Mega-MoMA Mania: How is Van Gogh Hanging in QNS?

About the move that the Museum of Modern Art has now made from its world-famous facility on West 53rd Street to temporary quarters on Queens Boulevard in Long Island City, everyone with a serious interest in art is bound to have mixed feelings. Those of us who are used to visiting MoMA’s galleries on a regular basis, as I have done for more than 50 years, are certain to feel an acute sense of loss, not to mention a certain dread about the new mega-MoMA now under construction on West 54th.

Visitors to the city, who account for a sizable portion of the museum’s public, will also have reason to feel disappointed and deprived. These visitors include, besides the large number of tourists, a great many artists, art teachers, critics, historians, museum professionals and others with a keen interest in modern art. No doubt an intrepid minority of these visitors will take the trouble to visit MoMA QNS, as the temporary Queens facility is called, but even they are unlikely to return to Queens Boulevard until the Matisse Picasso blockbuster opens next year (Feb. 13 to May 19, 2003). On that occasion, however, the expected mob scene will make it difficult, if not impossible, to see anything but other people. Such are the pleasures of overreaching museum expansion.

For the time being, then, the principal beneficiaries of this move are the Queens residents who already have an interest in modern art or, among the uninitiated, those who are curious enough to make its acquaintance. For this segment of the public, MoMA has certainly not stinted in providing a dazzling selection of masterworks from its permanent collection for the opening exhibition on Queens Boulevard. Among the modern classics on view are C├ęzanne’s The Bather (circa 1885), Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889), Picasso’s Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Matisse’s Dance (1909), Rousseau’s The Dream (1910), Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) and Jackson Pollock’s One (1950). Presumably, other top-level examples from MoMA’s permanent collection will be exhibited at MoMA QNS in due course until the mega-MoMA opens in 2005, at which time the Queens Boulevard facility will be used mainly for storage. Meanwhile, we are promised two other major shows at MoMA QNS following the Matisse Picasso extravaganza: a Max Beckmann retrospective (June 26 to Sept. 29, 2003), and Ansel Adams at 100 (July 10 to Nov. 3, 2003). I cannot imagine how these two shows can be accommodated at the same time in the less-than-capacious exhibition space at MoMA QNS, but it may be that in the rush to open the Queens facility on schedule, the museum press office got some dates confused.

As for what we can expect to see in the greatly expanded MoMA when it opens in 2005, there may be some clues to be discerned in two other shows that have been mounted to mark the inauguration of MoMA QNS. One is AUTObodies: speed, sport, transport , organized by Peter Reed, curator of MoMA’s department of architecture and design. To this non-driver’s eye, all six of the automobiles on exhibition, which range in style from sleek sports cars to a jaunty Jeep, are beautiful to look at, and all, by the way, are in MoMA’s permanent collection. Which means, I suppose, that they will never be driven again-except, perhaps, to be moved into the expanded MoMA in 2005.

AUTObodies certainly has a lot more aesthetic appeal than the much bigger show called Tempo , which is an exceedingly boring exercise in social anthropology masquerading as an art exhibition. Its principal features are clocks (many, many clocks) and metronomes, as well as photographs, paintings, video installations, etc., “all addressing distinct perceptions of time,” according to the museum. Some of the installations have been newly commissioned by MoMA itself, so we are bound to see them again-as well as many installations of the same type-in MoMA’s future. It’s a dismal thought.

The only really nice surprise to be seen at MoMA QNS at the moment is a show of previously unpublished photographs of Queens by the late Rudy Burckhardt. They are drawn from two albums dating from the early 1940’s, when the Swiss-born photographer set out to acquaint himself with the streets of New York. One album is called An Afternoon in Astoria (1940), the other A Walk Through Astoria and Other Places in Queens (1943). These pictures are somewhat different from Burckhardt’s better-known photographs of Manhattan, which give us a chronicle of a young European falling in love with a metropolis that is entirely alien to his experience. The photographs of Queens have a touching earnestness, a determination to find visual poetry in a subject that for other eyes was utterly devoid of it. Now that MoMA QNS has rediscovered Rudy Burckhardt, perhaps we can hope to see a retrospective of his work-all of it, paintings and drawings as well as photographs and movies-in the bigger MoMA to come. Let’s hope so.

Still, it is with mixed feelings that we face this bigger MoMA and the other overscale expansions now in the works for the Morgan Library, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the High Museum in Atlanta and, of course, the ever-expanding, ever-deflating Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The only thing we know for certain about this mania for perpetual museum expansion is that it has everything to do with money and ambition, and very little to do with the life of art.