Modernism reigns at the new MOMA
New York — Well, it's official. Modernism has won hands down. Any lingering doubts I might have had were erased during the recent dedication ceremonies marking the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art. After all, who can doubt the victory when the President of the United States sends, and the governor of New York and the mayor of New York City deliver, greetings and blessings during those ceremonies?
The 45-minute event, which also included short speeches by museum officials, kicked off a week-long series of formal dinners, receptions, luncheons, and press previews that culminated in the museum's official opening May 17. Anyone attending any of these affairs (and most members of the art community managed to make it to at least two) must have left more convinced than ever that ''modern art'' is now both sanctioned and officially enshrined, and that the Museum of Modern Art is its chief American temple.
This becomes all the more obvious if one considers the time, expense, planning, and care that went into the museum's four-year, $55 million expansion program. No effort was spared to make this the most prestigious home for the art of the past century, and to make it as spacious, attractive, and convenient as possible for serious students, casual visitors, or anyone looking for a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.
To achieve this, Cesar Pelli was commissioned to design the museum's expansion and renovation project and to work in collaboration with Gruen Associates, the museum project's architect of record. The result is an institution with twice as much gallery space as before for permanent collections and temporary exhibitions; greater study, storage, and library facilities; a larger lobby and dramatically improved access to every department; a second theater for film programming and educational activities; a new education and orientation facility; larger and better restaurants; and an expanded bookstore.
The new Museum of Modern Art, in short, is much more spacious, easier to get around in, a better place to view art, and capable of providing more art-related services than its earlier version. Visitors can move about more easily and comfortably - there are escalators in the Garden Hall to carry them among all floors - and since the museum's collection is installed in chronological order, they can see the history of modern painting and sculpture unfold as they follow the suggested route.
As anyone who has seen it knows, the museum owns what is almost certainly the finest collection of modern art in the world. In its new space, this collection is shown to best advantage. Special galleries have been set aside for the work of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and de Chirico. Monet's huge ''Water Lilies'' has a room all to itself, and other favored artists such as Klee, Brancusi, Giacometti, and Pollock have been given sufficient space to establish their quality and importance.
Several recent acquisitions are on view for the first time. Among them are two major pieces of sculpture by Picasso; Matisse's 1905 oil ''La Japonaise: Woman Beside the Water''; Max Pechstein's watercolor ''Reclining Nude With Cat''; and several other works ranging from Arthur Dove's charcoal drawing ''Nature Symbolized'' to Matisse's print ''The White Fox.''
No museum opening would be complete without a special exhibition celebrating the event, and the Modern has mounted a particularly timely and controversial one. ''An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture'' was curated by Kynaston McShine, and it comprises 195 works, all executed since 1975, by 165 artists from 17 countries. It focuses primarily on recent tendencies toward Expressionism (Martin Disler, Susan Rothenberg); allegory and metaphor (Sandro Chia, Malcolm Morley); narrative (Peter Booth, Rafael Ferrer); and humor (Mark Tansey, Ger Van Elk). It also explores the continuing richness of abstraction (Gregory Amenoff, Katherine Porter); the increased interest in exotic patterning (Robert Kushner, Kim Macconnel); and new developments in sculpture (Alice Adams, Chris Burden, Richard Deacon).
It's an excellent show - as far as it goes. Viewing it, one receives a good, overall idea of the kind of work a number of influential critics and curators perceive as central to the art of the 1980s. Many of the newer Italian and West Germans who have been making such a splash lately are included (Anselm Kiefer's ''Sulamith,'' in fact, is one of the very best paintings in the show), and there are particularly strong pieces from the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, Spain, and Switzerland as well.
I was delighted by Zush's contribution, as well as by Bruce Robbins's ''Rhiz, '' Mark Tansey's ''Innocent Eye Test,'' Robert Zakanitch's ''Midnight Mornings of Glory,'' Chris Burden's sculptures, Kenneth Price's two painted ceramic pieces, Neil Jenney's ''The Bruce Hardie Memorial,'' Gianni Dessi's ''Crossroads ,'' and Mimmo Paladino's ''Viadante.''
I was also taken by Peter Booth's ''Painting 1977,'' Malcolm Morley's ''The Ultimate Anxiety,'' and Alice Adams's ''Three Arches.'' And I must admit to being charmed by Ger Van Elk's ''Three Pets.''
On the other hand, I found Richard Bosman's ''The Norseman'' and Kim Macconnel's ''Victrola'' silly beyond words, and Julian Schnabel's ''Prehistory: Glory, Honor, Privilege and Poverty'' the most pompous and vacuous work in the show.
My main objection, however, is not to what is in the exhibition, but to the fact that so much of substance was left out. The museum would have been more accurate had it entitled this show ''An International Survey of Today's Officially Sanctioned and Most Fashionable Trends in Art,'' for that is precisely what it is. Excellent as it is in many ways, it simply cannot claim to be a survey exhibition representing the full richness and diversity of post-1975 painting and sculpture.
One cannot claim to present an overview of a period's art and then exclude whatever doesn't meet one's private definition of art. Mr. McShine and the Museum of Modern Art have every right to present the art of our time as they see it, but they should also then label the resulting exhibition correctly. Hundreds of thousands of viewers will see this show before it closes, and it's not fair to give them the impression that what they see on these walls is a true and accurate representation of ''Recent Painting and Sculpture.''
Where, for instance, is there any indication of ''realism's'' dramatic resurgence and continuing growth? To deny this mode of expression today is as foolish as a Democrat's denial that any Republicans exist. And it's not only a matter of category, but of quality. I can name several younger American ''realists'' (to say nothing of the pure abstractionists, fantasists, and any number of other artists not so easily categorized) whose work is superior to all but a dozen or so paintings and sculptures on view in this show.
Anyone really looking at the art being produced today must be amazed by its diversity, novelty, intensity, and originality. Originality, however, doesn't only lie in certain attitudes or styles, and neither does quality. This is so obvious a remark that I'm embarrassed to make it. And yet I'll be forced to as long as we have ''survey'' exhibitions such as this one.
At the Museum of Modern Art through Aug. 7.