They've re-hung the whole Museum of Modern Art, and they've done a lilting job of it.
The notes are much the same. MoMA is still MoMA. It's still got the ringing objects, van Gogh's spinning "Starry Night," the "Balzac" of Rodin, boulderlike and bronze, and the fur-lined teacup, too, all of those Picassos, and all of those Matisses--a fabulous collection, Francophilic and canonical, that no other place can match. The loveliest young women, dressed in somber New York black like Sarah Lawrence girls of old, still move among its objects pondering the images, famous then as now, that taught us modern art.
But the mental music's different now. In the three-part "ModernStarts," its first millennial re-hanging, old rigors have dissolved.
Free and partial melodies now wind through the galleries where once the isms marched.
Impressionism, post-impressionism, fauvism and cubism, Dada and surrealism, and expressionism and constructivism once followed one another there in regulated ranks striding toward the certain Triumph of Abstraction. Not anymore. The three new installations--"People," "Places," "Things"--have been designed to lead the mind to freer forms of thought.
"Two Nudes" (1910) by Marcel Duchamp and Picasso's 1907 "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" now are hung together in the "People" section not because one painter is a proto-cubist and the other a conceptualist, but because a nude's a nude, an older truth that guides the memory backward to the pinknesses of Fragonard and Boucher and forward to the body of Brigitte Bardot. Henri Rousseau's "The Sleeping Gypsy," with its full moon and its lute and its gently sniffing lion, and Paul Gauguin's Tahitian "The Seed of the Areoi" are similarly dream-linked by their reveries of exotic far-off lands.
Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" and Edvard Munch's "Two Women on the Shore" have been similarly partnered in the "Places" exhibition--not because of style--one is swirly, the other jagged--and not because of medium--one's an oil, one's a woodcut--but because they share an outdoor mood of melancholy awe.
With the century near over, perhaps the time has come to reevaluate the modern. The Museum of Modern Art, accepting that assignment while mining its collection, is responding by completely re-hanging all its galleries three times. "ModernStarts," the first reinstallation, which mostly deals with the period 1880-1920, is currently on view. The second, "Making Choices," which will explore the years 1920-1960, will open March 16. The third, called "Open Ends," which will run through 2001, will focus on the art made since 1960 and, at least ostensibly, bring us up to date.
The beginning is most promising. "ModernStarts" is a treat. John Elderfield and Peter Reed, the curators most responsible, well know their collection. Its famous white-box galleries, though boxlike as they've always been, are no longer white. They've been painted in warm colors. The viewer has been invited to wander every which way. As soon as one begins the trip, one is enmeshed in a loosely woven tapestry--of chestnuts and surprises and many, many photographs, of inexpensive Paris neighborhoods and cafes and guitars, of battlefield gore, and utopian aspirations, and monumental bronzes, and fabulous Cezannes.
The Museum of Modern Art used to be installed as if it were an arrow. It's now more of a web.
By the time I got past "People" and "Places" to "Things," which went on view last week, I was open to the inklings, the little recognitions, whose ignition is the central purpose of the show, and they soon enough arrived.
You could think about the shine of industrial technologies, or the meanings of guitars, or the way that Lucian Bernhard's ads of 90 years ago pointed art toward Warhol, for such thoughts are invited by things on view in "Things." You might consider how modernity changed the look of chairs, or changed the ways that painters painted still lifes upon tabletops, for such notions are suggested in this open-minded show. Instead I found myself distracted (distraction is okay here) by two Old Modern prophecies, one of them amazingly, scarily correct, the other unfulfilled.
Kazimir Malevich's "Suprematist Composition: White on White" (1918) is an icon of the modern. It might have been in "Places," for its white and perfect square on a perfectly white field is like an abstract view of Heaven, and it might have been in "People," for that square all-by-itself has the presence of a portrait, but here it's hung in "Things," a placement that suggests the numinous connection of pure object and pure thought.
Eighty years ago, when Piet Mondrian first showed his grids--one of which is hanging in the "Things" part of the show--the bafflement was general. His set of ruled-out rectangles looked nothing like a picture then, for pictures were supposed to be depictions of the look of things, but it's sure a picture now. It is as if the painter had peered into the future and glimpsed the world to come.
My world is thick with grids. I am tapping out these letters on a keyboard that's a grid, and the touch pad on my telephone is also rectangular, and so, too, are the white acoustic tiles overhead, and the windows of the newsroom, and the facades of the buildings lined up across the street. Mondrian believed the grid to be a thing as telling as a table or a tree, and Mondrian was right. My landscape's made of grids.
But things have lost their magic. The artists represented in the "Things" exhibition, Cezanne and Picasso and Duchamp and the rest of them, never saw it coming, but the things that they believed in so, and made with such attention, have been drained of their old power. Things have become stuff.
I'm sick of stuff. Every day the shiny-bright mail-order catalogues pour into my mailbox offering me objects that I know I do not need, and every day green garbage bags crammed with stuff I do not want get carried to the dump. I'm drowning in stuff. Enough, already!
This shudder of repulsion is a truly modern thought.
One autumn day in 1912--when things were still thought capable of crystallizing truth--three of this exhibit's most prophetic artists, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, the painter Fernand Leger and smart Marcel Duchamp, together paid a visit to the Paris Salon of Aerial Locomotion. There they saw a ship's brass propeller--three-lobed, shiny, perfect--hanging on the wall.
A brass propeller like it, a gift to the museum from its manufacturer, the Sullivan Shipyard Inc., is hanging in this show.
The three great modern artists stared at it together. Finally one spoke. "Painting is finished," pronounced Duchamp. "Who can do better than that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?"
In those days things still mattered. They still retained their rarity. They do not anymore.
When Cezanne made still lifes early in our century, he kept painting the same ginger jar. He kept painting it, I bet, because he didn't have a lot of things--except a napkin and his apples and a pitcher and that ginger jar--to arrange within his still life. Today we have refrigerators and keep our apples out of sight. Today we take our jars and put them into garbage bags and send them out the door.
The things on view in "Things" range all the way from the straightforwardly industrial (say, those bright ball bearings) to the fully useful (a Peter Behrens table fan, circa 1908) to the disturbingly mysterious (say, Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup or Man Ray's pressing iron, with tacks glued to its face). Different though they are, all these varied objects broadcast an old confidence, a confidence now faded. Their makers still believed in the preciousness of things.
I still recall my father, a believer in the Bauhaus, complaining in the 1940s that you couldn't find a tumbler in a Woolworth or a Kresge in the city of Chicago that didn't have a tacky rose silk-screened onto the glass. The thought that clean design might some day become cheap, and commonly accessible, in those days before Target and Ikea, seemed utopian. And no museum in America pursued that goal more fervently than the Museum of Modern Art.
It was MoMA that first dared to show its simple, useful objects--a Thonet bentwood chair, an Olivetti portable typewriter, a black Movado wristwatch without numbers on its face--among its great Cezannes.
Cezannes are still beautiful. But good design is nowadays Crate&Barrel common, and Olivetti portables have degraded into stuff.
And MoMA seems to know it. Instead of one exemplary paragon of wristwatchness, with a black face and no numbers, it now sells 40 kinds at its 53d Street gift shop. That MoMA's certainties of taste have withered with the century, that diversities of thought have there become acceptable, may be what's most suggestive in this suggestive show.
The "People" part of "ModernStarts" closes Feb. 1. The "Things" and "Places" segments run through March 14.