The stories we choose to tell: “Fall Reveal” at MoMA

Carolee Schneemann, Four Fur Cutting Boards, 1962-63

Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / The Museum of Modern Art’s “Fall Reveal” marks the second phase of the museum’s re-telling of the story of Modern Art (the first phase opened in October, 2019), and there are big changes. First, with its $450 million expansion adding 47,000 feet of exhibition space, this new MoMA is a veritable behemoth of modernism. An entire third of the collection galleries display new or rarely seen works from the collection alongside familiar works. In addition, MoMA no longer treats painting and sculpture as aesthetic royalty, instead mixing them together with photography, design, and sound and video art (the mediums are still indicated on the labels). With its many passageways in and out of galleries, there’s a wide-openness that beckons visitors to meander as they see fit. Finally, the museum will now continually shuffle – about every six months – what’s in the galleries; those of us used to dropping in to MoMA to see favorite works might have a problem locating them.

“Everyday Encounters” installation with Jasper Johns Flag on left
“Around Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” installation. On right: Faith Ringgold American People Series #20: Die, 1967

MoMA’s new iteration basically says that those artists usually regarded as “masters” of modern art are no more worthy than a slew of other contenders. Although it puts a halo on Jackson Pollock’s No. 31 (1950), and continues to pay homage to Monet’s waterlilies by keeping them in what amounts to their own chapel, such iconic works as Picasso’s Desmoiselles (1907) and Jasper Johns’s Flag (1957), are presented without particular specialness: they’re merely paintings hanging there along with hundreds of other paintings, and it’s up to us to decide if they’re especially significant.

“Action Painting” installation with Jackson Pollock’s No. 31 (1950) at center, flanked by Clifford Still (left) and Franz Kline (right)

Make no mistake: “Fall Reveal” presents a wonderful array of art most of us have never seen before – much of it by women, artists of color, and artists from non-Western cultures. But because the overhaul is overwhelming, taking it all in is daunting.

“Touching the Void” installation
“Ornament and Abstraction” installation
“Circle and Square Joaquin Torres-Garcia and Piet Mondrian,” installation
“Assembly,” installation
“According to the Laws of Chance,” installation

The pre-2019 MoMA told a story of modern art involving characters who were mostly white males of European descent, but its virtue was a clarity of plot. It presented an intelligible march of “isms” – Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptualism – and, of course, that pesky non-ism, Pop Art . That it short-shrifted women, people of color, and non-Western artists didn’t make the old story wrong so much as it rendered it woefully incomplete.

“Paris 1920s,” installation

The new MoMA tale holds tenuously to chronology – that is, if one begins on the fifth floor (1880s-1940s), works down to the fourth (1940-1970) and then descends to the second (1970-present). The galleries are organized, however, by themes – explained by didactic material on the walls – instead of by quasi-chronological eras or “movements.” Examples include “Circle and Square, Joaquin Torres-Garcia and Piet Mondrian,” “Domestic Disruption,” “The Sum of All Parts.” While the art in the galleries makes some themes coherent, at times one longs for a degree in the Semiotics of Random Connections, or better yet, a stiff drink with the curators who concocted the titles.

Here’s an example: Gallery 408 is called “Everyday Encounters.” Johns’s  Flag (1954), Robert Rauschenberg’s Rebus (1955), and two works by Claes Oldenburg from the early sixties all refer to everyday things. But why on earth are they in the same gallery with Shomei Tomatsu’s photographs of occupied Japan (1961), Lee Bontecue’s abstract Untitled (1961), with its scary hole in the middle of welded steel with canvas, fabric, rawhide, copper wire and soot, and Carolee Schneeman’s photographs of herself with snakes crawling over her naked body (1963)? Meanwhile, the gallery is filled with sound coming from the jazzman Cecil Taylor’s video, Les Grandes Répétitions. As the comedian Eddie Izzard said about gathering Easter bunnies, chocolate eggs and the crucifixion at Easter, “You tell me.”

Gerhard Richter
Carrie Mae Weems, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” installation view

Several standalone galleries do leave a positive impression. Gerhard Richter’s installation, titled “October 18, 1977” (1988), of fifteen blurry paintings of the Baader-Meinhof Gang stops you in your tracks. Another contrasts photographs by Gordon Parks along with photojournalists pictures of criminals and crime scenes that drive home Park’s empathy for his subjects.

On the second floor are two excellent monographic exhibitions: The first is Carrie Mae Weems’s “From Here I saw What Happened and I Cried,” an installation of 19th-century photographs of African-American slaves, overlaid with her own words and bookended by images of a royal Mangbetu woman in profile whose gaze seems riveted on them. 

Cao Fei, installation view

Whose Utopia, a 2006 video by Cao Fei that’s set in a light bulb factory in China, is the last work in “Fall Reveal” before you exit to the first floor. The 20-minute video is fascinating in the way it’s part documentary and part aesthetic exploration. Because the artist invited factory workers to participate in the video in their own imaginative ways, as well as got them to just plain stare at her, we see them as individual persons rather than semi-robots.

This new MoMA is far more inclusive, and more just to the global breadth and depth of modern art. The unavoidable downside of MoMA’s revisionism is that as it works to include ever more artists in the story of modern art, what it chooses to tell obliterates what it chooses not to tell. This, after all, is how words – and museums – work.

“Fall Reveal,” Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St. New York, NY. Opened November 14, 2020.

About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University. Based in New York City and Lakeville, Connecticut, she is currently working on a new series of abstract paintings.

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