CIA 2 MEL 132: Western Aesthetics:
Twentieth Century Euro-American Art, Culture and Ideas
15th July 2010
The Museum of Modern Art: The Past’s Future
Between 1980 and 1984 the Museum of Modern Art was unimprovement and contraction. After a design developed by Cesar Pelli and dean of the Yale School of Architecture. MOMA doubled its exhibition space, added a glass-in atrium, upgraded its dining facilities, built a new theatre-lecture hall, and expanded its bookstore. To help finance the undertaking, the Museum, in an unprecedented move, sold air right to a developer who erected a 52-storey residential condominium tower over the Museum’ s new west wing. Initially critics feared the condominium tower would mar MOMA’s appearance; however, when the Museum reopened they were nearly unanimous in their praise of Pelli’s design. The renovation had resulted in the best of all possible new MOMAs. Critical thus added up to a collective sigh of relieve on MOMA had not been too radical after all. Instead of lamenting the lack of a fresh start or new direction, it tended to laud MOMA’s deepening attachment to tradition. Kramer, for example, noted in the course of an analysis that ‘the museum’s primary function to exhibition as extensively as possible and as intelligently as possible the masterworks from its own permanent collection, and he quoted with evident satisfaction the words of Alfred Barr, inscribed on a plaque newly installed at the entrance to the permanent collection of painting and painting and sculpture, concerning the Museum’s obligation to engage in the conscientious, continuous and resolute distinction of quality from mediocrity.
The term ‘museum’, as an encompassing signifier, ‘must be granted the flexibility of a cloth that can be gather here, stretched there to accommodate a form whose mutations are linked to the changing character of capital, the state and public culture’.
- There were two fundamental aspects of what might be called ‘museum perception’
1 The temporal relation between viewer and object in the sense of the viewer’s perception of the time of the object.
2 The related issue of MOMA’s representation of itself, in particular the way the Museum building has evolved or ‘mutated’ as a signifier of the modern.
MOMA’s history can be divided into three periods.
3 Forever Modern
Beginning with the Museum’s opening in 1929 and petering out in the late 1950s. During this period MOMA constituted its history of modernism.
- Drawing upon then current aesthetic discourse, it subjected a heterogeneous set of materials to the systematizing and taxonomical procedures that characterize the museum as a culture institution.
- The division and classification of materials according to media and their further classification by styles through the application of aesthetic criteria.
A study of MOMA during the 1930s would reveal a process of experimentation, of trial and error out of which there emerged a complex modernist aesthetic construct based on Bauhaus architecture and design.
Writing on the culture logic of late capitalism, Fredric Jameson has argued that an artist’s resistance to one manifestation of capital can lead to an art of compensation.
- A Utopian gesture, the artist, in Jameson’s words, ‘ends up producing a whole new Utopian realm of the senses’. This Utopian move, while it represents an imaginative escape from the oppressive conditions of the present, is also unavoidably grounded in those same conditions. What appears as an escape from a particular stage of capital of ten anticipates a later, more advanced stage. This Utopian reflex may also apply to aesthetic constructs. It takes no special insight to see the MOMA of the 1930s projecting a resolution to the contradictions of its particular historical moment, and this resolution being precisely in terms of capitalism’s next stage of development.
- The unprecedented corporate expansion and modernization, through the application of advanced technology, of post-Second World War America.
- MOMA was far from alone in its anticipations of corporate modernization. The New York World’s Fair of 1939, for example, represents a popular version of a similar Utopian projection.
The most revealing feature of MOMA’s Utopianism was the new museum building itself. Designed by Philip and opened in the spring of 1939.
- The building functioned, as a unifying element that diminished or obscured the heterogeneity of the collections and the diversity of experiences on offer.
- The building also proved to be MOMA’s most representative artifact, not something it had collected but something it had deliberately created the most potent signifier of its Utopian aspirations.
- The building, with its clear, simple lines and polish surfaces directly contrasted. This type of contrasted was crucial to MOMA’s developing aesthetic.
The Museum interior was turned into antiseptic, laboratory-like spaces-enclosed, isolated, artificially illuminated and apparently neutral environments in which viewers could study works of art displayed as so many isolated specimens. Much has been made of the ‘intimacy’ of these gallery spaces. This ‘intimacy’ also produced its own sense of distance. This technologies space, the work acquired its Utopian aura.
The 1950s, the beginning of the second phase of MOMA’s history, was the Museum’s moment of vindication. Bauhaus-style architecture, which the Museum assiduously promoted, became a ubiquitous signifier of corporate modernity. ‘American century’ proved to be no Utopia Bauhaus modernism became Bauhaus monotony. The ‘new American painting’ was transformed almost overnight into a modernist academy. The 1950s marked MOMA’s highpoint as an institution and the beginning of its transformation. Utopia projection was replace by nostalgia for an outmoded Utopia-or rather, for the time when belief in a Utopian future was still credible. This longing for the past’s Utopia came to dominate MOMA’s practice as an institution.
The history of the permanent collection underscores the retrospective mood that during the 1950s began to take hold. Although the Museum began to build a collection during its early years, its collecting policy was deliberately limited. In effect, the Museum attempted to overcome the contradiction inherent in the idea of a museum of modern art by deaccessioning or selling to other museum works in its collection that were more than fifty years old.
- In the 1950s MOMA abandoned its original policy and focused more of its efforts on building and exhibiting a permanent collection.
- In the 1953 it did away with the fifty-year rule.
- Three years later it officially declared its intention of exhibiting a ‘permanent collection of masterworks’.
This decision led directly to the expansion of the Goodwin-Stone building.
Johnson’s handling of the expansion provides further evidence of MOMA’s growing attachment to its own past.
- Tripartite design thus produced a set of meaning about MOMA’s historical situation and the significance of its collections that quite precisely anticipated but also helped to determine all that viewers would encounter in the Museum itself.
MOMA’s choice of Cesar Pelli to carry out the 1980-4 renovation was far from fortuitous. In an interview given in 1981, just as work was getting underway, he acknowledged that his role was above all that of custodian of MOMA’s architectural heritage.
The Goodwin-Stone façade had been dwarfed by its neighbors on 53rd Street. It made a certain sense to preserve the façade or to create something on the same scale. The surrounding office buildings and especially the condominium tower, itself a part of the Museum’s fabric, intensified the contrast between past and present, between Utopian hopes frozen in the past, and the unfocused dynamism of the late-capitalist present.
Johnson’s 1964 renovation left the original lobby areas and the galleries on the second and third floors pretty much intact.
- Enlarge the lobby.
- Added his glasses-in atrium or garden hall.
Visitors to the post-Pelli MOMA pass from the street into the lobby and after paying admission proceed to the garden hall. Otherwise, having first entered the old Museum they then enter the Museum a second time, but this time it is in effect the new Museum they enter. Their progress through the building repeats this alternation between old and new, between the space of the present and the nostalgic space of MOMA’s past
MOMA’s garden hall or atrium is representative of an increasingly familiar from of public space, a space that is at once grandiose and overwhelming and yet barely legible.
The Museum’s exhibition spaces might be read as so many ‘inside’ to the atrium’s ‘outside’
- Inside and outside do not entirely fit the situation to cross the boundary from one to the other, to go.
Pelli’s design further distances MOMA’s past-a past that thus acquires an aura of unreality, a sense of being sealed-off as in a time capsule, since it is now experienced through the medium of the atrium’s present.
Wallach, Allan. “The Museum of Modern Art: The Part’s Future”. Art in Modern Culture:
An Anthology of Critical Texts. Eds. Franscina, Francis, and Jonathan Harris. London/
New York: Phaidon, 1992. Print.