NEW YORK — For me, one of the most telling things about the newly overhauled Museum of Modern Art happened not at one of the packed press previews earlier this month but weeks before. Landing with a thud in my mailbox was “Among Others: Blackness at MoMA,” a somber tome of cinderblock tonnage detailing the museum’s scant and often obscured history with African-American culture.
With chapter headings like “A Legacy of Deficit” and “White by Design,” the book, published by MoMA itself, felt like the museum’s pre-opening primer, a reset button waiting to be pressed on an institution whose stories had become fusty and out of step. And when the museum’s doors swing open on Oct. 21, after six months and $450 million of a top-to-bottom do-over, that’s exactly what you’ll find. You’ll see your Picassos and Matisses, your Pollocks and Rothkos, your Warhols, your Monets and Van Goghs and Cezannes. But you’ll also see names like do Amaral and Hammons, Ringgold and Thomas, Rammellzee and Cahun. The new MoMA is 47,000 square feet bigger — totaling a voluminous 170,000 square feet — but it feels immeasurably broader and more expansive, inserting new voices into old stories that muddy the tidy narratives MoMA itself helped craft over its 90-year history.
Telling that tale is partly what made MoMA one of the world’s most important museums. But that oracular status is also why MoMA’s shortcomings were always cast in so unforgiving a glare. So here comes the corrective: African-American artists are here in force; women, a small slice of any museum’s collection, are omnipresent. The tether between the United States and France — Modernism’s superhighway, at the exclusion of most everything else — has been split into a web of global byways, examining modernity’s upheavals from multiple points on the map.
The new MoMA works hard to be cross-cultural, and at times you can see it break a sweat. Its amendments can feel labored and tokenistic — to pick one from the air, hanging Indian painter Vasudeo S. Gaitonde next to Mark Rothko struck me as blankly obligatory and without nuance. But something, clearly, needed to change.
“It’s a worldwide phenomenon that the old, linear history just doesn’t feel correct anymore,” said Ann Temkin, the museum’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, standing in a gallery called “Paris 1920s.” “This is such a turning point in our history, and museum history, this last decade. Everyone across the board is thinking about things we’ve taken for granted for 50 years. That’s not something we decided. It just happened that this expansion project allowed us to do something that needed to be done anyway, given how history has evolved in recent years.”
As Temkin spoke, she was surrounded by the usual subjects — Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Constantin Brancusi — commanding the space as you’d expect. Off in the corner, though, a surprise: Tarsila do Amaral’s “The Moon,” a lush and eerily fluid nocturne from 1928, wavering in soft uncertainty, alongside Picasso’s rigid and dun “The Studio,” made around the same time. Look a little closer, though, and you’ll see something more: “The Moon,” by a Brazilian woman always overshadowed by her male peers, was acquired just this year, perhaps hurriedly and for this very occasion.
That’s a running theme throughout the permanent collections. I was amazed by how many works were acquired in the last couple of years and the specific service curators had in mind for them. When asked if the museum was looking to broaden the “incomplete” story of Modernism it always told, MoMA director Glenn Lowry nearly burst. “Yes!” he said, emphatically. “That’s exactly the story we want to tell!”
MoMA has done well with its temporary exhibitions over the years, bringing in artists from all over the world to rub up against the Modern master narrative in its collection galleries. But permanent collections are the lifeblood of any museum. They define a history, and chart a path forward. It’s a telling irony that the Midtown museum was born in 1929 alongside a nascent avant garde, only to come to be seen as slow-footed and beholden to old ways and uncomplicated histories.
Maybe that’s why the new permanent collection display seems content to hint at a fuller, messier picture rather than tearing down and making over. Such a radical redux simply isn’t in MoMA’s DNA.
But there’s one spot where it sets a full-blown detonator: In a large gallery you’ll find Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” from 1907, which, the story goes, might be the most important painting of all time for its fractures of figuration, perspective (it’s the crucible of cubism, most say), and female beauty conventions all at once. The rest of the room feels like a walk-through of Picasso’s greatest hits leading up to “Demoiselles” — the old MoMA, strutting its bona fides.
Right in the middle, though, out of time and context, is Faith Ringgold’s “American People Series #20: Die.” In the white-walled gallery, it lands like a slab of raw meat on a bedsheet — white and black men and women in smart business dress splayed wide-eyed and bleeding on a grubby sidewalk. Ringgold, who is black, made the piece in 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement. The straight line you’re meant to draw is that Ringgold was looking at Picasso’s “Guernica” and took inspiration from the violent chaos the Spanish painter captured with such visceral clarity.
MoMA tilts it another way, too, throwing Louise Bourgeois into the room’s mix with “Quarantania I,” from 1947-53, a stand of oblong wooden sentinels, painted white. Bourgeois and Ringgold call attention to Picasso’s “radical engagement with African art and its startling depiction of women’s power,” in “Desmoiselles,” the wall text says. I’m not so sure about that. What I saw was Picasso, a blunt force of macho hubris, challenged on all fronts from objectification of women to his claims on the reinvention of painting itself.
Ringgold shifts the conversation: From the mechanics of painting to the stories it tells, from form to content. Modern art was a formal movement, roughly replacing old techniques and perspectives with the shock of the new. I couldn’t help but think how much energy has been spent analyzing Picasso’s formal innovations in “Demoiselles” at the expense of its content (it depicts prostitutes in Barcelona and, to my eye, not sympathetically). Ringgold reminds us that formal concerns alone do not a revolution make, and that stories matter — they matter a lot. If this room accomplishes nothing more than that, it wins.
These kinds of fireworks are mostly absent in the rest of the collection, though the astute eye will find them. A room filled with absurdly famous works by Picasso’s twin tower of macho Modernism, Henri Matisse — “The Red Studio,” “The Dance,” — feels like a non sequitur, off-script in the new MoMA ethos. But wait! There’s a little Alma Woodsey Thomas, flecked in deep blue and glowing orange, tucked in the corner, like a touchstone. It feels like atonement, the museum saying: “We know.” Thomas, a black painter who spent much of her work life teaching art at a junior high school, didn’t show her abstract pieces publicly until she was 75. This piece, “Fiery Sunset,” made in 1973, was acquired in 2015.
The museum always had a core strength in Surrealism, and it makes good use of it here to get in step with the moment. One of the galleries gives top billing to Méret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup as the “quintessential” Surrealist object, which feels like a nod to the key role women artists played in the movement. That made what came next feel important, damning, and true.
There’s Rene Magritte’s “The Menaced Assassin” from 1927 — a dead woman, naked on a divan and bleeding, surrounded by suit-clad men — and Joseph Cornell’s creepy “Bébé Marie,” from the 1940s, with a doll subsumed by tentacle-like branches. There’s Salvador Dalí’s “Retrospective Bust of a Woman” from 1933 — naked from the breasts up, sporting a baguette for a hat — and Hans Bellmer’s ghastly “The Machine Gunneress in a State of Grace,” from 1937, with an array of female body parts on sticks. It felt significant that Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo, and Claude Cahun — a lesser-known experimental photographer and collagist known for androgynous fashions — were there to confront Magritte, Dalí et al. It made them seem, to me, cowed and juvenile, and slightly foolish.
Thomas, and Cahun, and do Amaral, and so many others help to clear the conscience of yet another institution that cut a slim path through art history. And at times the new display struggles to find balance. A gallery called “Idea Art,” which gathers up early Minimalism and Conceptualism, puts four videos from the early days of Feminist art at its core. But the works are uneven, to say the least. (Martha Rosler’s “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” from 1975, in which the apron-clad artist dully recites the names of various cooking implements, is gleeful, acidic satire, and the best of them.)
And mostly, the museum’s broadening gestures are mild and oblique. You’d have to know the scuttlebutt, that Claes Oldenburg — he of the giant fabric hamburgers and droopy telephones — stole the idea of soft sculpture from Yayoi Kusama to catch the glimmer of justice served in seeing these artists face off across one of the galleries; or that the fixation on Warhol’s celebrity vaulted his work to prominence while others working as presciently at the intersection of art and mass culture — like Rosalyn Drexler, who’s here and alongside him — settled for less.
That makes much of the display feel less like rewriting history than simply footnoting more thoroughly. Those footnotes are critical, though: Wifredo Lam, a Cuban painter, appears multiple times, inflecting the standard wartime narrative of European ruin with ideas around the destructive force of colonialism and slavery, an ocean away. (“The Jungle,” from 1943, calls out Cubism for its patronizing borrowing of African aesthetics in the name of “primitivism.”) A whole section on the burgeoning movement of performance art in the 1960s reveals the foundational contribution of Japanese artists to what was largely seen as a New York phenomenon.
And black artists, finally, are everywhere — from Ringgold to Thomas to Rammellzee, a multidisciplinary New York artist and graffiti writer with a work (acquired in 2018, note the theme) appearing alongside Vito Acconci, to David Hammons, whose work “Pray for America,” from 1969 (acquired in 2015) hangs right next to Philip Guston’s “Deluge II,” from 1975 in a gallery called “War Without, War Within.”
Still, some things seem oddly untouched: A display of Constantin Brancusi sculptures fill a daylight gallery, all on their own. It feels like a lost opportunity to deepen the conversation Lam seems to be having nearby, about the blithe appropriation of a “primitive” aesthetic that was the hallmark of so much early Modern art. And meanwhile, those water lilies? Claude Monet’s final masterworks hang in a room all alone, in a far corner on the fifth floor, almost like a pilgrimage site on a mountaintop — a holy place, above the fray and beyond reproach.
It all adds up to a new MoMA that’s a lot bigger — with some 2,400 collection works on view at any given time, versus 1,500 pre-expansion — and surely better, though by a modest degree. But understand this is a first step, not a finished product. Every six months, the permanent collection will rotate, filling in blanks as it goes. That just might be the most important change of all. It gives the museum a second — and third, and fourth — chance to truly reinvent by doing something institutions, historically, have rarely done: Listen, and respond. If that’s the new MoMA, count me in.
MUSEUM OF MODERN ART
Reopening Oct. 21. 11 W 53 St., New York. $14-$25, 212-708-9400, www.moma.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.