The Museum of Modern Art is back, and bigger and better than ever. After a $450 million renovation while it remained open, followed by a four-month closure to completely rehang the collection and open new exhibitions, the museum looks and feels both brand new and reassuringly familiar. As one visitor commented, "I came looking for old friends, and found so many new ones." That was the whole idea.
The expansion did more than open new space; it also opened countless questions by regrouping, rethinking and reframing the story of art of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. While the architects were hammering out new spaces, curators were hammering out new perspectives and narratives, putting more work by women artists, artists of color and international artists on view. By doing so, they're helping to change the canon of art history.
"The thing about the canon is that it's not fixed in stone. It's an idea whose value lies in its ability to be contested and revised, and I think we want to open that canon up to a richer conversation," director Glenn Lowry said when I interviewed him in 2017, as the renovation was announced.
"There is an expansiveness and generosity to the perspective we're taking, which embraces not only the great works from the European and North American traditions that have always been part of our conversation, but we are also trying to ensure that that conversation includes a wider variety of voices ... So it's a combination of the expansiveness of the idea of modern art – that it is active across multiple geographies – and simultaneously the richness of the arguments within this unfolding history that are still being played out," he said. "Being more inclusive will ensure that a wider variety of artists whose work deserves to be seen, heard, and judged will be available for our public and our critics to see and think about."
A New Democracy of Media
Architecturally, you'll be surprised to find new galleries, one after another, where you don't remember them, as though they just magically appeared. There are now lots of ways to move through the museum, and lots of new things to see and ways to see them. Rather than separate areas for photography, painting, installation, sound and sculpture, all coexist in a new democracy of media.
Pay close attention to sight lines – the way things line up, how they look next to each other, lead to each other, or even partially obscure each other. The curators worked magic arranging objects to create visual delights, intellectual juxtapositions, and surprises. In one of the lobbies, Martin Puryear's sculpture "Verge," with oval white geometries, stands out against the dark marble stairs. A branching vertical form (like a Cupid's arrow in a Renaissance allegory) points directly to a Georgia O'Keeffe painting hanging nearby, making it unmissable and unforgettable.
Visual alchemy like this is everywhere. The rich carmine of Matisse's "Red Studio" appears also in the adjacent painting by African American artist Alma Woodsey Thomas, "Fiery Sunset," done decades later. By doing away with chronological arrangements, the curators have opened questions about the reach of artists' influence as well as about whose stories get told. Vladimir Baranoff-Rossiné's sculpture "Symphony Number 1" from 1913, with curves and angles painted in red, blue and stripes, greets you as you enter gallery 505. It looks great in front of Fernand Léger's "Exit the Ballets Russes" from 1914. One is familiar, the other completely new to me.
Van Gogh, Monet and Much More
The sixth floor has been given over to eleven installations. "Surrounds" opens with a bright, dense, rainbow-hued fiber work by Sheila Hicks; moves through several galleries filled with photographs, sculptures, sound and video; and ends with a complex piece by Sarah Sze. The fifth floor presents highlights from the collection from the 1880s-1940s, where Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" awaits, along with masterpieces of Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and more. Eventually, you'll find a resting spot in front of Monet's "Water Lilies."
On the fourth floor, the collection from the 1940s-1970s brings iconic works from Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Idea Art (the art formerly known as conceptual) and more. Look for "In and Around Harlem" with selections from Jacob Lawrence's "Migration Series," portraits by Alice Neel, and William H. Johnson's wonderful painting, "Children." "Rainforest V," a sound art/installation by David Tudor and Composers Inside Electronics Inc., is fun, surprising, and easy to get lost in.
One of the third floor exhibitions, "Sur moderno: Journeys of Abstraction," presents an extensive collection of South America at mid-century work, while contemporary art packs the second floor galleries. "Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window" is mystical and moving, and by the time you reach it, you've already seen Haegue Yang's "Handles," a wonderful special commission that fills the atrium with light, sound, shape, color, reflections and ebullient energy.
It's not the same MoMA you remember. It's so much more. It's not possible to see everything in one visit, nor is it meant to be. And get ready for more change, since a third of the collection will be rotated every six months. That means in year and a half, it'll all be new again. You'll find lots of information on MoMA's website.
"Our responsibility is to recognize that art is a great language. It's one that can build culture...You can come and experience a set of ideas and see works of art along with other people with different positions than you might have, and in the process forge a common sense of value." said Lowry. "It's never boring to be here."
IF YOU GO
What: Museum of Modern Art
Where: 11 West 53rd St.
When: Open seven days a week, 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Open Fridays until 9 p.m