control over such a vast space in midtown Manhattan, Taniguchi has instead reined in any desire he might have had to revel in his own project. Instead, he has used the amount of space granted through MoMA's $858 million expansion project to promote a more noble goal: to fit as many artistic masterpieces as will hang naturally and comfortably in these, the halls of the nation's foremost modern art museum, and to honor these works with a refined and sublime space. The MoMA does not need to emphasize a space, or justify a collection – it is the collection to which all others aspire.

The function of most of the new blockbuster museums is different. Other museums, such as Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, stand as singular landmarks in otherwise unremarkable locations. In Bilbao, this is emphasized by the vistas through the city that expose the Bilbao's shiny metallic siding down long passageways of old, industrial buildings. Both the Bilbao and Richard Meier's J. Paul Getty Museum, a colossal structure on a Bel Air hilltop, sell squares of their building materials as memorabilia in their gift shops – for the Getty, these are squares of travertine marble, while the Bilbao's shop peddles architect Frank Gehry's signature titanium shingles. Although MoMA surely misses no chance to capitalize on its new home, the concept of a signature building material has no place in the MoMA.

Most cities desire a landmark titanium work by Gehry to announce their eligibility for inclusion in the international art scene. The small cities that host the Bilbao and upstate New York's Dia:Beacon, for instance, need to use their museums as a means through which to mold themselves into cosmopolitan destinations. The Getty, the Bilbao, and the Dia:Beacon package their art-viewing experiences as a journey. To reach the Getty, one must ride up a hillside in a scenic tram that lifts the viewer up out of the everyday and brings them to a place where they can see the mountains, the ocean, and the sky of Los Angeles. Both the Bilbao and the Beacon force their audience on an epic journey on a bus out of San Sebastian or a MetroNorth train out of Grand Central. The MoMA does no such thing. It is central. It is easy. It is New York.

Taniguchi has created a meandering, innovative, and specifically New York version of an expansive art museum, taking space where it can get it, like a young transplant to Brooklyn. Terence Riley, Chief Curator of MoMA's Department of Architecture and Design, spoke of what he thought of as a "self-limiting myth promoted by developers" that nothing of worth can be built these days in Manhattan. Taniguchi seems to debunk this myth: you can create a great museum in Manhattan – you just have to be scrappy. Parts of the building, pre-face lift, have largely remained intact, such as the basement theatres and the sculpture garden. The MoMA now also winds behind Fifth Avenue's St. Thomas Church. The MoMA will have even more space when its management so desires: the museum has purchased an athletic club and razed it. It currently stands as a vacant lot on the MoMA's block, a tabula rasa waiting to be molded.

The display space for the contemporary collection provided a much different environment for the works than that in the new Dia:Beacon museum. At the Beacon, Dan Flavin's fluorescent light installations were upstaged by the natural light and vast display room. At MoMA, Flavin's works, which create ambient, light-filled areas, seem much more comfortable requesting space. In contrast, other minimalist works are asked to – and able to – command a presence in the Beacon's great, cold, and airy exhibition halls. Walter de Maria's "Equal Area Series" (1976-1990), consisting of 25 pairs of one metal circle and one metal square, worked perfectly in two expansive and naturally lit parallel galleries at the. The vast space of the galleries, combined with the fact that de Maria's pieces extended only inches from the ground, forces viewers to physically interact with the works, confronting their own space in the gallery as they negotiate the metal pieces. What works for the Beacon, in this case, is a quality foreign to the MoMA's distinctly interior and artificial pockets: pure, unadulterated, and quiet space.

While the MoMA takes fewer architectural risks than other new museums, as the foremost authority, it is able to take more risks with its content and curatorial decisions. The Bilbao's ceilings may arc into asymmetrical spikes that defy geometrical definition, but it is the MoMA that can take the liberty of hanging Monet's "Water Lilies" (1920) in a vast gallery, surrounded by the works of much later greats: Brice Marden, William de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Jasper Johns. Riley spoke of the Bilbao as a "preconceived notion" that provides the viewer with a content-laden frame through which to view works of art. "In my mind, the real problem with Bilbao is a philosophical one: you have a lot of art from the moment – that is, a critical art. If the architect breaks all the rules, what rules are left for the artist to break?" The MoMA avoids this direct confrontation between architecture and art, but still uses its space to pose art historical challenges to the canon.

As the MoMA has purposely avoided in its construction the dramatic and powerful sweeps of Gehry's buildings, MoMA has also betrayed no need or desire to be "contemporary" like the Geffen in Los Angeles, or the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The MoMA is too established, too regal, or perhaps, simply, too old for the corrugated steel, unfinished ceilings, and obviously temporary walls by means of which these museums declare themselves contemporary.

For all the new fixings, making one's mark on the collection is still the foremost thing on every artist's mind; so much so that on opening day, an elderly man in the Prints and Illustrated Books gallery approached a security guard in broken English, trying to convince him to acquire his works for the museum. Even the new MoMA cannot overshadow Monet's "Water Lilies," Picasso's "Demoiselles D'Avignon," van Gogh's "Starry Night." Yoshio Taniguchi's MoMA is a temple in which to solemnly contemplate artworks, not a cathedral that dwarfs all within.

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