October 3, 2004
or more than two years, the Museum of Modern Art has been exiled to a reconditioned staple factory in Queens as a sleek new MOMA, budgeted at a gulp-inducing $858 million, rose conspicuously in Midtown Manhattan. Meanwhile, out of sight in a shabby, windowless conference room in Queens, the curators of the painting and sculpture department have been playing with a scale model of the new galleries, debating how to retell the story of art in the 20th century. Most art museums sort and display their objects as trophies, but MOMA is a church. Its masterpieces, beyond their individual merits, serve a higher purpose: to spread the gospel of modern art. The new selection and arrangement of the permanent collection will be scrutinized as closely as Scripture.
In MOMA's early days things were looser. Alfred H. Barr Jr., who became the founding director in 1929, spoke of the museum as a laboratory. His acquisitions were so wide-ranging that they got him into trouble with the members of his board, who at one time or another found his taste too advanced (a Rothko abstraction), too retrograde (a Hirshfield primitive portrait) or just plain weird (an Oppenheim fur teacup). But Barr had another side: he was a teacher as well as a hunter-gatherer. He famously drew flow charts that mapped the evolution of modern art from the Post-Impressionists -- Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin -- on through Picasso and Matisse, and forward into pure abstraction. Barr was constantly revising his charts, adding new names and repositioning others. After he retired, however, his guidelines ossified into a canon. The white galleries of MOMA laid out a story in which modern art history advanced relentlessly, like a train on a track.
Defined for so long as the arbiter and guardian of progressive art, MOMA reopens on Nov. 20 -- its 75th birthday -- at a time when even its own curators no longer believe that art progresses like science. Narratives overlap and intertwine; instead of one big story, there are many competing stories. In the new building, the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi accommodates this insight with a configuration that delivers the museum from the enfilade imposed by its midblock West 53rd Street site. By demolishing the Hotel Dorset on West 54th Street and expanding north, the museum has acquired a physical depth it never had. No longer does one room lead inescapably into the next. Some of the new painting and sculpture galleries will have four doorways, allowing the curators to express their understanding that history can move sideways as well as forward. But complexity too often leads to incoherence. Can MOMA, the most influential voice in the modern-art establishment, still tell the story of 20th-century art in a convincing way?
Apart from being the museum's grandest painting by Cézanne, ''The Bather'' can also claim priority by virtue of its subject matter. Cézanne depicted a young man standing on a beach, his hands on his hips, his gaze deflected downward. Awkward but solid, the bather is someone poised on the verge, which is not a bad symbol for the state of Western art in 1885, the year Cézanne is thought to have completed the picture. The fact that Cézanne based the painting on a photograph is also prophetic, for the interwoven relationship of painting and photography is central to modern art. Nor does it hurt that ''The Bather'' was donated by Lillie Bliss, one of the three wealthy New York women who founded MOMA and whose munificent bequest, with its requirement for the raising of an endowment fund, provoked the museum to inaugurate the permanent collection in 1931.
When they try to arrange a collection to form a history, curators, unlike textbook writers, are limited to the works they possess. ''If we had the 'Grande Jatte,' maybe that would be the way to begin,'' Glenn Lowry, MOMA's director, told me. Since Seurat's masterpiece is irretrievably ensconced at the Art Institute of Chicago, the museum had to look elsewhere. Of the great Post-Impressionists, MOMA has a weak Gauguin sampling, a few great van Goghs and one of the world's richest holdings of Cézanne. Both for the purposes of the chronicle and in deference to the museum's strengths, Cézanne seemed a shoo-in to start the installation.
Yet when Lowry stopped by the ''war room'' in Queens in early April to check out the latest maneuvers in the foam-core model of the new galleries, he observed delightedly that a postage-stamp-size reproduction of another work had been taped to that opening wall. In place of ''The Bather,'' the curators had nominated a painting by a second-tier Post-Impressionist, Paul Signac, with the tongue-twisting title ''Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic With Beats and Angles, Tones and Colors, Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon in 1890.'' It is a profile of Fénéon, an influential Parisian art dealer and fin de siècle critic, with a top hat and walking stick in his left hand and an orchid extended in his right, set against a pinwheel backdrop of brilliantly colored and patterned swirls.
''You couldn't ask for a better beginning,'' Lowry said with enthusiasm. ''Talk about the curtain going up.''
With his pink shirt, red pocket handkerchief and red socks, Lowry himself could be viewed as corporate America's rendition of the dandyish Fénéon -- raising money, acquiring and selling art, promoting modernism. Although his academic background is in Islamic art, Lowry, who has been director since 1995, injects himself forcefully into curatorial debates, not least those in the painting and sculpture department. P&S, as it is called, is one of six MOMA departments, but everyone knows that it ranks first among equals. People who say that MOMA has the world's greatest collection of modern art are thinking of the paintings and sculptures by Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Giacometti, the Italian Futurists, the Abstract Expressionists and so on. Stellar though they are, the other five collections -- photography, prints and illustrated books, drawings, film and media, architecture and design -- play a supporting role.
When Lowry visited in April, John Elderfield, the chief curator of P&S, gave him a quick tour of the model. In the new museum, in a reversal of the old order, the historical collection of painting and sculpture will begin on the fifth floor, continue on Four and then segue on Two into the contemporary collection, which has been much expanded. The opening gallery on the fifth floor introduces modernism's antecedents, mixing the Post-Impressionists with the Fauves (Derain, Matisse) and the Norwegian Symbolist Munch. If this were a symphony concert, you would be listening to the orchestra warming up. Then things settle down. An adjacent gallery offers a sharply focused examination of how Braque and Picasso developed Cubism in dialogue from 1907 to 1912, the high point being Picasso's 1907 breakthrough, ''Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,'' one of the museum's signature works. After that comes a gallery with a wider focus: the flowering of Cubism in prewar Paris. ''Then there'll be Futurism with library material, and after that, German Expressionism, also with woodcuts,'' Elderfield said, pointing at the model.
''So there'll be some kind of display cases,'' Lowry said, nodding. As they tinkered with the model, it was almost possible for the curators to forget that each miniature change bore life-size consequences. One reason a preliminary scheme had to be completed by the end of March was to give Jerome Neuner, director of exhibition design and production, enough time to design the platforms, pedestals and vitrines required for the installation.
Elderfield went on to discuss Matisse, who is one of only two artists to receive a gallery devoted solely to his work. The other is Jackson Pollock, but that gallery will periodically show other artists. The room of works that Matisse produced before his 1918 move to Nice, which was among the glories of the old museum, will be transferred to the new site largely intact.
Elderfield then described a ''Crossroads'' room, which comes after the Matisse room and covers the pivotal decade after 1914. It opens onto three galleries: Dada, Constructivism and Suprematism; Mondrian and the De Stijl geometric abstractionists; and Surrealism. The tour of the fifth floor of the doll house concluded with a gallery devoted to figurative art of the 30's.
More than some previous curatorial installations, the new arrangement repeatedly favors chronology over the connoisseur's temptation to spin out the isolated thread of a single movement or to juxtapose sympathetic works from different periods. ''It became very clear that if anything was drastically out of sequence, it seemed wrong,'' Elderfield told me later. ''I liked the way the Matisse blue 'Bather' looked with the pink 1905 Picasso. But to introduce a 1909 Matisse in the second gallery was silly, and to introduce a 1905 Picasso in the Matisse gallery seemed weird.''
When Elderfield moved to the model of the fourth floor, he picked up the story with the Surrealists in exile during the Second World War and the ascendancy of the New York Abstract Expressionists who were initially influenced by them. As the chronicle jumped back and forth between continents and began to approach our own time, zigzagging through Color Field painting and Pop, with a digression into Arte Povera and on to Minimalism, it became more disjointed and harder to contain. The curators had yet to decide when between 1965 and 1975 to end the historical collection on Four and how to organize the contemporary space on Two.
Still, it had come a long way since Elderfield began considering the installation a year earlier with one curator, Anne Umland, a MOMA veteran who specializes in Surrealist art of the 20's and 30's. Ann Temkin, whom Elderfield hired from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has more of a postwar bent. The third curator, Joachim Pissarro, began by studying the painting of Picasso's contemporary Fernand Léger but is currently preparing a show that will be devoted to Cézanne and Camille Pissarro, the pioneering Impressionist who was Joachim's great-grandfather. The other person involved on a day-to-day curatorial basis with the new installation is Elizabeth Levine, who is the manager of special projects. Although they have different areas of expertise, the curators -- all in their 40's -- weigh in with Elderfield on each decision.
''It's getting there,'' Lowry said, smiling, when Elderfield finished.
''The checklist is probably 10 to 15 percent from being there,'' Temkin said. One of the pressing deadlines was the demand by the conservation department for a list of the works being hung, so they could be examined and, if necessary, attended to.
The curators' ambition to present a comprehensive history conflicted with their desire to display the art in the most attractive way. ''It's the constant dilemma between what is the maximum number of works you can install and the minimum,'' Lowry said. ''I would go lightly on density. It's easy to add but not to subtract.''
''And the pace should vary,'' Elderfield said.
''And you want lots of surprises,'' Lowry said. ''You want people who think they know what you're doing to turn the corner and be surprised.''
After considering a few practical matters of seating and public spaces, Lowry moved toward the door.
''Oof,'' he said. ''Great progress though.''
''We've got to,'' Umland replied.
''Time's wingèd chariot,'' Elderfield said.
ecause of MOMA's pre-eminence, people in the art world care enormously about the installation of the painting and sculpture collection. The depth of this feeling could be gauged five years ago when the museum celebrated the new millennium with an exhibition, ''Modern Starts 2000,'' that presented works from the permanent collection in an unfamiliar way. Organized thematically around ''People, Places and Things,'' the show looked at modernist classics from 1880 to 1920 through the lens of subject matter. The curator was Elderfield.
The concept of modernism is famously difficult to define. Unquestionably, though, one of the basic tenets of modernist art is a subordination of the putative subject matter (the person in a portrait or the mountain in a landscape) to the peculiarities of the medium (the application of paint to a flat canvas or the relationship between a sculpture and its pedestal). For MOMA to present its modernist masterpieces thematically was as shocking to some as it would be if the Catholic Church were to classify its relics by blood type. The most widely reported outburst came from the abstract artist Frank Stella, who fumed, ''The exhibition is bad, perhaps disgraceful, and disagreeable in more ways than I imagined possible.'' When I talked to people outside the museum about the coming P&S installation at MOMA, they often brought up their memories of ''Modern Starts.'' Invariably, they spoke about it negatively. And the example they always raised splenetically was the side-by-side placement of Cézanne's ''Bather'' with a large photograph, by the contemporary artist Reineke Dijkstra, of a boy wearing a swimsuit and standing in a similar pose.
Clearly, ''The Bather'' is revered. How could Signac's portrait of Fénéon have trumped it? I raised the question the next month in the war room. I knew that this Signac painting was a promised gift from David Rockefeller. As the only surviving child of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who was the most active of the museum's three female founders, Rockefeller represents the family most associated with MOMA's history. He also serves very effectively as the chairman emeritus of the museum's board.
I asked whether this Rockefeller connection had played a role in the Signac painting's good fortune, but Elderfield was more interested in discussing the painting's subject than its provenance.
''Fénéon is a critic, a dealer, the person who did the first artist's contract in the 20th century,'' he replied. Fénéon was a herald of modern art. Elderfield added that since Rockefeller retains part ownership of the Signac portrait, it would be returned after four months, leaving the space to be occupied by something else -- perhaps ''The Bather.''
''And it is the greatest painting by Signac,'' Umland added.
The emphasis on the subject of the painting sounded suspiciously like the thematic organization of ''Modern Starts.'' Since I knew that this installation was not being grouped that way, I brought up the Signac again with Elderfield several months later.
''Always on the table was, 'Should we start as we started before or do something different?''' he said. ''Then the question is, 'Are you doing something just to be different, in a capricious way?''' Elderfield, who is 60, speaks with the soft burr of his native Yorkshire, in a voice that rarely rises above a loud mumble and threatens often to sink into inaudibility. He couches his opinions in waddings of deference, qualification and tentativeness. In style, he contrasts sharply with his predecessor, Kirk Varnedoe, who had a remarkable ability to spin out long sentences that could sail as high as kites but somehow remain tethered to their starting points. Elderfield's donnish manner, however, can't mask an intelligence and ambition that have led him to produce major publications on Matisse, Picasso and Kurt Schwitters -- and to become only the fourth curator to direct an installation of the painting and sculpture collection in the museum's history.
''One thing I had not particularly liked about the last installation is that, over a year, a million and a half people went up the escalator into this tiny room with Cézanne and then turned left,'' Elderfield continued. ''It was almost like a prologue, not Chapter 1. Now we have a gallery that definitely will be perceived as Chapter 1.''
Still, there was that question of how the chapter opens. ''I have mixed feelings about those panel walls,'' Elderfield said. ''There can be a poster-boy quality to what goes on them. I worried that the absolute familiarity of the Cézanne was making it appear almost like a reproduction of itself. Not a painting, but an image of how the museum began the exhibition of its collection. It seemed like it would help the Cézanne 'Bather' to give it a vacation from its heavy role of opening the collection. If it wasn't going to be that, it had to be a different artist, or else people would be wondering, 'What's the matter with ''The Bather''?'''
''I had thought of the postman Roulin,'' Elderfield said. The portrait of Joseph Roulin, which Varnedoe acquired for the museum in 1989, stands alongside ''The Starry Night'' as one of MOMA's two great van Goghs. ''We could have put what everybody wants to see, 'Starry Night,' but if you do that, it's a traffic logjam,'' Elderfield said.
But none of that accounted for the exaltation of ''Fénéon.''
''I think Fénéon was an amazing person,'' Elderfield said. ''In a way, I guess it's more about the reception of art. It's facing people not with the amazing product of the great founder of modernism, but it's facing the audience with a member of the audience -- an exceptional member of the audience. There will be a wall label. We will say he was a great critic, a supporter of Post-Impressionists, especially Seurat, and he became a dealer and a curator.'' Elderfield politely implied that I might be attaching too much importance to this first freestanding wall and its initial occupant. ''I don't see that that is like awarding a medal,'' he said. ''All of the spaces are great. I think it will be perceived as: 'What is this? Look at this!'''
Equally politely, I suggested that people might also perceive this as a tribute to MOMA's major patron, who has some very important paintings not yet bequeathed to the museum.
Winning the politeness competition, Elderfield shrugged acquiescently. ''David is the main reason we have this new building,'' he said. ''He was amazingly generous toward it and took the lead in raising all the money.''
In its early history, MOMA acquired broadly. For 38 years, Barr set the acquisitions policy. ''He believed that the sins of omission are far greater than the sins of commission,'' said Gary Garrels, chief curator of drawings, who also holds a curatorial position in P&S. Despite a personal preference for the School of Paris artists, especially Matisse and Picasso, and for the Russian abstractionists, Barr also obtained and exhibited French neo-Romantics, Mexican muralists and myriad others. ''I started going to MOMA in the 40's and 50's, and MOMA was all over the place,'' said the art historian Robert Rosenblum. ''There was an exhibition of American Romantic painting. There was an exhibition of English painters, from Constable and Turner to the early 20th century -- that was the first time I saw paintings by the pre-Raphaelites, pictures by artists like Holman Hunt. They had a much more eclectic range than people remember.'' For those older museumgoers who were in New York as children, MOMA's galleries will always be haunted by garish, lush, illustrational paintings, like Pavel Tchelitchew's ''Hide-and-Seek'' and Peter Blume's ''Eternal City.'' ''The Tchelitchew and the Blume, they somehow got submerged in the cause of the greater history of 20th-century art,'' Rosenblum said. ''It was really extraordinary, the variety, before it got hardened into a modernist canon.''
The person who is credited or vilified as the Great Codifier is Barr's successor at managing the collection, William Rubin. Unlike Barr, Rubin -- who was chief curator of P&S for 20 years -- had few scruples about sidelining work that he deemed minor. Along with many art scholars of the time, he had been heavily influenced by the critic Clement Greenberg, a lapsed Marxist who transposed his old political faith (in the inexorable evolution of capitalist society toward socialism) into a formalist canon marked by a similarly inevitable progress (from the Post-Impressionism of Cézanne to the Cubism of Braque and Picasso and onward to the Abstract Expressionism of Pollock, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still). Although Barr also had an evolutionary way of thinking, he conscientiously kept his mind open. Because he was operating at a time when modernism was still fresh, that was easier to do. Under Rubin, the creed became dogma. Cerebral and increasingly abstract art was the mainstream, and the subordinate currents, if shown, were to be displayed off to the side.
''Bill Rubin swept the Augean stables and offered his version of absolute truth about the major and the minor,'' Rosenblum said. ''Bill did not want anything to do with illustration. He was terrible about contemporary art. He didn't see it when it went realistic and toward narrative. He didn't see anything but classic modernism.''
Rubin, 77, is retired. He spoke with me recently in his living room, which is decorated, in the best modernist taste, with paintings by Picasso and Dubuffet and pieces of African and Oceanic sculpture. I had heard many gripes about Rubin's installations. His critics found his display of the collection tendentious and inflexible. ''People were forced to go in one direction,'' said William Lieberman, special consultant for modern art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who was hired by Barr at MOMA in 1945 and worked there for 34 years. ''Alfred believed an installation should be open. Bill's installation was like a tunnel. You had to see everything his way.''
When I asked Rubin about his last installation, done for the opening in 1984 of a museum addition designed by Cesar Pelli, he looked back with the unshakable equanimity of a hanging judge. ''A lot of people felt they couldn't get off the thing,'' he said. ''There actually was a side door you could get out through.''
During Rubin's tenure, the museum's P&S installation paid little attention to German Expressionism, Latin American abstraction or the recent movements of Conceptualism and Post-Minimalism. He argues, with the lofty perspective of a paleontologist, that Cubism carried the winning genes. ''I don't think that what you have from the Surrealists and anyone else you can glue onto them has quite the art-historical weight,'' he said. ''I think Cubism proved to be a more generating movement. Surrealism was a methodology that got absorbed by Pollock, but Pollock's pictures were much more closely related to Cubism than Surrealism.'' So when Rubin looks at, for instance, Miró's ''Birth of the World,'' a Surrealist masterpiece, he sees the drips and stains that would find fruition in Pollock. And when he looks at André Masson's innovative ''Battle of Fishes,'' he is reminded of Pollock's subsequent mixture of sand into a painting.
This conviction that the history of modern art evolves in a particular direction led Rubin, paradoxically, to organize his installation of the collection in a nonchronological way. He mapped the chief strain, then U-turned to fill in the rest. At a 1996 retreat held at the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills, during which the next architectural expansion was discussed, Rubin's successor, Kirk Varnedoe, described the installation he inherited. Once you reached Picasso's 1907 ''Demoiselles d'Avignon,'' Varnedoe said, ''for three straight rooms you learned Cubism inside out and backward, up to 'Three Musicians''' -- Picasso's 1921 painting -- ''at which point you then suddenly were reminded that German Expressionism happened, then you backed up and backtracked'' to follow Dada and Surrealism. ''So, having gone from 1907 to 1924, you then went back and started again in 1908. It was a story about a rationalist tradition and an irrationalist tradition; it was a story about a dominant stream and a minor stream.''
By the time Rubin retired, that emphasis on Cubism and abstraction to the detriment of other movements in 20th-century art was already falling out of intellectual fashion. In his own installation, which he presented in 1993, Varnedoe tried to right the imbalance by giving greater weight to Dada and Surrealism. He told ARTnews that Duchamp was ''the recurrent, haunting ghost in the installation.'' Guided more closely by chronology than his predecessor had been, Varnedoe allowed Futurism, early Cubism, the Dada experiments of Duchamp and the Surrealist landscapes of De Chirico ''to butt up'' against one another in adjacent galleries as a way of exhibiting the artistic ferment that was occurring in Europe in the years before the First World War. He recognized that these alternative pulses remained vital to the artists of today. ''The point of being involved in contemporary art is that it constantly reminds us about the arguments and potentials and origins,'' he said at the Pocantico conference. ''So if I put Duchamp together with Picasso, it's in part because Jasper Johns is not understandable unless Duchamp and Picasso coexist as a set of possibilities for creativity.'' Seeking to restore Barr's open-minded approach, Varnedoe -- who died last year -- displayed work that didn't excite him personally. ''Kirk learned to respect what he didn't like,'' said Robert Storr, who worked with him as curator in P&S. Yet the immovable constraints of the architecture kept him from doing more than a heavy editing job of the Rubin installation.
Elderfield's will be the first thorough revamping since 1984. ''I honestly think the stakes are higher than they have ever been,'' said Storr, who is now a professor at New York University. ''There has to be a big idea, or several big ideas. The Museum of Modern Art was always understood to be an important interpretive device, not by default but by intention. You couldn't accuse Bill of doing things he didn't intend to do. The Modern has to re-enter the fray with a strong interpretive program. There are different ways to do that. One would be methodological -- to say, 'We refuse to limit ourselves to crowning glories, but instead we'll show that modern art was strongly spread out and various.' You can be Barr, or you can be Rubin. When Barr began, the Modern was a machine for thinking about modern art, and not the Word. I think it needs to go back to being the model Barr created, but either Barr or Rubin would be better than averaging your bets. The installation has to be something that people can react to.''
ver the summer, the construction of the new building advanced far enough to permit the curators to start working in the galleries. They couldn't install much actual art until shipments began arriving on Sept. 20 from Berlin, where an exhibition of the MOMA collection had been attracting sellout crowds since February. Even so, with the placement of cut-to-size cardboard maquettes of the paintings on the gallery walls, it seemed that the new installation had entered the real world. The curators were no longer confined to taping tiny reproductions inside a model.
One afternoon in early August, the curatorial team (except for Joachim Pissarro, who was in Europe to negotiate loans for a show) assembled in the gallery that would contain Dada, Constructivism and Suprematism. These three distinct movements shared a room in the new installation because they occurred more or less concurrently, and it was thought that they would look good as an ensemble. But some curators suspected that the disparate styles might clash.
Back in March, reconsidering the model, Pissarro voiced concerns that the ethereal surfaces of Kasimir Malevich's Suprematist abstractions would be undermined by the gritty Constructivist work of El Lissitzky. He thought Malevich would look better with the geometric paintings of Mondrian. But Ann Temkin countered that it would be odd to separate Malevich from Lissitzky, because the two Russian artists had a close, stormy association. ''They'll be right next door to each other,'' Pissarro protested. Temkin wasn't satisfied. In her mind, both Russians needed to be in the same room.
Eventually, Constructivism and Suprematism were joined, a scheme that left room for other Dutch abstractionists to be exhibited with Mondrian in the next gallery. The curators were always balancing art-historical concerns with the physical qualities of the displayed objects. Too often, the theoretical and the visual would conflict. Galleries devoted to one artist or one movement -- like Futurism or the development of Cubism -- were easier to install, because the works complemented one another. The greater the mix, the tougher the hang.
The Dada, Constructivism and Suprematism gallery was a challenging hodgepodge. Along with that matter of juxtaposing the transcendent Suprematists and the material-minded Constructivists, there was the even more daunting Dada display. The curators had ordered two cases -- one with works by Man Ray, the other by Jean Arp. On the walls would be a selection of mostly small pieces, including several Schwitters collages. Back in the old building, Schwitters was exhibited with Paul Klee, but Elderfield said he believed that that arrangement served convenience over clarity. ''It was largely because of the size of their works,'' he told me. ''But it took Schwitters away from Dada and Klee away from the Bauhaus.'' Klee as an artist is taxonomically ambiguous: he can be classified as a Bauhaus Constructivist or as an abstractionist. On the other hand, some artists, like Bonnard, who was painting in an individual Post-Impressionist style through the 30's, are hard to categorize because they don't seem to relate to anyone. Then, of course, there is Picasso, who could go almost everywhere, and threatened to.
The Dada installation looked a little chaotic -- which seemed appropriate for a movement that defied bourgeois propriety and made art out of anything.
''I like small and large together,'' Elderfield said. ''And after the relatively stately galleries before, to turn around. . . . ''
''It's very exciting,'' Temkin said.
''And for the viewer to move in and out from the works,'' Elderfield murmured.
When they got to the Surrealism gallery, they considered how to place the Giacometti sculptures they had selected. One of them, ''Woman With Her Throat Cut,'' is a 1932 bronze that never fails to deliver a visceral jolt. Part of its force comes from the fact that it is splayed out on a low platform, as if fallen from the pedestal on which a conventional sculpture stands erect. How low could the platform be placed without tripping visitors?
''I remember in Zurich the sculpture was considerably higher,'' said Jerome Neuner, the production designer.
Anne Umland, who was co-director of the Giacometti show at MOMA and the Zurich Kunsthaus in 2001, recalled that very well. She grimaced. ''It looked like an hors d'oeuvre,'' she said. They decided to keep the platform low.
Visitor management -- to safeguard the museum against legal liability and art damage, as well as to protect the visitors themselves -- is a continual concern. Another sculpture, Carl Andre's 1969 ''Lead Piece,'' which was being considered for a place in a later gallery, consists of 144 lead squares arranged as a checkerboard on the floor. You might say that Andre took Giacometti's project of lowering sculpture and pushed it as far as it could go. The museum was investigating the possibility that children might lick the lead plates and open the door to a lawsuit.
Scrutinizing the walls of the Surrealism gallery, Umland worried about the cardboard maquette that represented Masson's ''Battle of Fishes.'' She thought the maquette looked awfully large. A tape measure was obtained, and the checklist was consulted. Indeed, the actual work measured four inches smaller on each side. For a painting that is only 14 1/4 inches by 28 3/4 inches, that is a considerable discrepancy. They called over a curatorial assistant, Michelle Yun, who supervises such data, for an explanation.
''They're guesstimates,'' she said cheerfully. She had made the maquettes that way because the works themselves are mostly out on loan. Because her listed dimensions referred to unframed pieces, she had standardized the widths of the frame. ''Two plus on each side, for a frame.''
''No frame is like that,'' Neuner interjected. ''They're either bigger or almost nothing at all.''
Considering that the curators had been painstakingly adjusting the maquettes to fit on the walls for weeks, it was oddly late to discover that the cardboard stand-ins only approximated the sizes of the originals. But, as everyone agreed with resigned good humor, once the real art arrived, many adjustments would need to be made anyway.
Occasionally, a familiar work is removed to present an artist in an unaccustomed light. The team thinks that too many people regard Giacometti as an existentialist, not as an innovative artist. So the new installation won't display his ''Man Pointing,'' the etiolated bronze figure of 1947 that came to represent postwar despair. Instead, it will highlight ''The Chariot,'' a tiny female figure atop a gigantic cart. '''Man Pointing' lends itself to the interpretation of isolated man rising above the ashes after Auschwitz,'' Umland explained. ''The moment you take 'Man Pointing' out and put in 'Chariot,' you can look instead at the ways that Giacometti does always push that line between visibility and invisibility, between the incredible material presence when you get up close and the irregular surface, which works to dissolve the figures' mass.'' Instead of Giacometti as a sociocultural prophet, the curators want to present him as a pioneering sculptor.
In a kind of affirmative-action system to boost artists lacking the genius of Picasso, the team was always discriminating against the protean Spaniard. ''For this to work well, it has to be an inductive study of the material, to see what works well together,'' Elderfield said. ''It isn't being done purely on greatness of pictures, because all things being equal, you would say this Picasso is greater than the competition and put another one in.'' On separate occasions, in the model and in the new building, I saw a lineup of gallery alternates, all of them Picassos. The curators would joke about ''Picasso-free rooms'' or about a children's game, ''Find the Picasso'' in a gallery. ''It's just a monster threatening to eat every room,'' Temkin said only half-jokingly.
In late July, the team was working with cardboard maquettes in the gallery devoted to the development of Cubism after 1912. On the model, Umland had prepared an impressive wall of five collages and collage-inspired paintings by Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris.
''This will be crowded, but none of the works is that . . . radiant,'' Temkin said. She thought the different pieces, muted in color, could survive the cramped quarters.
Elderfield turned to the projects manager, Elizabeth Levine: ''What do you think? Four?''
She nodded. They took one of the two Gris maquettes off and rearranged the wall.
''Much better,'' Elderfield said.
''So, a terrible question,'' Temkin said. ''Is it worth being better or having more? Can we really just have one Gris? Doesn't that marginalize him?''
''To have two Picassos, a Braque and a Gris. . . . '' Elderfield's voice trailed off, and he shrugged. ''It would be nice to have another Gris.''
''And we have lost so many great Grises,'' Temkin said.
They turned their attention to a smaller wall by the doorway, which would hold Picasso's first Cubist construction, the sheet-metal ''Guitar'' of 1912. They all agreed that it would look much better if it could be mounted high, without a protective case. Levine went to call James Coddington, the chief conservator, to see if that was possible. The others considered which of two 1913 guitar collages -- one by Braque, the other by Picasso -- to place alongside the sculpture.
''It works better with Picasso,'' Temkin said. ''That bastard.''
Levine returned from her call to Coddington, who said he would check the files. Later, permission was granted: the sculpture could be shown uncased.
Before leaving the gallery, they reconsidered the Gris painting ''Grapes and Wine,'' which had fallen by the wayside.
''Then we have the lonely Gris issue,'' Temkin said. ''Which I think is a real issue. He's a great, great painter.''
''Don't we have a big 1917 Gris in 'Crossroads'?'' Elderfield asked. There was indeed a large Gris painting, ''The Sideboard,'' slated to hang in a later gallery.
''But taking away the Gris of '12, '13, '14 is not compensated for by having something from 1917,'' Temkin said.
It was another decision to be postponed until the real art could be viewed.
Back in 1953, the museum revoked a guiding principle, intended to keep the Modern modern, by which it sold works that were more than 50 years old to the Metropolitan Museum and used the proceeds to add more current pieces to the permanent collection. From then on, MOMA would retain its treasures (except when it deaccessioned them to buy replacements). With this change in policy, the Modern became a historical museum of modernism. As younger artists turned away from the formalist canon of modern art, evincing a reborn fondness for narrative and realism, or creating works that were difficult to display in traditional galleries, the Modern's fervor for contemporary art flagged. Not that it was about to renounce the mission. ''In 1984, we went through the question of whether we are going to be a museum of contemporary art or historical art, and we didn't answer the question,'' said Mary Lea Bandy, chief curator of film and new media. Under Lowry, the question has been answered. The Modern aims energetically to be both.
In time, the renewed attention to contemporary art may lead MOMA's curators to reconsider the art of the past, perhaps resuscitating forgotten neo-Romanticists like Eugene Berman and Realists like Walter Sickert, whose styles were revived by artists in the 80's and remain relevant today. In mid-September, however, even a crowd-pleaser like Andrew Wyeth's ''Christina's World'' was not assured of a place. The main restoration effort is directed toward filling in works by modernist artists who, for reasons of gender or geography, were previously overlooked. A canvas, welded steel and wire construction by Lee Bontecou, one of the few female artists to achieve great recognition in the 60's, will be prominently displayed. Thanks to a major gift by Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, a trustee, Latin American artists -- other than the too easily ghettoized ''folkloric'' Mexican muralists -- enter the Modern's story of modern art: work by such South American artists as Armando Reveron, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Helio Oiticica and Lygia Clark will be incorporated into the chronologically appropriate galleries. On the fifth floor, there will be less German Expressionism, more early Cubism. The new installation on the fourth floor will give far greater weight to the art of the 60's and early 70's -- besides Pop, there will be healthy amounts of Minimalism (like the austere grids of Sol Lewitt and the repetitive metal pieces of Donald Judd), Post-Minimalism (including the lyrical organic forms of Eva Hesse) and the mind play of Conceptualism. The second floor, which will organize art chronologically from the 70's, 80's and 90's through the present, can be more freewheeling because it makes no claim to be a history.
At this stage, everything in the installation is still tentative. The arrival of the art will surely dictate last-minute amendments. Even so, it seems safe to say that Elderfield -- for reasons of personal temperament and current art-world thinking -- has embraced a more capacious vision of modern art history, one that avoids the sharp, tendentious focus of Rubin in favor of the broader tastes of Barr. The installation sticks to the evolutionary model of ''isms'' that Barr introduced and the world has since adopted, but it does so in a loose, provisional way -- the way that Barr himself favored and Varnedoe later endorsed.
''Every installation is an act of interpretation,'' Elderfield said. The lofty spotless settings in which modern art is presented can make the juxtapositions and sequences appear preordained. It is hard to believe, but when Barr first hung art in the museum, he used a beige burlap that he called ''monk's cloth'' to cover the walls. Somewhere down the line, colored backgrounds yielded to the white clinical environment we accept as natural. Paintings that were commissioned for dining rooms or entry halls shuck those mortal trappings when they enter the stark museological pantheon. ''No other civilization emptied out its interior spaces and made them pure white, and then singled out an object and put it on this wall or on this pedestal in such isolation,'' said Mary Anne Staniszewski, an associate professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who researched the history of MOMA exhibition installations for her book ''The Power of Display.'' Two years ago, she gave a lecture at MOMA and talked to Elderfield afterward in a symposium. ''He was thinking about the chronology with the wall and what that narrative was, instead of stepping back and looking at the entire story he was setting up,'' she said. ''He was concerned about the dialogue between the different objects rather than the entire museum spatial experience. I felt he was in 2-D and I was in 3-D.''
But when the museum selected Taniguchi, who works in the classical modernist idiom, it was tipping its hand. It does not wish to break with its tradition. Unlike the controversial ''Modern Starts,'' the new installation of the painting and sculpture galleries will affirm a continuity with past installations. The changes will be modifications: some rediscovered artists, some amplified ''isms.'' The main surprises may be the works that are left out, like ''Man Pointing,'' and those given new prominence, like the Signac portrait of Fénéon.
When I saw Rubin, I couldn't resist bringing up the topic of how an installation begins.
''Here's where you're stuck,'' Rubin said. ''There's really only one thing you could have begun with before Cézanne. Courbet, though radical in his subjects, is still an older painter. The real change begins with Manet, where there's a flattening out of the picture and a whole different attitude in the way the artist relates to the public. Manet is the only painter you have to consider. The situation is, the Metropolitan has a collection of Manets that would choke a horse. There was only one Manet in any of the trustees' collections, David Rockefeller's collection, but it wasn't the Manet you would want. It was a little more academic. Manets cost a fortune. I got 15 important works for what it would cost to get one Manet. The museum started with Post-Impressionism. You can say Impressionism started a new way of seeing a painting, but the modern styles began with what people built out of Impressionism. I think it's inarguable. What I did was to say, Cézanne is obviously our opening artist, and we want to hit with our best Cézanne, which was 'The Bather.''' And so he reaffirmed Barr's decision to start with Cézanne's iconic work.
A little later, I mentioned that Elderfield planned to open his installation with Signac's portrait of Fénéon. Rubin looked startled.
''It's the only great picture that Signac ever painted,'' he said. ''The rest is candy-box stuff. And it strikes me as a funny jumping-off spot, because the Cézanne is much earlier.''
Then he paused, and smiled wanly. ''Don't tell me what they're doing, because I'll just criticize it,'' he said. ''This is John's turn to do the installation, and I'm sure he'll do something interesting.''
Arthur Lubow is a contributing writer for the magazine. He writes frequently on art-related topics.