YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


That lived-in look

MoMA's huge new galleries: praised, then reviled. But Serra's work looks great in them.

August 01, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — WAIT till the Serra show.

That has been pretty much the only line of defense left in recent months for champions of Yoshio Taniguchi's enlarged Museum of Modern Art -- a building that in its dizzying fall from critical grace, in its journey from feted to mocked, has become architecture's version of Howard Dean.

When the museum reopened near the end of 2004, the notices were nearly all very positive, even glowing. For my part, I called the $425-million redesign "an elegant return to the museum's first principles" and praised its "architectural poise."

But over the last couple of years, the critical tide has turned dramatically against the building. New York art critics, in particular, have savaged the Taniguchi galleries as cold and impersonal -- symbolic of what they see as the museum's conservative and increasingly corporate personality.

Jerry Saltz, writing in the Village Voice a year after MoMA reopened, complained that Taniguchi had turned it into "a beautiful tomb." His wife, New York Times critic Roberta Smith, charged several months later that the design's many shortcomings amounted to an architectural "travesty." (Must be fun to stroll through the building with those two!) Other writers began dropping withering judgments about the building into their reviews of shows at other museums. These parenthetical asides were devastatingly casual, as if MoMA's shortcomings were so well established that they could be referred to in journalistic shorthand.

It became hard to think of another prominent building whose critical reputation had crumbled so quickly.

MoMA officials did their best, as the chorus of complaints swelled, to caution that a full assessment of the new building remained premature -- at least, they said, until the opening of the big Richard Serra retrospective this summer. Curators were still learning their way around the expanded museum, they argued.

MoMA Director Glenn Lowry suggested as much, in rather frank terms, to the New Yorker's Calvin Tomkins (another of the redesign's declared foes). "We've got 50,000 more square feet of exhibition space," Lowry told him, "and we're far from understanding how to use that space well."

More to the point, a major impetus for the expansion, from its earliest stages, was a desire to show more large-scale contemporary artwork such as Serra's. The huge gallery for contemporary art on the second floor of the new building was designed and built specifically with his sculptures in mind. The block-long space is double-height and column-free and has floors that have been reinforced to carry heavy steel.

Well, the Serra show is here. Running through Sept. 10, it includes 27 pieces altogether, including three large, virtuosic sculptures the artist created last year specifically with that second-floor gallery in mind. It has been packing in the crowds as that rarest of exhibitions: a critically praised blockbuster by a living artist.

To add to the intrigue, just as the show was opening came word that MoMA was planning to expand yet again, this time into three floors of a new tower being built by a Houston developer on a lot immediately west of the museum. The Slatin Report, a respected real estate website, announced that the tower will be designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. He was chosen, the website said, "after a fierce and very hush-hush competition among five world-leading architects." Nouvel is not expected to design the new galleries, however.

What the report didn't add, but might have, is that Nouvel offers a client everything that Taniguchi does not: a stirring, even irrational stab at architectural poetry. The new galleries will likely share the airiness and restrained palette of the ones by Taniguchi. But they will hover inside an architectural shell that thumbs its nose at such rationalism.

So what does the Serra exhibition -- and the news of Nouvel's arrival on 53rd Street, and the museum's seemingly insatiable appetite for space -- tell us about Taniguchi's MoMA? About the much analyzed relationship between art and museum architecture, and why the critics' attitudes about the building shifted so radically?

On the most basic level, the exhibition clarifies and works to justify the Taniguchi design. The interaction between the sculptures and the galleries here is about as effective as can be imagined. Serra's work has always flirted with architectural scale and sensibility, and the Taniguchi galleries -- politely inert containers with a remarkable sense of proportion -- do more than merely allow that flirtation to continue interrupted. They practically dim the lights, put on the Barry White and pour the drinks themselves.

Los Angeles Times Articles