Somewhere at the heart of Tate Modern, whatever else changes, you'll always find the Rothko room. It's a dimly lit and chapel-like chamber, hung with Mark Rothko's abstracts, fat blurry bar codes in brown and mauve.
These pictures are held in some reverence. There's usually a bunch of people sitting quietly in there, communing. But just so there's no mistake, there's also a caption - every room in Tate Modern has a caption, telling you what to think - saying these works require intense contemplation. The Rothko room is set aside for it. Come to think of it, it's the only room in the whole of Tate Modern that is.
Oh, Tate Modern! It's one of the wonders of the age. Talk about it, and you immediately feel the voice of Dan Cruickshank coming through. You become quite vacant with enthusiasm.
Since the converted power station opened six years ago, it has redefined the modern art gallery. It has made 20th-century art, once a public laughing stock, into a milling visitor attraction. It has invented a mass audience for modernism. It attracts millions of visitors each year. The name and the building are now iconic. It's the sort of phenomenon you just can't argue with.
Part of its secret is the hang. At its opening in 2000, Tate Modern unveiled a new way of displaying modern art. The gallery was no longer an archive of art history. It was an art theatre. It wasn't at the service of the artwork. It put the artwork in the service of a larger spectacle. History was abandoned. Themes ruled.
The place was filled with daring mixtures and connections. A Monet pondscape was hung by a piece of land art by Richard Long. Video pieces chattered among paintings. Work was juxtaposed with work, room led into room, by a process of continually inventive-free association. If you went in looking for something, you could never guess where you'd find it. It wasn't a gallery a visitor could use, like a library. It was a roller-coaster sequence of surprises. Modern art was made into an "experience".
Six years on, six years of mind-boggling success, and we have a rehang. It opens to the public on Thursday. In the main galleries on levels 3 and 5, the permanent collection is entirely redisplayed. And the rumour was that big changes were afoot. In the rehang, the themes-and-mixtures approach would be dropped. Tate Modern would return to the traditional, historical way of presenting 20th-century art: movement by movement, style by style.
This rumour was highly misleading. It is the mixture as before, though a slightly different kind of mixture. The scenes have changed but the gallery remains what it was: a dizzying theatre of art.
In the original hang, if you remember, the collection was arranged into four big sections which were - in short - bodies, objects, landscape and narrative. These categories were so loose that almost any work could appear in any of them.
Now go in through the jolly billboards of graffiti-style handwriting that frame the entrances to the new displays. The collection is again arranged in four sections: Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism - and yes, to be sure, those are the names of four famous modern art movements. Don't be deceived though. For they're interpreted so loosely that again any work can turn up almost anywhere. Picasso and Braque are in Cubism. Andy Warhol is too. So is Bonnard. So is the New York feminist art collective, The Guerrilla Girls. Eh? Don't ask. Thematic free association is once more relentlessly at work.
As in 2000, this produces some brilliant visual coups. The first room in Cubism puts together two Tate favourites, 50 years apart: the dynamic futurist sculpture by Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, and Roy Lichtenstein's pop-art air-battle, Whaam! The caption makes some boring link about modern machinery. But the eye can find a far more exciting echo - shape-wise, the flowing energy trails of the sculpture are exactly like the fuel explosions in the painting. I don't expect many visitors have noticed this till now (me neither). But as before, display triumphs over the individual work. In the centre of the Cubism and Surrealism sections, there's a large "hub" room. It's specifically devoted to the home style - Cubist paintings, surrealist paintings. The works are hung all over the place, up and down the walls, high and low, a higgledy-piggledy scattering. At first glance, it all feels dense, vibrant, abundant. These rooms are exciting places to look around and walk through. But they're not places in which to stop, settle and steadily address yourself to a particular picture. The overall installation steals the show.
The most successful "hub" room is in Minimalism. It's like being in a giant geometry box. It's full of huge, pure, shiny geometrical sculptures by Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris. It works because these pieces are themselves highly theatrical. They are ideal Tate Modern material. They're entirely in tune with the spectacular ambitions of the building and the curating. But anything that requires more concentrated attention gets submerged.
In Tate Modern, art is always treated as material. Works by Matisse, Duchamp, Léger, Beuys and Bourgeois are only the ingredients of a greater work, created by Tate. They are digested into guiding themes and captions. They are overwhelmed by stagecraft. They are packaged for us to briefly gaze at in wonder, while keeping moving. In other words, they are designed for the enormous visitor numbers they will certainly go on receiving, and the near impossible viewing conditions that this generates.
The Tate Modern experience is as strong as ever. The scenario is new, but the showmanship is undiminished. The result is a gallery that leaves little room for contemplation (just one room, in fact). It has transformed modern art into a short-attention-span spectacle. The wow factor beats us all into submission. It is often beautifully done. In its way, it is an amazing achievement. But, sorry, an art gallery it is not.
At a glance
* The rehang is the first since the museum opened in 2000. The gallery felt that the old displays - grouped around the four themes of Still Life, Landscape, History and The Nude - had tired.
* The 400 works have been arranged around four key stages of innovation in 20th-century art: Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism.
* About 160 of the works will be on display at the Tate Modern for the first time. Roy Lichtenstein's 'Whaam!' has been in storage, likewise Sol LeWitt's 'Six Geometric Figures' - a chalk drawing across the entire wall of one room.
* Recent acquisitions by John Baldessari, Piero Manzoni, Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor and Rachel Whiteread also debut.
* The displays move forward and back in time, exploring how movements developed.
* More than 25 million visitors have passed through the former London power station in its six-year incarnation as a gallery displaying the national collection of post-1900 art.
Oliver DuffReuse content