MoMA Makes Its Choices, and They’re Not Pretty

This week I have the melancholy task of returning once again to the harlequinade called MoMA 2000 at the Museum of Modern Art. On my last visit to this ill-conceived museological entertainment, the full complement of the 24 separate exhibitions that are brought together under the rubric of Making Choices had not yet been completed. Now that all two dozen are finally installed, many of them adorned with snappy subtitles as pretentious as they are misleading-e.g., “The Raw and the Cooked,” “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor”- my misgivings about both the conception and the execution of this unfortunate project have only deepened.

Even its rubric, Making Choices , reveals itself to be something of a fraud, for the entire modus operandi governing this project is designed to relieve its organizers of the obligation to make hard critical decisions about what constitutes a significant artistic achievement and what does not. Instead of hard critical choices, we are offered a succession of those “new narratives”-in other words, theme shows-that are being touted as the latest substitute for critical connoiseurship in our museums of modern art. In these theme shows, questions of aesthetic quality are furloughed in favor of curatorial gamesmanship, and the rules of this new curatorial game seem to be compounded of facile rhetoric in the service of incongruous juxtaposition.

Thus, under the heading of “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor,” we are invited to ponder some alleged “parallel issues” that relate-or do not relate: what does it matter?-a Minimalist black-strip abstract painting by Frank Stella and the meticulously detailed dream imagery of a Surrealist painting by René Magritte. This is a game that tells us exactly nothing about either artist-nothing, that is, but that they are very different, which is perfectly obvious to anyone whose eyesight is not radically impaired.

When a similarly conceived exhibition recently opened at the new Tate Britain in London-MoMA’s partner in a for-profit

e-commerce enterprise offering a wide array of “art-related” objects and services-the English critic John Spurling characterized the result as looking like a “curators’ playschool.” Some of Mr. Spurling’s other observations are also worth noting for the light they cast on the kind of thinking that has also gone into the making of Making Choices .

“The old Tate on Milbank,” Mr. Spurling wrote, “has been rechristened Tate Britain and rehung as a dog’s-dinner of British art from all periods, mixed ‘n’ messed together by theme instead of date or context. The place might be better called IrriTate, softening up the customers for the opening of Tate Modern-InfuriTate?-in May.” This kind of “dog’s-dinner” of objects “mixed ‘n’ messed together by theme” is now the new orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic-an orthodoxy that is well on its way to becoming the museological equivalent of a computer virus.

Very few individual artists survive this “dog’s-dinner” treatment of the period (1920-1960) ostensibly under review in Making Choices . One of them is Jean Arp, another is the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and still another is Giorgio Morandi, all of whose works are allowed to be seen in small solo shows unmolested by absurd comparisons and jokey juxtapositions. It’s a pity that neither Joan Miró nor Walker Evans was accorded the same respect, though in the case of Evans’ photographs it hardly matters, since the Met’s retrospective of his work has given us a definitive account of his accomplishment.

The most debasing aspect of this Making Choices spectacle (debasing, that is, to the quality and integrity of the period’s finest accomplishments) is what might be called the Zeitgeist test, which seems to have been used to admit the entry of a vast number of minor-and in some cases really dismal-objects. Consider, as an egregious example, an odious little object called Love (1962), by Marisol, one of the minor camp-followers of the Pop Art movement in the l960’s. What Love offers up for our delectation is a recumbent plaster head of indeterminate sex sucking on a vertical Coca-Cola bottle-which is to say, a Pop Art joke about oral sex that may or may not be a snide reference to Andy Warhol.

Paulo Herkenhoff, the curator of “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor” section of Making Choices , writes of Love ‘s “horrifying eroticism,” but the only really horrifying thing about this object is that it has been deemed sufficiently significant to qualify for a place in this exhibition. We are also invited to believe that in Love , Marisol has-in common with Jacob Lawrence and sundry others-“taken on the issues of social space and oppression.” Exactly how Marisol’s parody depiction of oral sex is related to Jacob Lawrence’s narrative paintings of black history is anyone’s guess. So is the relation of either Marisol’s or Lawrence’s work to Frank Stella’s abstract painting called The Marriage of Reason and Squalor, II (1959), which gives this section of Making Choices its name.

When Mr. Stella first exhibited his black-strip Minimalist paintings in 1958 and 1959, he was adamant in discouraging extra-aesthetic interpretations of his work. As he later said in a 1964 interview in Art News : “All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion.… What you see is what you see.” That there might be “something there besides the paint on the canvas” was a notion he firmly rejected.

But in a “new narrative” show like “The Marriage of Reason and Squalor,” confusing “what you see” with imaginary extra-aesthetic scenarios is mandatory. And so this section of Making Choices is turned into a riot of interpretative legerdemain, with a wall text that aspires to link a number of its artists-among them, Mike Kelley and Jenny Holzer-with, of all writers, Dante.

I don’t recall if there is a special place reserved in Dante’s hell for perpetrators of this kind of intellectual violence. But if not, there ought to be. The Making Choices segment of MoMA 2000 is on view until Aug. 1, when it starts a staggered closing until Sept. 26.