Storr Raids the Icebox at Bumpy MoMA 2000 Show

Museumgoers, fasten your seat belts! Get out the Dramamine, follow a light diet, and prepare for moments of dizziness and revulsion. For with the opening of Part 1 of “Making Choices,” the second cycle of the MoMA 2000 exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, you are in for a very bumpy ride. And there are more bumps, gyrations, digressions, free falls and what Robert Storr, one of the curators of the bizarre exercise in incoherence, calls “Typologies & Twists ” on the road ahead.

This second cycle of MoMA 2000 , which officially concentrates on the years 1920-1960 but actually includes work produced as recently as the 1990′s, consists not of one exhibition but of 24 separate shows, some of which are mercifully devoted to a single subject (“Man Ray, Photographer,” “Art Is Arp”) while others seem to have evolved into sheer topsy-turviness (“Walker Evans & Company,” “The Dream of Utopia/Utopia of the Dream,” “War”). We had been warned, of course, that the museum would be testing out a program of “new narratives” in its MoMA 2000 exhibition series as a prelude to a radical reorganization of its future installation of the permanent collection. What we had not been foretold was that these “new narratives” would sometimes treat the history of modern art as a series of journeys into outer space. Not real outer space, of course. Only some odd and arbitrary curatorial simulacra of that unbounded universe.

Yet, as everyone who has ever studied the subject knows, the history of modern art is not an unbounded universe. Like every other chapter of recorded history, it has had its highs and its lows, its successes and its failures, its glories and its inglorious descents. Moreover, it was once thought to be one of the primary functions of a museum devoted to this subject to distinguish between high achievement and its absence. But that is an intellectual aspiration that our museums of modern art have now abandoned. It’s considered too elitist, too hierarchical, too mandarin to satisfy the institutional need to accommodate the current rage for diversity in all matters pertaining to art and culture. So the great and the mediocre, the high and the low, the inspired and the indifferent, must all be given historical parity regardless of their sometimes gross esthetic disparities.

One of the rubrics under which this venture in esthetic disparity has been organized is “Modern Art Despite Modernism,” the title that Robert Storr has given to both the first shows we see on the second floor at MoMA and to one of the oversize catalogues accompanying the 24 “Making Choices” installations. (There are three outsize catalogues in all.) In his essay, “Typologies & Twists ,” for the Modern Art Despite Modernism volume, Mr. Storr is admirably candid about what he has set out to do both in his essay and in the exhibitions themselves, which, as he says, “On the one hand … constitute a brief for lost, forgotten, or perennially unfashionable esthetic causes [and] on the other hand … are a census of the art that has been found wanting by the avant-garde in periods of its greatest dominance.”

His model for this retrieval project is, alas, Andy Warhol. “‘Raiding the icebox,’ Andy Warhol called such retrieval when in 1970 he chose an exhibition out of the storage bins of the museum at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence,” Mr. Storr writes. He characterizes “Raiding the icebox” as “a felicitous turn of phrase, since it linked taste and appetite with opportunity.” Whether or not one agrees with that characterization, “Raiding the icebox” would indeed have been an apt title for Mr. Storr’s own contributions of “Making Choices,” though “Raiding the Morgue” might be even better.

What he doesn’t tell us about Warhol’s project at the Rhode Island School of Design is that it was mainly devoted to disinterring the corpses of 19th-century Salon painting, which were thought by Warhol–correctly, by the way–to serve as an oblique justification of the superficialities of the then regnant Pop Art movement. In Mr. Storr’s project of retrieving a lot of third- and fourth-rate representational painting from the storage bins at MoMA for his “Modern Art Despite Modernism” and “War” displays, he has thus been all too faithful to the spirit of Warhol’s enterprise.

The “War” section, by the way, is certainly the worst of the shows already up in “Making Choices.” If one didn’t know better, one would have to believe, on the evidence of most of what we see in the “War” show, that the really bad thing about the terrible wars that were waged in the last century was the quantity of inferior art they inspired. If not for Picasso’s The Charnel House (1944-5), the “War” show would hardly be worth seeing at all.

Mr. Storr is at considerable pains to distinguish between modernism, on the one hand, and modern art, on the other–which strikes me as a dubious distinction. But his argument for that distinction remains moot, in any case, for what all of “Making Choices” is really about isn’t either modernism or modern art but something else–the history of the Museum of Modern Art itself, as Mr. Storr himself acknowledges. It is what he terms “the Museum of Modern Art’s pattern of collecting” that is the focus of this second cycle of MoMA 2000 , and it is in this respect, I suppose, that it can be taken to be a preview of the future installation of the museum’s permanent collection.

“At the time of its acquisition,” Mr. Storr writes, “each item was not only thought to have intrinsic merit but was understood to embody something essential to the global understanding of the art of the day, and each was an educated guess about what would last.” And if many of these guesses over the last 70 years turn out to have been mistaken? Never mind. They are not to be discriminated against on that account. Elitist ideas about high achievement must be resisted: That is the new museological orthodoxy. We saw much the same de-estheticized approach to the problem of quality in the benighted American Century exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, and it is even more dispiriting to see MoMA succumb to a similar abandonment of standards–for we still somehow expect more from MoMA than we expect from the Whitney, if only because of their respective histories.

I will have more to say about specific works and some of the other shows that make up “Making Choices”–as well as the rhetorical overkill to be found in some of the thematic titles assigned to the shows themselves–when this second phase of MoMA 2000 can be seen in its entirety. Part 2 opens on March 30, and Part 3 on April 30, with a movie segment scheduled to begin on May 5. For the moment ,it remains to point out that the antiformalist bias already evident in Modern Starts , the first phase of MoMA 2000 , has again been elevated to an absolutein”Making Choices,” where a cacophony of messages is once again given priority over the primacy of the artist’s medium. The history of abstract art, though better represented here than in modern starts, is again marginalized as an adjunct to other historical currents. Given the emphasis on subject matter, some people may even prefer to consult the extensive, well-illustrated catalogues of “Making Choices,” instead of seeing the exhibition itself–unless, of course, they happen to be among the peculiar souls who are still interested in the esthetic character of the object the artist has created.

Finally, I must acknowledge that early in his essay on “Typologies and Twists ,” Mr. Storr points to me as one of the voices of “pessimism” on the current art scene. I am said to be one of the critics who “dislike what modernism has become.” He’s right, of course. I am pessimistic about the current prospects of modernist art, and I do “dislike what modernism has become.” And the intellectual legerdemain that governs this latest phase of MoMA 2000 does nothing to persuade me otherwise.

On the contrary, what I have seen so far of MoMA 2000 only deepens my pessimism not only about the future of modernism but about the future of the Museum of Modern Art. If this phase of MoMA 2000 really is a preview of coming attractions in the new, greatly expanded MoMA of the future, then what is to be expected from both modernism and the museum in the years ahead looks pretty grim. I hope I am wrong about this, and it will in any case be up to the artists–not the museum or the critics–to determine the future of art, modernist or otherwise. But if we are to have an art of high achievement in the future, it may have to look to some other institution or venue to bring its accomplishments to the public. On the basis of its current policies and priorities, it looks very much as if MoMA is well on its way to becoming for the art of the future what the Academies were for the avant-gardes of the past: a spur to secession and independence.