MoMA’s Revisionism Is Piecemeal and Problem-Filled: Feminist Art Historian Maura Reilly on the Museum’s Rehang
October 31, 2019 - Artnews, Maura Reilly
During the 1990s, while pursuing my graduate art history degree at New York University, I worked in the Education Department of the Museum of Modern Art, where I led gallery tours of the museum’s permanent collection for the general public and occasionally VIPs. At that time, the permanent exhibition galleries, representing art produced from 1880 to the mid-1960s, were arranged to tell the “story” of modern art as conceived by founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., beginning with Monet and Cézanne, and then leading into Picasso, Futurism, Surrealism, and Jackson Pollock. According to Barr, “modern art” was a synchronic, linear progression of “isms” in which one (heterosexual, white) male “genius” from Europe or the U.S. influenced another who inevitably trumped or subverted his previous master, thereby producing an avant-garde progression. Barr’s story was so ingrained in the institution that it was never questioned as problematic. The fact that very few women, artists of color, and those not from Europe or North America—in other words, all “Other” artists—were not on display was not up for discussion. Indeed, I was dissuaded by my boss from cheekily offering a tour of “women artists in the collection” at a time when there were only eight on view.
By the turn of the 21st century, the relevance of mainstream modernism was being challenged and anti-chronology became all the rage. The Brooklyn Museum, the High Museum of Art, and the Denver Art Museum all rehung their collections according to subject instead of chronology, and a much-anticipated inaugural exhibition at Tate Modern presented the story of modern art through a thematic, genre-based presentation organized into categories (still life, landscape, nude, and history painting). Their display was non-hierarchical, non-centralizing, and inclusive, allowing for jarring juxtapositions like Henri Matisse hanging beside Marlene Dumas.
For its part, in 2000, MoMA organized three exhibitions with the goal of reinventing itself for a newly expanded building and positioning its collection as a sort of laboratory. Sound familiar? The three “MoMA2000” exhibitions were thematic, non-chronological, pluralistic, open-ended, and, at times, playful. As John Elderfield, then-chief curator at large, put it: “We’re not replacing one orthodoxy with another. We want to show that what was happening until now was an orthodoxy.”
But these postmodern modernist endeavors proved to be failed experiments when the rehangs at Tate and MoMA were almost universally criticized for their anti-chronological approach, which Hal Foster referred to as “a post-historical hodgepodge of disparate works placed together in lookalike groupings.” In response, the Tate re-installed its collection in a series of “hubs” and centralized works around four art-historical moments. MoMA also reverted to the mainstream modernist paradigm: In 2004, a newly expanded museum re-opened with a return to strict art historical “isms,” with the collection galleries installed almost exactly as they had been before “MoMA2000.” Only four percent of the works on display were by women, and even fewer were by non-white artists.
Photo Credit: The Museum of Modern Art, New York
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