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These Walls Can Talk--Eloquently

In an era of temporary exhibitions, MOCA's 'Room of Their Own' creates an absorbing show from its permanent collection.

March 04, 2001|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic. He can be reached at

Last year, when the new Tate Modern opened in London to thundering international applause, only one feature of the monumental enterprise caused observers to pause and puzzle. The museum's permanent collection had been installed in an unusual way. Rather than chronology, national origin, stylistic movement or other familiar organizing principle, the museum chose to hang its collection according to four familiar themes: history, the nude, landscape and still-life. The themes derive from those established by the 17th century French academy. At the Tate, they were made more elastic to accommodate things like pure abstraction, which didn't exist 300 years ago.

In New York, meanwhile, the Museum of Modern Art had been experimenting with a similar thematic shuffling of its own celebrated collection. As MOMA prepared to shutter its building on West 53rd Street for a major renovation and expansion, the curatorial staff took the opportunity to organize a series of small shows in which the iconic permanent collection could be looked at in several ways. "MOMA 2000" grouped works according to categories like color or the repetition of an image.

Both installations had their strengths and weaknesses. At the Museum of Modern Art, part of the delight--and shock--of the endeavor simply came from where it was happening: MOMA's collection, staggering in its breadth and depth, had always been the historical benchmark for 20th century art, and to see it shuffled was an inevitable surprise. At the Tate, by contrast, thematic hanging served another function: It helped obscure gaping holes in an erratic collection by shifting attention in an unexpected direction.

Both installations illustrated something else. Today's roaring museum industry is dominated by temporary exhibitions, from international biennials to blockbuster extravaganzas, individual retrospectives and smaller, more focused surveys. Excitement and curiosity are certainly inspired by a museum's temporary shows, but it's easy to forget that, when all is said and done, the lasting proof resides in its permanent collection.

This fact was driven home the other day, during a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art. MOCA has just opened a new installation of nearly 200 works drawn from its permanent collection, half at the main building on Grand Avenue and half at the Geffen Contemporary in Little Tokyo. Chief curator Paul Schimmel and curatorial associate Colette Dartnall oversaw the selection and installation, which will be on view indefinitely. Titled "A Room of Their Own," it means to maximize the nucleus of MOCA's collecting philosophy. The principle, which has nothing to do with themes, is simple but sound: Our understanding of an artist's work is best achieved when it can be seen in some depth, through multiple examples, rather than in isolation. Whenever possible, the museum's collection should reflect that fundamental truth.

"A Room of Their Own" does, emphatically so. About a third of the 61 artists are seen in some depth. Individual rooms are devoted to Mark Rothko (seven works), Franz Kline (seven), Helen Levitt (18), Robert Rauschenberg (10), Robert Frank (17), Claes Oldenburg (13), Diane Arbus (11), Robert Irwin (four), Brice Marden (four), Charles Ray (three) and more.

In between, other rooms feature one or two works by each of multiple artists to offer alternative directions, reflect divergent voices or provide an illuminating context. Sometimes, a room is devoted to a single work by one artist--Roni Horn's aluminum and plastic sculpture of scattered words made concrete but kept elusive, a series of funky drawings by Mike Kelley, a haunting installation by Robert Gober that glimpses a regenerative underworld, a video projection by Pipilotti Rist that turns a visit to the grocery store into an erotic daydream.

Throughout, the level of quality remains exceptionally high. The result is perhaps the most beautiful, absorbing and satisfying installation of its collection that MOCA has yet achieved. It demonstrates something else too: There isn't a city in America today--not New York, not Chicago, not Houston, not San Francisco--where a more impressive museum collection of contemporary art can be seen.


The Grand Avenue installation focuses on examples of the postwar ferment in American art in the late 1940s and 1950s. Eight exceptional paintings, drawings and sculptures in the first room orbit around the blazing sun of Jackson Pollock's "Number 1" (1949), a painting of such lyrical grace and carefully choreographed energy that it's easy to lose yourself in the luminous liquidity of its dripped and poured paint. What an opener!

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