How Jerry Saltz Learned to Love the MoMA Again

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Picasso’s ‘Untitled (Head of a Woman),’ 1932, on view at MoMA. Photo: Edward Keating

Along with many others, I am feeling love for the Museum of Modern Art. Even after so many — including me, very vocally — have been so upset with MoMA since it reopened its too-small building in 2004. Thereafter, it seemingly went on-and-off hog wild on anything performance-­oriented, hip, kind of politically correct, or otherwise guaranteed to generate selfies, not least of which were the “Rain Room,” Tim Burton, and Björk shows. (Even just this year, MoMA razed its much-beloved neighbor, the American Museum of Folk Art, for what will be a new Diller Scofidio + Renfro redo that looks, from the drawings I saw in a three-hour private meeting, pretty off-putting.)

But amid all this, MoMA reminds us just how indispensable and at times spectacular it can be. The current “Picasso Sculpture” show is a mind-boggling array of canny work by this foundational modernist master who changed the course of art history, and with it, MoMA addressed its own lack of space for such shows and undertook, at who knows what cost, to de-install the entire fourth-floor permanent collection of modern painting and sculpture for this exhibition. This gave organizers Ann Temkin and Anne Umland (with Virginie Perdrisot) enough space for MoMA to do what it does better than any institution on Earth: lay out the course of a great artist’s career in depth with some of the hardest-to-procure loans in the world supplementing its own unrivaled collection. “Picasso Sculpture” brought together all six of the famous absinthe-glass sculptures, a feat never accomplished before, and which by itself gave us an artist rupturing art history. In the same gallery, meanwhile, were a number of the Spaniard’s guitar sculptures that complete this vivisection of Western perspective.

And it wasn’t just Picasso. The year began with holdovers of the stellar “Matisse Paper Cut Outs” and Robert Gober retrospectives from late 2014 and, later, in the garden, we saw Pierre Huyghe’s incredible contemporary sculpture of a classical nude with an enormous living beehive on her head. There were also surveys of Jacob Lawrence and Joaquín Torres-Garcia, and by Klaus Biesenbach himself, the Wael Shawky show at MoMA/PS1 — one of the best shows of the year.

In addition to these and other notable shows, there are other, less-tangible things in the offing at MoMA that let us know that the museum finally got the message. After being blasted so badly for the Björk show, Biesenbach, the exhibition’s curator, curtailed his squirrelly Instagram account. Almost overnight, as if word from above and the cosmos must have created an inner course correction — like that, all the celeb selfies with James Franco, Lady Gaga, Marina Abramovic, Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife, and all sorts of other party shots simply stopped. Pfft — they were over. He didn’t even post pics of subsequent art fairs and other international wingdings. The other thing that may be changing at MoMA is bigger and more important than this passing fancy of celebrity curators and the like. Many have the sense that the Whitney Museum of American Art got its expansion so right, in terms of interior architecture and its approach to the exhibition of art, that it is already helping to lead MoMA out of the corporate/uptight self-conscious woods it’s been in for almost ten years. The Whitney is serving as a physical example of a way to cater to the ever-growing crowds that come to museums while also providing calm, useful, pleasurable space to view art. MoMA’s de-installing a whole floor to do the Picasso show perhaps signals that this institution is prepared at last to do whatever it can to serve the art in its collection. The greatest collection of modern art on Earth — now and forever, probably. And that is all art lovers everywhere have ever asked for. And needed.

*A version of this article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.