In an article published a week ago by Jerry Saltz, he confessed that ‘midway through this excruciatingly verbose three-hour closed-door briefing about MoMA’s second major rebuilding in less than ten years, I felt my eyes tear up and my stomach turn. Meanwhile, the namesakes of the starchitecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, joined by MoMA director Glenn Lowry, whirred on about accessibility, flow, institutional interfacing with the city, connectivity, navigational legibility, surgical interventions, gestures of variation on the white cube and the black box (don’t ask), social and performative space, micro-galleries, auto-critique, and “a large new architecturally significant staircase.” The more I heard and saw, the sicker and sadder I got. Somewhere inside me, I heard myself saying my good-byes to MoMA. I thought, I have seen the best modern museum of my generation destroyed by madness’.
Then Jerry added: ‘It’s a lot like the last expansion plan. Only this one is even more snazzy, with a lot more glass — sorry, “transparency to the street “— and spaces designed primarily so people can look at other people looking at other people looking at people. There are some weird staggered floors where you can see one story from another through cutouts. In other words, the plan is basically pseudo-intellectual razzle-dazzle theatricality. The staircases and event spaces and open boxes seemingly intended to serve buzzy art forms reveal to me that DS+R are not museum designers. They should stick to tourist attractions and event architecture. How will it all end?’
In other words, in the place of the Folk Art Museum and as an alteration of Pei current space, DS+R will unveil in 2019, two 2,000-square-foot double-story glass boxes about which Saltz says: ‘They look like glass squash courts, one atop the other, and the front can be opened to the sidewalk. Don’t even think about MoMA’s permanent collection hanging on the walls here; nothing can. The slide I saw of the ground floor space showed Charles Ray’s Firetruck installed with its front end extending onto West 53rd Street — a weird choice, given that MoMA doesn’t own this work. DS+R call the space an “art bay,” I guess because that sounds better than “gallery” or “room.” It most closely resembles a Chelsea mega-gallery with a glass garage door that rolls up on warm days. My eyes are tearing up again as I write this’
The fact that ‘the upper cube room is going to be called the “gray box.” It was explained that it will be called this because — no kidding — it’s sort of a cross between “the traditional white cube and a black box.” It will be used for the same sort of stuff the downstairs one can, plus more performances and the like. DS+R and MoMA evidently love performance. They all kept reminding me that they have “a new performance curator.” There’s also going to be a long glass-fronted second-floor gallery on 53rd Street. I’ve seen a batch of these sorts of galleries before, and — except in architectural renderings and meetings where they seem to please trustees and board members — they never, ever work. They’re glorified corridors with one long wall. They encourage only cursory looking, or aimless people-watching’. End of Saltz’s remarks.
I think that Jerry’s article is very helpful to understand not only what is wrong about contemporary art but also about, what we could call, the New Criticism (that both he and I represent). I must admit that after reading his rather melancholic take on this issue I felt identified with it only to have the urge to quickly discard it. I felt sadness after hearing that the Folk Museum was going to be demolished. It is an amazing building and New York is all about its buildings so demolishing it is an extreme measure that should not happen but are we really surprised. Having this been the logic of New York financial post-modernism even while building it.
One thing surprised, however, when the plans for the demolition became public and was MOMA’s Director, Glenn Lowry’s rather imperial and tautological belligerence when dismissing those voices that wanted to keep the Folk Museum building. In that occasion, he said: ‘we are going to do what is most effective for our programs’. That is a hedge-fund way of talking and, of course, does not include risk or art. If Alfred Barr created MOMA, Glenn Lowry transformed MOMA into the epitomisation of Wall Street Finance late capitalism. I am not saying that this is right or wrong. I am just saying that it is what it is.
Both Jerry Saltz and I are, let me say it, Greenbergian ‘modernists’. We want objectual art and, if possible, painting to hang from the walls and sculpture to make us wander around. We believe in a kind of art that, if possible, does not include temporality or duration. We prefer to separate the public and the private, on one side; and the market from the art. Having said this, I am starting to believe that Jerry’s ‘melancholic’ tone is a one way ticket to nowhere. Maybe that is the reason why Saltz is becoming as theatrical as MOMA but in the other direction. Now he cries during his articles.
One way of overcoming this ‘melancholics’ versus ‘functionalists’ paradigm could be to start to understand the DNA of the world of art as something varied. In other words, we cannot blame MOMA for behaving like Merryl Lynch. In other words, MOMA has existed during the past fifty years through a glorification private patronage through fiscal deregulation and incentives, on one side, and, on the other, through that populistic idea according to which wealth should be measured through its visibility and the popularity that that visibility generates. Shall we think of the debates between Philippe de Montebello and Dianne Vreeland at the Metropolitan thirty years ago? Or how everybody thanks Anne Wintour to get involved with its Fashion Institute? What happens is that money and more specifically, the way that money circulates has made all of us lose the plot.
Renzo Piano, Pei and Norman Foster’s buildings function in more or less the same way. They are buildings where everybody can see everybody in order to check on their happiness but also, and most importantly, on their performance. The terms of the post-financial world is not about quality but about that very rhetorical and fake idea called ‘consumer satisfaction’. Therefore, the problem that Saltz has is not with MOMA but with America, in general. Don’t worry, I miss it too!
Having said that, I kind of like that Palazzo Spada-like trompe oeil vanishing point entrance that DS+R are projecting. The fact that MOMA is forgetting about its permanent collection in order to create space for performance art (which does not need it) takes us back to Clement Greenberg’s concerns that art was becoming mere spectacle. Well, the moment installations were accepted as mainstream art, Pandora box was opened and the boundaries that the artist had to deploy his ‘skill’ become very fluid and opportunistic. Soon, galleries started referring to their work as ‘concerned with notions of….’. After that nothing else really mattered but who had the check book.
Of course, this is a vicious circle in which patrons convince the rest of the community that they are the ones with the moral right to shape its culture while appearing as democratic’ and close to the people. What I find revealing, however, is that MOMA has become a caricature of itself by finding the need to expand in order to show ‘nothing’ (that is art performance or visitors watching other visitors). Why give walls to a museum if there is no intention to hang anything but watch other people watching us back. This is the Norman Foster syndrome.
A few months ago, in my Turner Prize review, I said, regarding the silly art of Tino Sehgal, that museums are becoming the place where ‘office workers’ go en masse to feel alone. In a society where people are afraid of people, museums fulfil the need to be around people without having to talk to them. The new MOMA is the monumental expression of the Facebook era where I can see everybody but no one can really see me. Art is just not there anymore and weeping (like Saltz) is not going to help. Like after any breakup, one must change or die. Just a thought.