Goldsmiths Curatorial Critique

Winds of Change: MoMA Under Ann Temkin

Posted in Reviews by bridgetdonlon on October 13, 2009

Installation view, Measuring the Universe, Roman Ondák, 2009. Photo by Bridget DonlonThe Museum of Modern Art has an ongoing struggle with itself to remain at the forefront of artistic production despite the commitment it has to the preservation and celebration of Modern Art History. As the museum comes under a new stewardship in Ann Temkin, we begin to sense palpable change in the course MoMA wants to set for itself.

Waste Not, an installation in the atrium by Song Dong, Compass in Hand: Selections from The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection, Roman Ondák’s interactive performative work Measuring the Universe and Looking at Music: Side 2 are four separate exhibitions that combined this past season to present a fairly even overview of contemporary art. The atrium installation led viewers halfway through the work before entering the contemporary galleries where the drawing exhibition was on view. From there it was through the Ondák performance, into the music exhibition then back out into the second half of the Song Dong installation.

Is it fair to say that this grouping of exhibitions is Ann Temkin’s vision of a contemporary future for MoMA? Each component was curated by an in-house curator – Barbara London for Song Dong and Looking at Music, Klaus Biesenbach for Roman Ondák, and Christian Rattemeyer with Cornelia Butler for the drawings exhibition. Temkin remains the chief curator however, and we must (must we?) give her credit for the overall presentation and selection of shows on view. Use of the same atrium space under John Elderfield has previously showcased paintings by post-war masters Philip Guston and Cy Twombly, the contemporary galleries displaying veritable ‘greatest hits’ of the 1960s through 1990s, not pushing boundaries in any evident way.


While the grouping of these four individual exhibitions did present a picture of the span of current art practices, the overall effect of this combination was unfocused and overdone. The Song Dong and Roman Ondák installations were inverse in visual language (Waste Not being an almost baroque display of objects while Measuing the Universe is simply white walls and black ink) but equal in emotional impact. They could have adequately and powerfully held the second floor space together, on their own. While the drawings show was well-considered – an expansive definition of the medium and a diverse range of lesser and under-known artists from around the world – it was overhung and the curators continue to fail to grapple with the sprawling and often claustrophobic space. The music show is certainly ‘cool’ and fitting with the spirit of New York City but not in an institution located in midtown Manhattan, a neighborhood universally considered uncool. It feels like someone’s middle-aged dad donning leather pants and a Strokes t-shirt: slightly awkward and six years out of touch. Furthermore, the resultant exhibition amounts to not much else besides a showcase of memorabilia. That this show was one of the more crowded galleries remains a mystery to me. I go to iTunes for music and museums for art. Sorry, but themes the breaks for this art-goer.

When The Museum of Modern Art reopened in 2005 after a two year renovation visitors were greeted with Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk in the center of a soaring atrium, a contemporary monument to modern art nodding in form to historical art, sealing a link between the past and the present. When the obelisk is removed from view and replaced with a contemporary installation, it makes a very clear shift of focus from the Modern to the Contemporary. This shift is important to show that MoMA is in fact a competitor with other institutions of both equal and smaller size. This summer Song Dong’s Waste Not made such a statement. This work was presented along with three separate, smaller exhibitions to occupy the whole of the second floor galleries. It is overwhelming to know that there are several additional floors worth of art available to view in the building, as this floor alone would constitute a full program at any other institution. In a way, after going through these shows, the rest of the museum feels unnecessary, as though the second floor is topped by a depository of history, relics from the past that do not apply to a current reality.

I am not sure if this is John Elderfield or Ann Temkin’s vision. Perhaps it is a hybrid product of the transition between the two. If this programming does in fact come from Ann Temkin, it seems to me that she is starting to get her footing in running the museum, and it will be interesting to see how far she can push the balance between the Modern and the Contemporary. At present there is an obvious weight of the Modern present at MoMA, instead of a creative tension between it and the  Contemporary. The balance within the museum itself is important, as it needs to translate to the wider context of the artworld at large.

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