Last October, in keeping with its mission to be “the greatest museum of modern art in the world,” MoMA reopened after its most consequential renovation and expansion to date. The changes, designed by the firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro (who also worked on the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, The Broad in Los Angeles, and the High Line in New York City), are massive. And, at a cost of $450 million, they’re expensive. The new footprint spans the first four floors of Jean Nouvel’s supertall luxury skyscraper at 53 West 53rd, adding 47,000 square feet of gallery space. The overall effect is to lend the campus more breathing room while also preserving, with sensible modification, the museum’s original design. (The original Bauhaus staircase now starts on the first floor while a sleek new staircase, visible from the street, rises like a banner from the ground to the top floor.)
The critical response has been largely (if grudgingly) enthusiastic, daggers slipped in with the praise. Some critics have accused the “new” Modern of expanding for the sake of growth alone. The building is said to be too “corporate”—not just hard to navigate, but soulless and cold. I find it spacious, flexible, and generous in amenities (not least the new café with its outdoor terrace on the sixth floor). More importantly, though, it represents a thrilling reset of the museum’s institutional trajectory, one that finally gives women and non-European artists their due.
But go and see it for yourself. To start, pause at the new entrance on 53rd Street, where a dramatic cantilevered canopy opens onto a massive new lobby. Here a double-height hall extends all the way to 54th Street. Make your way past the ticket counters and coat check to the Sculpture Garden, where you can ride the new elevators to the fifth floor, where the heart of the collection takes you from the nineteenth century to the 1940s. (The fourth floor again shows the 1940s to the l970s, and the second the 1970s to the present.)
The first gallery—like the sixty-one others that follow—has been tastefully redesigned. It now displays “Nineteenth Century Innovators,” and Cézanne’s famous Bather and van Gogh’s beloved Starry Night have been wisely hung in a corner for crowd control. It’s followed by a gallery of early film and photography. Next comes the Picasso gallery, in which Demoiselles d’Avignon is hung cater-corner to Faith Ringgold’s 1967 troubling work Die. From her “American People Series,” it features a violent scene of a street riot. You don’t need an explainer to intuit that MoMA is no longer thinking in terms of a “master narrative of teleological development.” You see and feel it.
That feeling is only enhanced by the galleries that follow. There’s “New Expression in Germany and Austria,” which corrects a weakness in the original conception of the museum. Another contains a range of works made “Circa 1913.” The new Geffen Wing, signaled by black-metal door frames, mixes ready-made art with urban and domestic design. Its juxtaposition of older, more famous names with newer ones offers a fresh take on seven decades of art history. Such excitement is followed by an unexpected opportunity for quiet contemplation: as long as the crowd isn’t too dense, a lovely corner gallery, specially designed to house Monet’s Water Lilies, will help you enter deeply into the painting.
In retitling the galleries, MoMA curators have explicitly tried to avoid anything overtly ideological or doctrinaire. Thus instead of the traditional “Abstract Expressionism,” we get twenty-two galleries on the fourth floor dedicated to “Expressionism.” The early rooms are dedicated to “Action Painting.” Those are followed by rooms devoted to Pop, Minimalist, and Conceptual Art. Andy Warhol’s there, as you might expect. But he’s accompanied by a host of works by women: better-known figures like Louise Bourgeois, Joan Mitchell, Hedda Sterne, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan, Louise Nevelson, Lee Bontecou, and Helen Frankenthaler all appear, as well as newer artists like Lygia Pape and Carmen Herrera. And in the final gallery, “War Within, War Without,” pieces by male and female artists (such as Benny Andrews, Adrian Piper, and David Hammon) work together to address the violence wrought by armed forces in Vietnam, Chile, and Sudan. The floor also houses the new Kravis Studio, a wonderfully flexible two-story space for performance, dance, music, and sound works.