Go People -Watching at MoMA! A Fine Show of Masterworks

The first thing to be said about the oddly named show called People , which is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art, is that it is not to be missed. This is the opening installment of the three-part Modern Starts (or, as the museum insists on printing it, “modern starts “) survey of the museum’s collections that will eventually consist of People , Places and Things –MoMA’s salute to the millennium. Notwithstanding some incidental gimmickry in this first segment and the infelicitous coinage of a rubric like Modern Starts , the exhibition itself is an almost unalloyed delight. For those already familiar with MoMA’s great collection of paintings and sculpture in the period under review here, 1880-1920, it offers some unfamiliar ways of looking at these masterpieces of modern figurative painting, drawing and sculpture in a sequence that is governed less by chronology or a consideration of art movements than by subject matter and perceived esthetic affinities. Since the focus here is on the esthetics of figurative art in early modernism, this first show might more accurately have been called Figures , but that is a minor matter. The show itself is full of wonderful things seen in unexpected configurations.

If only for the great hall in which we see Léger’s Three Women (1921), Matisse’s Piano Lesson (1916), Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Picabia’s I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie (1914) in such close and unfamiliar proximity, and then turn to see Matisse’s The Moroccans (1915-16) confronting Picasso’s Three Musicians (1921),this show would be an event. And then the visitor to People enters another great hall dominated by the sculpture of Rodin and Matisse, which is equally breathtaking.

To be sure, not all of the surprising juxtapositions of familiar works are equally successful. In the very first gallery, the use that is made of a big, bright abstract painting by Barnett Newman as a backdrop for Maillol’s highly dramatic female nude sculpture called The River (1938-43) is undoubtedly good theater, but it effectively reduces Newman’s painting to serving as stage décor, and the bogus claims that are made for Newman’s nonfigurative painting as somehow representing the “male” principle–because of those abstract vertical “zips”–doesn’t help matters much. On the other hand, one of the best things about this People show is its rehabilitation of Maillol as a major modern artist. He more than holds his own even in that extraordinary room dominated by Rodin and Matisse.

Another conspicuous failure of taste in this first segment of this Modern Starts survey is the side-by-side comparison it makes between Cézanne’s painting The Bather (circa 1885) and an utterly banal same-size color photograph of a youth in a bathing suit that was taken in the Ukraine in 1993. Such close confrontations between painting and photography rarely work to the advantage of the latter. In this exhibition, the photographs come off best when they are isolated in installations devoted solely to photography itself, for photography really is a separate universe of esthetic discourse. It was, in any case, rather cruel to pit this unremarkable photograph of the boy in the bathing suit against a Cézanne–and particularly this Cézanne.

Still, these are incidental irritations and disappointments in an exhibition that at almost every turn introduces us to unexpected pleasures. What might be called the structure of the exhibition–its division into sections ostensibly devoted to “Composing the Figure,” “Composing With the Figure,” “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space,” etc.–are not, I think, likely to engage the attention of most visitors. The purpose of these divisions is in any case more elaborately articulated in the accompanying catalogue of the show. What matters here is the quality of the works of art and the esthetic intelligence with which the curators of the exhibition have contrived to exhibit them in ways that cast new perspectives on that quality. It is in this respect that John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator at large, and his curatorial colleagues–Peter Reed, Maria del Carmen González and Mary Chan–have scored a considerable triumph.

Needless to say, they couldn’t have done it–at this esthetic level, anyway–if their predecessors at MoMA had not provided them with the single greatest collection of modern art in the world. It is for this reason that this exhibition is also another posthumous triumph for the founding directors and curators and patrons of MoMA. However much the structure of the People show may depart from the ways in which the founding director at MoMA, the late Alfred H. Barr Jr., used to show the permanent collection, Barr’s spirit still makes itself felt in the very quality of so many of the major works on view.

In this connection, I want to quote something I wrote about MoMA back in 1984 when the museum reopened after one of its periodic expansions.” ‘The Louvre,’ wrote Cézanne, ‘is the book in which we learn to read.’ For a great many artists, as for a great many art critics, scholars, collectors, curators and dealers, and for its ever-expanding public, too, MoMA has long been the principal ‘book’ in which we have learned to ‘read’ the history of modern art. It has in this sense come closer than any other institution in the world to serving as the Louvre of modernism, and it is in this spirit that the installation of the permanent collections has been carried out in the new MoMA.”

I think the same can be said today of the People exhibition, whatever its incidental flaws may be, and I look forward to the forthcoming Places and Things segments of this Modern Starts survey, however much I deplore such mangling of the language. Whether MoMA can sustain this level of quality in the future in the absence of a visionary leader like Alfred Barr remains to be seen. But it is mainly for what they tell us about the past that museums are most valuable to us, and it is for its view of the past that People is a resounding success.

The Places segment of Modern Starts opens on Oct. 28, and Things on Nov. 21, with all three parts remaining on view at MoMA through Feb. 1, 2000.