Oedipus on 53rd St.

Of the many criticisms one can make of the new, grossly expanded and grossly expensive Museum of Modern Art (it’s reported to have cost more than $850 million), the most unexpected-by this writer, anyway-is that almost everything about it has the character of an anachronism. Instead of a forward-looking, truly innovative plan for both the new gallery space and the new installation of the museum’s permanent collection, we’re constantly recalled to the many ways in which the new MoMA remains mired in the arguments and conventions of its own past. As a consequence of this reluctance to make a fresh start for a very different period and a very different public, the new MoMA is full of reminders of the successes and blunders of the old MoMA.

The first and gravest of our disappointments is with the ill-conceived architecture. Yoshio Taniguchi’s redesign has at every turn in its cold and elephantine structure the look and feel of a Japanese parody of the kind of American modernism that has itself long outlived its expiration date. Thus the galleries are essentially an architectural assemblage of-what else?-bleak, oversized white boxes in which the scale of the interior space and the unrelieved whiteness of the walls conspire to discomfort the viewer while diminishing the aesthetic integrity of works of art marooned in an environment remarkably hostile to the pleasures of the eye.

These unwelcoming exhibition spaces would under any circumstances entail considerable problems for the installation of MoMA’s permanent collection-and these problems are compounded by the apparent determination of the curatorial staff to come up with a scheme that would emphatically be seen to resemble as little as possible the classic installations of the late Alfred Barr, MoMA’s founding director. This has been achieved by a systematic deconstruction of Barr’s pioneering work in establishing a coherent, stylistically oriented history of modernist art. Barr created programs and diagrams that trace a succession of aesthetic influences and intellectual linkages that constitute a history of modernism; his installations were based on this historical scenario, which for generations of artists and critics became the accepted way of comprehending the modern tradition of art.

What does it mean, then, to speak of a modern “tradition,” which some artists and writers on art regard as anathema to the fundamental spirit of modernism? The best answer to this question was given to us by John Szarkowski, for many years the curator of photography in the old MoMA. In Looking at Photographs (1973), Mr. Szarkowski wrote:

“Non-artists often misunderstand the nature of artistic tradition, and imagine it to be something similar to a fortress, within which eternal verity is protected from the present. In fact it is something more useful and interesting, and less secure. It exists in the minds of artists, and consists of their collective memory of what has been accomplished so far. Its function is to mark the starting point for each day’s work. Occasionally it is decided that tradition should also define the work’s end result. At this point the tradition dies.”

That’s the spirit in which Barr labored to codify the history of modernist art, and to this day I daresay that no other writer on the subject has succeeded in improving on his work. Yet, precisely because Barr’s conception of the modern tradition acquired a kind of orthodoxy, it was inevitable that it would also in time provoke some categorical dissent-and so it has. The new MoMA, in effect, has transformed itself into the principal voice of the anti-Barr opposition. Thus, in a long essay marking the inauguration of the new MoMA, the museum’s chief curator, John Elderfield, writes with unconcealed glee that “By a happy coincidence … on the fortieth anniversary of Barr’s installation, a truly new one could be created from scratch.”

In Mr. Elderfield’s view, what went wrong in the Barr installation was that “The painting and sculpture galleries had become unduly hermetic, prescriptive, and progressive in their linear, spinal arrangement-the viewer needed sanction to slow down-while the small size of the individual galleries no longer served the requirements of an intimate address to the works of art.” Mr. Elderfield is a writer and curator whose endeavors in the past I have, for the most part, greatly admired. But I nonetheless have to say that just about everything in the sentence I’ve just quoted strikes me as utter bosh. I’ve been a regular visitor of MoMA, following its many changes, for some 50 years, and Mr. Elderfield’s notion that visitors ever needed a “sanction” to moderate their pace in looking at works of art is tendentious nonsense.

What has categorically changed at MoMA is the way the museum presents works of art to its public. Heretofore, MoMA’s presentation was largely based on a formalist-historical model in which the aesthetics of style was given priority over subject matter or thematic motifs. Four years ago, in the series of MoMA 2000 exhibitions, we were put on notice that the formalist-historical model would now be rejected by MoMA in favor of an emphasis on the subject matter of art. One of the consequences of that decision was that the entire history of abstract art was fractured and rendered incoherent as its various phases were assigned to “subjects” which could rarely, if ever, be discernible to the naked eye. On that occasion, anyway, Mr. Elderfield apologized-sort of-for failing to do justice to the history of abstraction. Yet the mistakes of 2000 have been repeated in the installations of 2004.

What we encounter in many of the so-called “subject galleries” in the new MoMA are works of art that have been orphaned from history-from the aesthetic history from which they derive their ideas and from the history of their influence on later works of art. All aesthetic experience is comparative, and the quality of our experience of individual works of art often depends on the relation that obtains between the object before us and our memories of other works of art. In such comparisons, style rather than subject provides the principal linkage. This is one reason why the quality and character of installations in museum exhibitions is so crucial to our comprehension of art.

In the old MoMA, a masterwork like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon offered an experience that the visitor carried in the mind through an encounter with the entire history of Cubist painting. At the new MoMA, Les Demoiselles is so historically isolated that it looks as if it had been not so much installed as simply abandoned. The same may be said of the sculpture of Wilhelm Lehmbruck-and much else. And once again, as in 2000, the history of abstract art is a mess.

It’s one of the further curiosities of the new MoMA that while Mr. Elderfield dwells at length on the achievements of Alfred Barr, just about everything Barr stood for in the realm of responsible museology is repudiated in this inaugural installation. It’s almost enough to persuade one to believe in Freud’s Oedipus complex.