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Push to Flush. How New York Lost the Idea of Modern Art… (On Museums, Collections and Spectators)

By Paco Barragán

Having been asked to narrate my recent visit to New York to some of its seminal museums, my remarks on it must be taken as biased-in the nature of a reprobation-rather than as the expression of entirely independent criticism.

I freely admit that I gently borrowed the title from French professor Serge Guilbaut, whose book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom, and the Cold War, written back in 1983, is still by far one of the most fascinating books about abstract expressionism and its controversial use as propaganda in the Cold War years. So New York stole the idea of modern art from Paris after the Second World War.

While visiting New York in the 1990s many times with the purpose of getting acquainted with the art scene-I still remember when I was given a ticking-off by Annina Nosei because I dared to ask for a photograph of higher quality to accompany a review of one of her shows I wanted to publish-and being impressed by the vitality, quality and variety of the art scene, I believe that it is not difficult to affirm that from beginning of the 2000s, and especially after 9/11 and the 2008 sub-prime crisis, we have been witnessing the slow but unstoppable decline of New York as the artistic mecca.

Without being much interested in my own consistency, I have to admit that the question crossed my mind many times. And in this sense, MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Whitney and the Metropolitan provide a rather unfascinating route into museography today.

Pablo Picasso´s Le Demoiselles d'Avignon at MoMA. Photo: Paco Barragán.

Pablo Picasso´s Le Demoiselles d'Avignon at MoMA. Photo: Paco Barragán.

So if New York is no longer the champion, who is?

A mere walk through these museums makes it almost childish or superficial to emphasize that in our case the principle of engagement between the artworks displayed and the public is totally missing.

About 15 teenagers and three adults are standing in front of MoMA’s Van Gogh, taking a selfie with the colorful The Starry Night painted at Saint Rémy in June 1889; a couple of meters away on the same fifth floor, Pablo Picasso’s Le Demoiselles d’Avignon remains in utter silence, hardly looked at by two people. Nobody reads the uninspiring labels. One person in the whole room is listening to an audio guide, and nowhere is it explained what makes this one of the most fascinating art works of the 20th century and why it was so revolutionary, and that while it was painted it 1907 it was not until 1937 that it was first publicly shown! This is essential to its narrative. A further look at the collection display on the fifth floor and it’s easy to understand why Marinetti likened museums to “cemeteries” that “encourage a useless admiration of the past.”

It seems the only thing that has changed at MoMA since Alfred H. Barr Jr.’s 1929 narrative and display are the color of the walls. MoMA’s collection revolves formally around Cubism culminating with Abstract Expressionism and ideologically around bourgeois liberalism and its rituals of individuality, freedom and authorship. Not even Hopper, hidden outside next to the escalator, fit’s Barr Jr.’s grand narrative, let alone the rest of the collection displayed on the fourth floor: Pop art, Conceptual art, Minimalism et al. It is painful to see MoMA incapable of adjusting its collection and display to the demands of the neo-liberal subject.

A look at the Guggenheim doesn’t provide a more satisfactory experience. The intimate Agnes Martin paintings displayed along the tower are hopelessly squeezed between floor and ceiling, making the aesthetic experience awkward and the display dishonorable to her refined sensibility. The selection from both the Guggenheim and the Thannhauser Collection at Tower Level 2 lacks any coherent narrative-except for being modernist-and the works by Brancusi, Picasso, Chagall, Malevich and Kandinsky look disordered and hastily hung, reminiscent of the traditional salon-style presentation of the first Armory Show in 1912. The most fascinating thing at the Guggenheim seems to be in the restroom, judging by the unending queues to take a selfie with Cattelan’s solid-gold toilet!

At the Whitney, the exhibition “Human Interest,” with portraits culled from the Whitney´s Collection is from a curatorial point of view easily dismissed as derivative, foreseeable and improper of a modern or contemporary art museum. And, finally, the Metropolitan, with its notorious “skying” of paintings on tall walls-some of which had dust on the upper part of the frame!-is hardly worthy of a participatory experience with even a minimum of intellectual depth.

This never-ending 19th-century mantra of static, hierarchical, chronologic artist/style/genre/movement displays shows its total impotency when confronted both with laymen and young spectators: The lack of active engagement of the visitor and imaginative display strategies turns the experience into hardly anything more than posting some selfies on Instagram and Twitter.

The collection is at the heart of a modern bourgeois museum espousing its grand liberal narrative. Its ongoing unimaginative display only builds a wall in front of a public and explains in part the demise of New York as the metropolis of the art world.

Paco Barragán is the visual arts curator of Centro Cultural Matucana 100 in Santiago, Chile. He recently curated “Intimate Strangers: Politics as Celebrity, Celebrity as Politics” and “Alfredo Jaar: May 1, 2011″ (Matucana 100, 2015), “Guided Tour: Artist, Museum, Spectator” (MUSAC, Leon, Spain, 2015) and “Erwin Olaf: The Empire of Illusion” (MACRO, Rosario, Argentina, 2015). He is author of The Art to Come (Subastas Siglo XXI, 2002) and The Art Fair Age (CHARTA, 2008).

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