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Why Is MoMA Hiding So Many of Its Greatest Pieces?

Museum of Modern Art

Is the Museum of Modern Art afraid of its own power? That’s an odd question to ask, given all the recent talk about MoMA’s playing Goliath as it moves to entirely obliterate the façade, interior, and footprint of the American Folk Art Museum’s building, which it purchased not long ago. But there is a sense in which MoMA does recoil from its own power—at least from the power of its permanent collection, which has a depth and a range the museum seems reluctant to entirely embrace. It is true that part of the thrust of MoMA’s new expansion plans is to make more room to display its permanent collection. And obviously the museum cannot disappoint the visitors who come to see Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, and Matisse’s Dance, by putting those masterworks in storage to make space for less celebrated works. Then again, there are lots of ways to showcase this astonishing assemblage of late nineteenth-century, twentieth-century, and twenty-first century art. MoMA’s permanent collection, one of the very greatest in the world, is a gold mine, a cabinet of curiosities, an embarrassment of riches, but there may also be a sense in which—because it reflects 85 years worth of mistakes, misunderstandings, and dramatic shifts in taste—it sometimes feels like an embarrassment, a Pandora’s Box, and a ball-and-chain.

I’d like to make a suggestion. Why doesn’t the Museum of Modern Art set up a regular schedule—perhaps of as many as twelve two-months mini-shows a year, with two running concurrently—to bring out of storage a wide variety of works? Let the museum explore all those crazy cul-de-sacs. When Andy Warhol organized a show of work from the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum, he called it “Raid the Icebox.” To MoMA I say: Let the raid begin! Back in 2007 and 2008 there was a series of shows along these lines—“Focus” exhibits they were called—that highlighted the museum’s riches in Ellsworth Kelly, Alexander Calder, Ad Reinhardt, and various other artists. And as part of “Abstract Expressionist New York” in 2010-11 there were eye-opening displays of lesser known works of the mid-century years, under the titles “Rock Paper Scissors” and “Ideas Not Theories: Artists and the Club, 1942-1962.” There’s so much more MoMA could do along these lines, and although some space and some money would need to be found to get such a project off the ground, I’m certain that whatever efforts were involved would be more than justified by the outpouring of excitement and enthusiasm such a program would inspire among New York’s most ardent museumgoers. (And compared to the expense of loan exhibitions, this would all be a bargain.) I know that twelve two-month shows a year is a lot to ask for—even if they are often shows of only five to ten works—but the breakneck speed of such a program, with young curatorial assistants given terrific opportunities to see what they can do, might bring back to MoMA some of the joyfully experimental spirit that characterized its early years, when with a skeleton staff they produced what now seems a bewilderingly large and complex exhibition schedule.

Walker Evans Archive/Museum of Modern Art

Of course, everybody I know has their own dream of the perfect little MoMA show. How about a show that brought together all the Balthus in MoMA’s collection, including his mesmerizing portraits of the painters Derain and Miró (which I don’t recall seeing up in recent times)? Naum Gabo’s great geometricized wall sculpture, Head of a Woman, which has been back on view since December, could be the center of a nifty little constructivist exhibition. The museum’s spectacular collection of early Russian books hasn’t been seen in a while. How about a show focusing on Matisse’s odalisques of the 1920s, of which the museum now has a couple of sterling examples in oil, which could be joined with some great prints? I know the museum has been trying to do this kind of thing. Some of Walker Evans’s transcendentally quotidian studies of America in the 1930s made a beautiful gathering, which closed only a couple of weeks ago. And when “Inventing Abstraction” was mounted in 2012, I was delighted to discover an entire gallery in the permanent collection dedicated to the work of Paul Klee, whose achievement was sorely missed in the early abstraction show. So in a way all I’m saying is that the museum should more deeply embrace what is obviously already a natural inclination to look inward—and look inward in a variety of ways.

Dick Higgins/Museum of Modern Art

For months now I’ve been telling people to go see MoMA’s “There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33.”” Much of what excites me in this brainy little show about Cage’s four-and-a-half-minute salute to silence is the light it sheds on little known aspects of MoMA’s collection, such as Richard Lippold’s set of five small, dreamily Platonic geometric wire sculptures. One of the great treats in store for visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is always the long gallery on the second floor, dedicated to a constantly changing selection of drawings, prints, photographs, and illustrated books, with themes explored in groups of five or ten items, sometimes as a comment on a show elsewhere in the museum. That kind of flexibility gives a museum a special kind of excitement—a sense of curators and museumgoers exercising their visual and intellectual muscle. When objects you’d forgotten or never even knew the museum had suddenly appear in the galleries, there’s some of the excitement of a rabbit being pulled out of a hat. At MoMA, I’d like to see more rabbits pulled out of more hats. I know I’m not alone.