The Way MoMA 2000 Ends: No Bang, Big Whimper

As I was walking through the various subdivisions of Open Ends the other day, trying to find something worth looking at, what came to mind again and again were those once-famous lines from T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men”:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

Open Ends is the hapless title that has been conferred upon the third and final installation of MoMA2000 , the cycle of exhibitions organized by the Museum of Modern Art supposedly to mark the millennium. Like the two earlier installations called Modern Starts and Making Choices , however, Open Ends is really a show about MoMA itself–about its collections, its current leadership, and the postmodern ideas that now shape its policies and even its language.

As an account of current curatorial thought at MoMA, Open Ends does have an undoubted historical interest, for it brings to completion a project very dear to the hearts and minds of the museum’s current curatorial cadre: the de-aestheticization of the museum’s policies and programs. Aesthetic judgments have now been abandoned in favor of sociological classification at MoMA, and to assist in this transformation the museum has established a department of Writing Services, which may or may not account for the unfortunate Open Ends title itself, already a subject of much ribald humor.

For the moment, to be sure, we are seeing only the opening segments of Open Ends , with a succession of separate shows called Architecture Hot and Cold , Innocence and Experience , Matter , One Thing After Another , Pop and After and The Lost Childhood . Still to come are Actual Size and Sets and Situations (both opening Oct. 19), and Counter-Monuments and Memory , Minimalism and After , The Path of Resistance and White Spectrum (all opening Nov. 5). You can see that MoMA’s Writing Services staff has certainly been kept busy.

Then, too, there are the “Independent Large-Scale Works & Installations” and the “Garden Hall Commissions”. Of the four large-scale items currently on view, two are well known: Barnett Newman’s sculpture called Broken Obelisk (1963-69) and James Rosenquist’s Pop mural called F-111 (1964-65). The latter serves the same wallpaper function at the entrance to the museum’s second-floor galleries as Sol Lewitt’s wall drawing served for the entrance to Modern Starts: People . There is also a disgusting film by Pipilotti Rist called Ever Is Over All (1997), which depicts (among other things) a well-dressed young woman smashing the windows of cars parked along a city street; and an exercise in pseudo-anthropology called Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows (1998) by Cai Guo-Qiang.

Still to come in later installations are Gerhard Richter’s series of pictures based on the Baader-Meinhof gang of terrorists, called October 18, 1977 , and such other delights as Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box and Robert Gober’s Cat Litter . Oh, yes–and what are promised to be the complete Untitled Film Stills of Cindy Sherman. To satisfy appetites for this kind of thing, there is quite a lot of Warhol already on view, including his Campbell’s Soup Cans , and tons of Mike Kelley’s toys and blankets.

Of serious painting–remember serious painting?–there is scarcely a trace. And let’s face it, why should there be, in a show that is so overwhelmingly determined by sociological classifications. The omission of most of the best new paintings we have seen in the 1960-2000 period–the years ostensibly covered in Open Ends –is a reminder, for anyone who needs one, that MoMA is no longer interested in the larger world of art, where pop sociology is not the measure of artistic achievement. MoMA has become the captive of every dumb postmodern idea that has been floating around the universities and the media for a generation or more. Its interest in aesthetic quality is now nil.

Still, if your own interest in art is sociological rather than aesthetic, Open Ends is a show you will not want to miss. You can feast your eyes on sundry photos and prints and other attempts at graphic communication on such timely topics as “repressed memories of abuse, guns in school, and AIDS,” or “pointed critiques of contemporary society,” or “lost childhood.” Then, too, there are those “realms where issues of the body and of identity entangle with the structures and stereotypes of mass society.”

Open Ends is the kind of exhibition in which the wall texts, from which I have been quoting, are more interesting than the visual images that have been gathered to illustrate them from MoMA’s own collections. Open Ends clearly marks the end of an era in MoMA’s 71-year history, and does so “Not with a bang but a whimper.” What all this portends for the future of the museum is almost too painful to think about.

Open Ends is on view at MoMA, 11 West 53rd Street, until Jan. 2, 2001.