Jed Perl: Is this the best MoMA can do for Abstract Expressionism?

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“Abstract Expressionist New York,” the huge new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is three-quarters brain dead. That is better than entirely brain dead. My advice is to begin with the strongest material, which you will find in galleries on the second and third floors at MoMA. Walking through “Rock Paper Scissors” and “’Ideas Not Theories’: Artists and The Club, 1942–1962”—with their excitable mix of works in multiple media by midcentury painters, sculptors, and architects—you can feel the gritty romantic spirit of downtown Manhattan in the years during and after World War II. The Museum of Modern Art is more than justified in saluting the artistic forces at play in New York City in that period, even if an accompanying book, Abstract Expressionism at the Museum of Modern Art, makes the museum’s relationship with the city’s avant-garde appear considerably less rocky than it actually was. In our recession-conscious times the idea of a major show drawn exclusively from the museum’s outstanding holdings is not a bad thing. Done with some zest and adventuresomeness, as it is in the smaller installations on the second and third floors, the result is museumgoing of a very high order. As for the fourth floor, much of it filled with signature works by Pollock, de Kooning, Gorky, Rothko, Kline, and Newman, there is surely a great deal of wonderful material here, but the installation is so uninspired and predictable a presentation of blue-chip stuff that a visitor may be left wondering what Ann Temkin, the curator in charge, could possibly have had in mind.

Even the best works—Gorky’s misty, labyrinthine Diary of a Seducer, the muscular chamber music of de Kooning’s black-and-white Painting, and Hofmann’s ecstaticCathedral—look intellectually moribund. That is the curator’s fault. She has arranged these supremely idiosyncratic inventions as if they were nothing more than hot properties at an auction preview. Everything ends up feeling generic. For all I know, “Abstract Expressionist New York” will generate big office for MoMA. After all, last summer’s “Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” another in-house affair and one of the worst installed shows I have ever seen in a major museum, attracted over 700,000 visitors, becoming the biggest attraction at the Metropolitan since 2001. Foreign tourists—who are now MoMA’s target audience, replacing the hometown team of artists and sundry culturati who once made the museum great—are naturally eager to see such MoMA treasures as Newman’s vehemently rhapsodic Vir Heroicus Sublimis and Pollock’s autumnal One: Number 31, 1950. But even foreigners who are making their first visit to MoMA deserve something better than this presentation in which we are offered not paintings but MoMA logos. De Kooning’s Woman I looks demystified, defanged. She doesn’t howl now—she tweets....

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