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MoMA: How to Look at Modern Art-Dunham

The Museum of Modern Art, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium looking east towards 5th Avenue with Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” (1963-69) and Willem de Kooning’s “Pirate (Untitled II)” (1981). © 2005 Timothy Hursley.

One is so grateful to have the familiar masterpieces of the collection back in Manhattan and available again, that criticisms of the museum seem like hair-splitting. Part of me does wish that we could return to a simpler time when the museum was more intimate and the story it was telling was more straightforward, but we can’t. Given the scale of what is being attempted in the present iteration, certain thoughts come, unbidden and almost unwelcome: Why does the basic narrative of the collection expand vertically (into more and more recent art) but not laterally (into more diverse geographical zones)? Latin America is somewhat better represented than in the past, but Asia, Africa, Australia, and Eastern Europe appear not to have experienced modernism at all. Why do certain categories and boundaries still control the museum’s capacity to imagine itself? (How can separation by medium, as in the Photography collection, still be considered meaningful, and why aren’t modern masters with “outsider” status, like Ramirez, Darger or Yoakum, thought appropriate to enter into dialogue with their generational peers?) Why is the museum obligated to be “contemporary” in its patronage and programming, when history itself is capable of being endlessly clarified and revised, and so much space is taken up with a rather strained attempt to account for recent art? (Couldn’t an entity of this magnitude bifurcate and give its reborn selves a new lease on life?) I’m glad that I don’t have to answer any of these questions, and am free to wander the museum when and if I please.


Carroll Dunham

Carroll Dunham is an artist.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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