Playing to the gallery

A bold use of space and light is at the heart of the redesigned Museum of Modern Art in New York. But how well does the $425m building serve its art? Jay Merrick pays a visit
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The New York Museum of Modern Art, the world's greatest repository of shock-of-the-new paintings, sculptures and installations, will this morning, be en fête. Swirls of journalists and the Big Apple's great and good will judge the new building, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi - the urbane sensei of museum design - and wonder if its $425m price-tag can guarantee the institution's pre-eminence in the face of the art world's new wave of fashion makers.

The New York Museum of Modern Art, the world's greatest repository of shock-of-the-new paintings, sculptures and installations, will this morning, be en fête. Swirls of journalists and the Big Apple's great and good will judge the new building, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi - the urbane sensei of museum design - and wonder if its $425m price-tag can guarantee the institution's pre-eminence in the face of the art world's new wave of fashion makers.

This art-battleship's opening salvo is undoubtedly immense, and quite willfully self-assured. Not since MoMA's first show hurled the works of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat into the minds and emotions of Manhattan's middle and upper-middle classes in 1929, has such an effort been made to demonstrate the sheer power of its resources. MoMA's curators have gone for multiple knock-out punches on every wall; so much so that Damien Hirst's celebrated dot-painting Methamphetamine - a rather big deal in the UK - finds itself quite alone on a small, unlit corner wall by the lifts and escalators. A nice tease, perhaps, something to remind Messrs Saatchi and Serota that there's a pecking-order in the world of art for the masses.

There are hundreds of artworks on show. And yet there is an equally extraordinary alt-presence here: whiteness. The empty space around individual paintings is remarkable; no need for art-anxious punters to stand in tight huddles in front of something particularly important. Here, in West 53rd Street, it's all important. MoMA is inviting the huddled masses in, and then un-huddling them.

The subtext is pretty obvious: we've got it, but we ain't going to flaunt it. Taniguchi's building is certainly very fine, but it's a riff: he's repeating the same architectural moves that can be seen in his museums in Marugame and Tokyo. This is pared down stuff, carried off with a brilliant eye for detail. From the street, the central tower looks like a virtually featureless, square-sectioned grey candle. The only visual action lies in the accidental urban bricolages - a chunk of St Thomas church seen through a slot on the east side of the museum, and Connolly's Restaurant and Pub, a wonderfully ugly slab of New York Victoriana jammed up against the north-west corner.

But can MoMA retain the strategic and tactical edge that it gained under its first and most crucially inspirational director, the art historian, Alfred H Barr, who set out the museum's original mission statement at the age of 27? And will Taniguchi's building set a new trend in major museum design?

These may seem absurd questions, bearing in mind the organisation's art and financial resources. In recent years, more than 1.8 million people have visited MoMA annually. At $20 a pop, that means the reborn MoMA will generate $36m from annual ticket sales alone; its book and gift shops will suck in many millions more.

A tsunami of used dollar bills is one thing, but the sheer gilt-edged depth of the museum's financial reservoir is best illustrated by a single fact. When MoMA set out to raise the $840m required to pay for the massive package of works - land purchase, a temporary gallery and repository in Queens, and the new building itself - $500m came straight from the pockets of the museum's trustees. In London, by comparison, the great and greatly well-heeled of the City failed ignominiously to raise the relatively piffling match-funding needed for the V&A's Daniel Libeskind-designed Spiral extension.

Big bucks, big physical result. Exhibition space in the new MoMA has risen from 85,000 square feet to 125,000 square feet; the entrance lobby alone covers 12,400 square feet. The central atrium - one of the architectural keys to Taniguchi's mannerly but shrewd design - rises more than 100 feet. Yet MoMA remains on the horns of a dilemma which has persisted ever since its art collection began to go volumetrically supernova after the Second World War.

The maths is simple, and beyond public relations massage: the museum may have increased its gallery space by nearly half - but that can't begin to cope with the art it owns. Since 1980, MoMA's stash of works has ballooned from 64,000 to over 100,000 - and there's no intention to stop spending on new art. At any one time, the new building can show less than one percent of what director, Glenn Lowry, refers to as "objects".

Can't show, must show. The almost psychic weight of this conundrum surfaced two years ago when MoMA shifted the bulk of its collection to the old Swingline stapler factory in Queens, where it had already opened a grungy "outpost" gallery, PS1. MoMA's tactics were odd. They called the new gallery MoMA QNS rather than MoMA Queens. It was a branding exercise whose crumpled acronym rudely effaced the moniker of a New York borough with a less-than-trendy reputation.

One knew the PR fix was in when the New York Times began, with impeccable timing, to run stories about surprisingly interesting places to chow down in Queens; and when, in a thoroughly Bonfire of the Vanities episode, a lavish beano was held in a vast tent alongside the old factory while, outside in a near-tropical downpour, locals queued round the block to get into the gallery for their privately sodden preview. Once inside, they were confronted with an internal outbreak of super-modernist architecture created by the hip California design dude, Michael Maltzan.

MoMA QNS, to invoke Martin Amis, over-existed. Was MoMA trying too hard? Six months ago, the question arose again when Lowry - an urbane and highly serious fellow who doesn't blink a great deal - led a MoMA roadshow through Europe. Its purpose: to remind artniks that the new MoMA was on track for autumn completion. But why do that? Why wouldn't it be on track? And surely MoMA was too big to fret about an obviously necessary hiatus. Why did MoMA have to pump up the volume?

Those interested in art would have no trouble agreeing with Lowry when he says that the museum "provides a detailed but clearly intelligible history of modern art... but this desire is tempered by the reality - long recognised by the museum - that it can never achieve this goal in an enduring way, since modern art is still unfolding and its history is still being written." And most would have no trouble with Lowry's assertion that the "particular importance" of MoMA "resided in its ability to treat its galleries as a kind of laboratory in which to engage the public with its ideas."

The intentions are logical, and laudable. Perhaps, though, MoMA's heavy-duty marketing is a tacit acknowledgement of the forces of change at work in the art world; change based on smaller, more commercially manoeuvrable empires of the senses. Damien Hirst may be pokily cornered at MoMA, but he sells. He attracts column-inches. He can be usefully deployed in mordant conversations about art - or life, yeah? - in a way that Paul Cézanne cannot.

David D'Arcy of ArtReview says that, under Lowry's nine-year tenure as director, "MoMA looks more and more like a corporation with no patience for quirks and risks." And he suggests that the museum is "no longer the leader of taste in modern or contemporary art".

The barbs seems sharp enough, but they're disputable. As far as risk-taking is concerned, it's obviously too soon to judge MoMA's post-new building performance. And the question of risk is fused, very uncomfortably, to the question of taste. Is a liking for the output of Saatchi's seraglio, for example, an irrefutable demonstration of taste, or merely a craving for art whose perceived difference seems to be risky?

MoMA faces a profound challenge, not because it is impatient or twitchy about certain contemporary artists, but because of its very pre-eminence. The needling question is really this: even with its grand new receptacle, will MoMA's rebirth be seen as cool? Will this great establishment be outmanoeuvred, in terms of the art-world's zeitgeist, by other smaller establishments who have pitched their offers in more happening ways? "Lots of other institutions are out there," notes David D'Arcy, "with eyes on the same art that MoMA wants. It helps that so much contemporary art is produced in multiples. And it hurts that MoMA and the other museums tend to look alike."

But if that is so, MoMA has one unique advantage that it should exploit: architecture. The building on West 53rd is not sensational architecture, but until MoMA's new acquisitions policy becomes clearer, one thing is perfectly clear: the viewing conditions in Taniguchi's building is superb; so superb, that questions of cool are lost in the architect's grandly contrived white-out.

Nothing at Tate Modern could have the perfectly illuminated punch of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, or Cezanne's Turning Road at Montgeroult - to cherry pick two beautifully revealed paintings from MoMA's orchard of works. It speaks volumes for Taniguchi's architectural volumes that, in a single gallery, Lee Bontecou's Untitled, a strange topography composed of steel and canvas, can be hung in the same room as Lucio Fontana's razor-slashed Expectations, Dieter Roth's Basel on the Rhine, and Yves Klein's Blue Monochrome. Each of these strange works bear no relationship to the others; and each, because of the capacious wall areas and perfect lighting, are seen to perfection.

There is art in the architecture, too. From one of the fifth-floor galleries, the view is literally Constructivist. From the window, one gazes into the towering atrium space and sees shards and sections of six floors, the bridges that carry people across the void, and glimpses of individual galleries on other levels. Glancing up, we see the bridge carrying people into the almost absurdly vast space of the top-floor gallery where two huge works by Ellsworth Kelly and James Rosenquist shout their big-ass colours at each other. Rosenquist's 23-section F-111, at more than 100ft long, looks skimpy.

Do these Rolls-Royce viewing conditions tally with Barr's search for "the progressive, original and challenging, rather than the safe and academic, which would naturally be included in the supine neutrality of the term contemporary?" Will the new MoMA become a supine and neutral institution? The question seems punchy enough, but is ultimately flakey in every sense. If it is MoMA's job to present its resource - including new work - in the best physical conditions, they can tick the job-done box even before the museum opens to the public on Saturday. Whether it is MoMA's job to over-exist in terms of its "personality" in the face of museums whose presentation of modern art is hot-wired into closed loops of carefully arranged demand is another matter. The only thing that Lowry seems quietly excited about in terms of MoMA's new branding is the switch in typeface for its logo: the Bauhaus inspired characters of 1929 give way to Franklin Gothic No 2. Feel free to punch the air. Go on. You know you want to.

MoMA, and Glenn Lowry, realise that the key challenge faced by the museum has never changed. It was put perfectly by art historian Paul Sachs 65 years ago when he said that as museum grows older, there was a threat - "a danger of timidity. The museum must continue to take risks." And those risks, according to Barr, included the making of tastes in art. The chief curator of MoMA, John Elderfield, notes that Barr "did not believe that it was a museum's primary task to discover the new, but to move at a discreet distance behind the developing art, not trying to create movements or reputations, but putting things together as the contours begin to clarify. These principles continue to be followed today."

If that is so, must we get heated about seeing only a tiny proportion of MoMA's so-called "invisible collections"? Or fret about its rating on the (Gerhard) Richter scale of nowness? Better, surely, to concentrate on the fact that the new MoMA has finally replaced the labyrinthine hulk designed by Cesar Pelli, who gave us the glass and steel turd in the Canary Wharf plaza.

MoMA will remain unique, and subject to unique hissy-fits. There are signs, in the increased space for contemporary art and the video installation gallery, that more weight will be given to "risky" art. But it remains significant that Glenn Lowry is at pains to discuss MoMA only as a singularity. In choosing Yoshio Taniguchi in preference to architectural adventurers such as Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron, the signal being sent to the rest of the museum art world was surely plain enough: you do your thing, we'll do ours.

MoMA will be overrun by punters on Saturday. And the really big question is: will they notice Damien's seriously dangerously radical dot-painting?