Douglas RosenbergThere is much anticipation surrounding the reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, after a long period of construction and a conceptual pivot that promises to mine the museum for a much less traditional method of projecting the historical and contemporary possibilities of art. Holland Cotter, writing in The New York Times, states that the reconceived space will “finally, if still cautiously, reveal itself to be a living, breathing 21st-century institution, rather than the monument to an obsolete history—white, male, and nationalist—that it has become over the years since its founding in 1929.” Such an evolution should be thrilling.

In order to achieve what Cotter describes, MoMa has proactively expanded its permanent collection through the acquisition of work by global citizens (Africa, Asia, South America, and elsewhere) and what seems to be a gesture toward women and inclusiveness generally. In reading Cotter’s piece, as well as descriptions by other noted art historians and critics, another takeaway may be that MoMa’s new approach to historicizing the art of the 20th century through the present will model more of an Instagram experience and less of an analog, linear, and chronological storytelling. In other words, it will, pending its unveiling, look and feel more like a conversation about art amongst contemporary thinkers for whom art is already “a living, breathing 21st-century” condition, firmly entrenched (for some time now) in the post-modern paradigm of fluidity and reappraisal.

Taking into account the speed at which institutions are able to evolve beyond their original mission, I am trying here to be as generous as possible; I am extraordinarily excited to see this new version of an institution to which I have been making cross-country pilgrimages for well more than two-thirds of my life. However, MoMa is somewhat hampered by its own name; the Museum of Modern Art, a notation that has anchored the institution within the distinct historical period of Modernism. In the new iteration of MoMa, the modern will be the reference point for the contemporary and for the digressive outliers previously ignored or absented in the analog version of art history.

I often mention the philosopher Arthur Danto’s simple yet elegant idea that, “Contemporary Art is that art made by our contemporaries.” MoMa’s new methodology, its publicly described curatorial pivot, makes me think of the way one makes bread. Much like baking bread, the smaller measures of material (contemporary art) are folded gently into the largest volume of material (modern art) to create an alchemical phenomenon whose final form does not signal its individual parts, it is simply bread or in this case, art.

I am hopeful that MoMa’s gesture makes it safe for other institutions to follow. The old story has been exhausted for some time. The telling of the story is exhausting, and like the Passover narrative or stories that parents tell children about their family history; over years of telling, one wonders if in fact the story is accurate. We become familiarized to such stories to the extent that we begin to doubt our own memory even as our audience expresses both joy and affirmation in the telling of familiar narratives and the descriptions of totems, tropes, and mythologies. Art, like life, needs constant renewal. This last summer we had to remove two beloved trees on our property. I was particularly fond of the trees, their age, volume, and majesty, and the way they flanked either end of our studio. As soon as they were gone, the end-of-day sun charged into the space they had previously occupied and immediately changed my daily experience in a way that shocked and saddened me. However, with time and the coming of Fall, I have noticed that it feels more spacious now and the extra light is a welcome gift.

Douglas Rosenberg
Chair, UW-Madison Art Department