Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

"New" Museum of Modern (Contemporary) Art
Rebecca Lane

When I visited the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York for the first time since its reopening last June, I arrived with the excitement of revisiting old friends. Trips to the temporary MoMA Queens had invariably rung hollow, especially after becoming attached to the collection in its old midtown home. The reinstallation of the collection’s highlights in Long Island City felt makeshift and forced despite the confident claims to freshness of display that were promoted by both the museum and the press. On some level, I hoped that with the museum’s reopening it would return to the same old Modern I had so briefly come to know when I commenced graduate studies in New York only months prior to its 2001 closure.

I wanted it to resonate “Modern,” the last line of defence along a historical border that had already become more than fluid—terribly unfashionable, but that was precisely the point, for me anyway. It was only during my second visit this June that I realized why the museum’s initial closure had felt like such an overwhelming loss, for only now have the reasons begun to appear in sharp, albeit negative relief.

The dissolution of the museum’s “modernity” began with the collection’s selective presentation and haphazard spatial organization in Queens and continued with the fragmentation of the MoMA’s (most recent) conception of its unique role within the history of modern art. Any lingering traces of dissent over the role the “New” Museum of Modern Art1 seeks to play have more or less been absorbed into the sumptuous design of its site, the slickness of its current self-promotion materials, and even more tellingly, into the organization of its holdings and exhibitions.2

Of course, the MoMA is no stranger to reinvention, and as Mary Anne Staniszewski’s compelling recent history of the museum’s exhibition installations attests, it is a self-imposed amnesia to its own cultural history that has largely driven the course taken by the Modern throughout its existence. This has particularly been the case since the late 1960s and 1970s, a period of great threat to the institution’s relevance as institution in relation to the contemporary art world.3 “The paradox of the contemporary aesthetic apparatus” Staniszewski reminds us, “is that it allows the Museum to appear engaged with complex ideological issues while the institution—on a deep structural level—remains utterly impervious.“4 While the MoMA seems determined to push beyond the political confrontation of these decades, both social and artistic, it is still the 1970s in particular that the MoMA seems most preoccupied and at odds with today. As we learn from former chief curator of architecture and design Terence Riley in a recent Museum publication, the MoMA’s curators began to realize in the 1970s “some of the failings of the Museum”—“the circulation through the galleries had become increasingly linear, with long stretches in which the visitor had neither a reorienting vista nor any option other than simply to forge ahead in a long sequence of spaces.” With Yoshio Taniguchi’s synthesis of the disparate elements of the Museum’s overgrown building complex, a series of labyrinthine galleries elegantly connected architecturally into a “unified whole” has emerged, instituting a physical amnesia for how one used to conceive of the MoMA’s linear modernist project by way of the physical arrangement of its collection within space.5

A similar rejection of what we might call an accretion of historical time and its progression within the MoMA’s mandate and one’s experience of its collection emerges in current director Glenn D. Lowry’s contribution to the same publication. Instead of eschewing spatial limitations, Lowry would like us to overlook any temporal constraints upon the designation “modern” to which the Museum also lays claim: “the desire to provide a detailed but clearly intelligible history of modern art structures everything [the MoMA] does. But this desire is tempered by the reality—long recognized by the Museum—that it can never achieve this goal in any enduring way, since modern art is still unfolding and its history is still being written.6 While such an eschatological conception of the Museum and modernism might cause us to pause with more than a slight degree of dismay, Lowry swiftly assures us that “The Museum of Modern Art is constantly revising the narrative of its own history.... This is a collective process of interlocking dialogues and narratives played out over a theoretically infinite number of lifetimes.“7 If nothing else, we should be reassured that while the MoMA’s ignorance of its cultural history may well be unshakable, its ability to instrumentalize this ignorance, perpetuating its cultural legitimacy ad infinitum, is truly astounding.

Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, by the current exhibition Douglas Gordon: Timeline, a “mid-career retrospective” of the artist’s work that attempts to resituate contemporary video art with its roots in the utopic and collectivist impulses of the 1970s, but without any significant affiliation with the fraught politics of that same decade. The show’s premise seems to stem largely from PS1 curator Klaus Biesenbach’s claim to be able to pinpoint precisely the “midpoint” of an artist’s lifespan, and perhaps more importantly, to insist that one which began in the mid-1960s as Gordon’s does, serves as a natural basis for a collective “history” with which we, as a viewing public, should more or less be able to overlap.8 The content and installation of the works on view, however, obscure any historical or collective impulses the exhibition and its curator would like to harness. Biesenbach deftly weaves together a conversation between pieces and across gallery spaces via sound or sight, while also playing with the differing scales and varieties of screens and television monitors for which Gordon’s work is well known. The installation is clean and seductive, and it is difficult not to appreciate Timeline on this level alone, and yet this is also precisely why it becomes so easy to overlook the implications of its presence at the MoMA in its current context. It is the quality of the installation and the selection of works that best complement the architectural sensibility of the “New” MoMA that makes this exhibition stand out, and not the rigor of its “historical” project within this institution.

A particularly evocative portion of the exhibition links the poignant strains of Bernard Hermann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)—here serving as the subject and soundtrack for Gordon’s Feature Film (1999), a triptych video installation presenting the music as physical motion in the hands of the conductor of the Paris National Opera—with the silent dance of a trained elephant in the piece Play Dead; Real Time (2003) in the next gallery. The latter installation, in which Gordon’s camera pans around a trained elephant instructed to “play dead” within the Gagosian Gallery, takes on a heightened melancholy and futility when infused with the aching melodies of ill-fated love and deception of Hermann’s score spilling over from the adjacent gallery.

Only upon looking back and away from Play Dead; Real Time in response to the musical score and its lingering effects, does one notice Film Noir (Perspire) (1995), a single monitor in the corner of the first gallery pointed towards the second, and then make the visual connection between its claustrophobic view of a man sweating from anxiety, and the likely, but unseen trauma of Play Dead’s elephant, perpetually pretending to collapse and expire for Gordon’s camera. The visual conversation drawn out between these two works by Biesenbach helps create a dynamic viewing process full of discovery and wonder, but only insofar as one overlooks the lack of critical content within Timeline’s organization.

Such cross-narratives made it easy to be seduced by the slickness of Gordon’s work. But there were also instances in which the conceptual extremity of the works’ execution revealed themselves, along with the hermetic, contrived nature of Gordon’s popular media based practice. Biesenbach’s isolation of Left Is Right and Right Is Wrong and Left Is Wrong and Right Is Right (1999) and 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which served as the entry piece to the show, demonstrate how acutely sensitive we are to media disruptions, whether it be altering the temporal sequence and audio track of a film in the case of the former, or stretching its temporality to the point of its dissolution in the latter. Biesenbach would like us to accept such interferences as points of access into a collective historical unconscious of media, but our sensitivity to Gordon’s interventions more often make the work simply unbearable to view.

The exhibition’s catalogue, in like fashion, is filled mostly with historical photographs selected by Gordon, one for each year of his life, rather than adequate discussions of his practice or critical interpretations other than Biesenbach’s own very personal and scattered musings on the artist’s career. Both formats contained in the catalogue are terribly heavy handed, especially since each attempts to impose a view of contemporary history upon the viewer/reader by way of “personal” artistic and curatorial practice, and banks upon our acceptance of such impositions as an appropriate means to historicize art.

For all its metanarratives and elegant installations, the deeper resonance of Timeline comes with its selection as the first retrospective of a contemporary media artist held at the MoMA since its reopening. The exhibition so neatly insinuates itself into the galleries of the Modern that it is difficult to imagine Biesenbach’s handling of such readily accessible video installations as Gordon’s on his home turf as chief curator at the PS1 Contemporary Art Center which these days looks more like a deserted ruin than the revitalized spatial appropriation it has been in years past. The cleanness of the insertion of the Gordon exhibition, in addition to Against the Grain: Contemporary Art from the Edward R. Broida Collection, also on view in the MoMA’s newly configured galleries, reveals what actually underlies director Lowry’s earlier interpretation of modernism’s drive to erase history as it facilitates its archivization: an institutional campaign to fold the “contemporary” into the “modern” so seamlessly that the Museum of Modern Art will soon forget the distinctions and gravity it once accorded to each—conceptually and spatially—in order to reconsolidate anew a different kind of stronghold in the path of history’s accelerating advance.

  1. A publication produced by the museum in 2005 boldly refers to itself as “The New Museum of Modern Art,” where “New” appears in a subtler, non-bold version of the trademark MoMA Gothic font, itself a negative relief in typeface of the larger process described within the text of not only the building project, but also the conceptual “renovation” the museum has undergone. See Glenn D. Lowry, The New Museum of Modern Art, with an essay by Terence Riley (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2005).
  2. Initial criticism of Yoshio Taniguchi’s renovation and expansion of the MoMA’s site concerned its structures and interior spaces. Many reviewers argued that the museum’s main atrium space reeked of corporate capital and its vested interests, and that its now $20 USD ticket prices were outrageously high and contrary to the museum’s mandate as a “laboratory” and educational institution. The current installation of the permanent collection is stored away in the equivalent of the museum’s top “attic” floors (my father’s astute observation of the impact of viewing these works, so segregated historically from the contents of the lower floors) to make way for its “contemporary” holdings and rotating exhibitions; or, in one glaring example of the change in installation priorities, is the current hanging of Henri Matisse’s Dance (I) (1909) in a secondary stairwell, decidedly tucked away, despite the “non-linearity” of the galleries’ present organization.
  3. Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998), 307.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Terence, Riley, “The New Museum of Modern Art” by Yoshio Taniguchi,” in The New Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2005), 38, 51–53. Emphasis added.
  6. Lowry, 10. Emphasis added.
  7. Ibid., 15.
  8. Klaus Biesenbach, Douglas Gordon: Timeline (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2006).

Image: Douglas Gordon, Play Dead; Real Time, 2003. Video installation with two screens, monitor, and colour video, 21 min. loop and 11 min. loop, dimensions variable.

About the Author

Rebecca Lane is a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of British Columbia. Her doctoral research concerns the state of abstraction as artistic and materialist discourse in relation to radical leftist political praxis after 1968 in Europe and the United States, and its subsequent impact upon contemporary histories of modernism and art criticism.

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