Met Becomes Modernism Central as MoMA, Guggenheim Waver

With the opening this summer of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met has taken another giant step toward establishing itself as a major center for 20th-century modernist art. For the Gelmans’ collection adds, among much else, important paintings from the Fauvist, Cubist and Surrealist schools in the early decades of the last century to the museum’s already rich holdings in both European and American modernism.

For aficionados of modernist art, moreover, the timing of this development could hardly be better. Next summer, as already reported, the Museum of Modern Art will be closing its doors on West 53rd Street to complete its current expansion program, with operations shifting to Queens until sometime in 2005. Only God–or Thomas Krens–knows where in the world the collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum will be dispatched to in the interim, given this museum’s current globalization project. Thus, for much of the first half of this first decade of the 21st century, the Met seems likely to be the principal museum venue for modernist art in Manhattan.

This is not something that could have been predicted even a generation or two earlier. When I came to live in New York in the 1950’s, the Met was the last place anyone would look to for a comprehensive account of 20th-century painting and sculpture. For all practical purposes, the history of Western art at the Met had ended with Impressionism. Under the directorship of the late Francis Henry Taylor, the museum had simply closed its eyes to the fact that New York, in the aftermath of World War II, had emerged as the capital of the modern movement. Which is why, of course, the Abstract Expressionist painters were so bitter about the Met’s refusal to acknowledge their work, and publicly attacked the museum for its backward policies.

What happened under Taylor’s immediate successors–James Rorimer and Thomas Hoving–might best be described as progress at a price. Particularly in the stormy Hoving era, some of the modern paintings that were shamelessly de-accessioned–a Van Gogh, for example, and a Henri Rousseau–were of far greater quality than some of the modern works acquired with the proceeds. At best it was an erratic, undisciplined and often chaotic period for the museum, and while some important modern acquisitions were made and some major exhibitions mounted when the late Henry Geldzahler served as the Met’s curator of 20th-century art, modernist art remained a marginal interest at the museum.

All of this was to undergo a huge change, both in terms of quality and of quantity, under the directorship of Philippe de Montebello and his hiring in 1979 of William S. Lieberman as chairman of the Met’s department of modern art. Mr. Lieberman brought to the Met both extensive experience and extensive connections from his long period of curatorial service at MoMA, where he’d begun his career under the late Alfred H. Barr Jr., that museum’s founding director.

To his duties at the Met, Mr. Lieberman also brought something of Barr’s vision of modernist art–of its complexities and what might even be called its sometimes contradictory impulses. And he did so in a period when there was emerging at MoMA itself a tendency to discredit Barr as having too narrow a vision of modernism. In my judgment, anyway, this was always a bogus charge and had, perhaps, more to do with generational conflict–a desire on the part of the new regime at MoMA to establish its own authority at the expense of MoMA’s famous father figure–than with Barr’s remarkably wide-ranging record of exhibitions and acquisitions.

One of the things that characterized MoMA’s installation of its permanent collection in Barr’s day was the special attention it accorded to the work of the early American modernists–among them, John Marin, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley. Maurice Prendergast was shown in the company of Bonnard and Klimt. And so on. Certain masterworks of American modernism that had iconic status at MoMA in that period–Hartley’s late Evening Storm (1942), for example–disappeared into the storerooms as soon as Barr stepped down and have never again been seen at the museum.

I mention this now because Mr. Lieberman has been even more generous in the attention he has lavished on American modernism in the galleries the Met now devotes to modern art. When you go to the Met today, you can see excellent examples not only of Hartley, but of Milton Avery, Florine Stettheimer, Stuart Davis–really, the list is too long to recount here–in addition to the extensive holdings in European modernism. Indeed, you can see a more comprehensive account of American modernism at the Met than at the Whitney Museum of American Art, which is supposed to be devoted to such art. This is something that simply did not exist at the Met on this scale under previous administrations.

The same is true, of course, for the installation of European modernism, to which the Gelmans’ collection now adds a number of masterpieces–among them, Bonnard’s The Dining Room at Vernonnet (1916), Balthus’ Thérèse Dreaming (1938), Braque’s The Billiard Table (1944 and 1952), Chagall’s The Lovers (1913), Derain’s Regent Street , London (1906), Matisse’s The Young Sailor II (1906), Mondrian’s Composition (1921) and, most amazingly, the hanging of Picasso’s Still Life with a Bottle of Rum next to Braque’s Still Life with a Pair of Banderillas (both 1911), as well as excellent examples of Giacometti, Juan Gris, Léger, Rouault and Miró.

This is the big leagues, and it is only part of the Gelmans’ bequest. Later on, the Gelmans’ collection of modern drawings will also be exhibited. For all this, we owe Mr. Lieberman–and the Met–a large debt of gratitude. With so many other museums going haywire, it’s a comfort to know that the greatest of our museums remains on a steady upward course.