That lived-in look

Times Staff Writer

WAIT till the Serra show.

That has been pretty much the only line of defense left in recent months for champions of Yoshio Taniguchi’s enlarged Museum of Modern Art -- a building that in its dizzying fall from critical grace, in its journey from feted to mocked, has become architecture’s version of Howard Dean.

When the museum reopened near the end of 2004, the notices were nearly all very positive, even glowing. For my part, I called the $425-million redesign “an elegant return to the museum’s first principles” and praised its “architectural poise.”

But over the last couple of years, the critical tide has turned dramatically against the building. New York art critics, in particular, have savaged the Taniguchi galleries as cold and impersonal -- symbolic of what they see as the museum’s conservative and increasingly corporate personality.


Jerry Saltz, writing in the Village Voice a year after MoMA reopened, complained that Taniguchi had turned it into “a beautiful tomb.” His wife, New York Times critic Roberta Smith, charged several months later that the design’s many shortcomings amounted to an architectural “travesty.” (Must be fun to stroll through the building with those two!) Other writers began dropping withering judgments about the building into their reviews of shows at other museums. These parenthetical asides were devastatingly casual, as if MoMA’s shortcomings were so well established that they could be referred to in journalistic shorthand.

It became hard to think of another prominent building whose critical reputation had crumbled so quickly.

MoMA officials did their best, as the chorus of complaints swelled, to caution that a full assessment of the new building remained premature -- at least, they said, until the opening of the big Richard Serra retrospective this summer. Curators were still learning their way around the expanded museum, they argued.

MoMA Director Glenn Lowry suggested as much, in rather frank terms, to the New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins (another of the redesign’s declared foes). “We’ve got 50,000 more square feet of exhibition space,” Lowry told him, “and we’re far from understanding how to use that space well.”

More to the point, a major impetus for the expansion, from its earliest stages, was a desire to show more large-scale contemporary artwork such as Serra’s. The huge gallery for contemporary art on the second floor of the new building was designed and built specifically with his sculptures in mind. The block-long space is double-height and column-free and has floors that have been reinforced to carry heavy steel.

Well, the Serra show is here. Running through Sept. 10, it includes 27 pieces altogether, including three large, virtuosic sculptures the artist created last year specifically with that second-floor gallery in mind. It has been packing in the crowds as that rarest of exhibitions: a critically praised blockbuster by a living artist.


To add to the intrigue, just as the show was opening came word that MoMA was planning to expand yet again, this time into three floors of a new tower being built by a Houston developer on a lot immediately west of the museum. The Slatin Report, a respected real estate website, announced that the tower will be designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. He was chosen, the website said, “after a fierce and very hush-hush competition among five world-leading architects.” Nouvel is not expected to design the new galleries, however.

What the report didn’t add, but might have, is that Nouvel offers a client everything that Taniguchi does not: a stirring, even irrational stab at architectural poetry. The new galleries will likely share the airiness and restrained palette of the ones by Taniguchi. But they will hover inside an architectural shell that thumbs its nose at such rationalism.

So what does the Serra exhibition -- and the news of Nouvel’s arrival on 53rd Street, and the museum’s seemingly insatiable appetite for space -- tell us about Taniguchi’s MoMA? About the much analyzed relationship between art and museum architecture, and why the critics’ attitudes about the building shifted so radically?

On the most basic level, the exhibition clarifies and works to justify the Taniguchi design. The interaction between the sculptures and the galleries here is about as effective as can be imagined. Serra’s work has always flirted with architectural scale and sensibility, and the Taniguchi galleries -- politely inert containers with a remarkable sense of proportion -- do more than merely allow that flirtation to continue interrupted. They practically dim the lights, put on the Barry White and pour the drinks themselves.

The setting, moreover, seems to have inspired a new sensuality from Serra. The three new rusted-steel pieces on the second floor -- “Sequence,” “Torqued Torus Inversion” and “Band,” the last of which the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has acquired for its new building on Wilshire Boulevard -- contain all the machismo and sense of enveloping scale that Serra is known for. They also display a rounded, serpentine character that many critics have called feminine. Nearly 15 feet high, these new pieces are flowing, room-sized sculptures to get lost in. Walking through them, I began to think the entire show could be summed up with a five-word review: John Wayne meets Georgia O’Keeffe.

Out in the museum sculpture garden, where the curators have placed two other fluid new pieces from the 1990s, the relationship between art and space is simply not as powerful: surrounded by trees and open air instead of walls that meet at exactly 90 degrees, the sculptures exert comparatively little punch.

Even in its obvious triumph, the Serra exhibition manages to validate nearly every complaint about MoMA’s creeping conservatism. There is no getting around the fact that the relationship between the art and the architecture here is deeply old-fashioned. In its handsome servility, the museum accepts its role as a rigid and expensively finished container for art that is bold and expressive. It takes the white-cube school of gallery design, adds a sheen of meditative Japanese cool and blows it up to the scale of an airport terminal.

You can call that attitude principled or retrograde, but what you can’t call it is forward-looking. Or even modern.

And the truth is that the most compelling direction in the art world, particularly among artists younger than 40, is toward smaller work, not heavy, oversized pieces; digital art in particular requires significantly less space than traditional paintings and sculpture.

(This is one of the fascinating and under-explored contradictions of contemporary architecture: from nanotechnology to dry laboratories to general miniaturization in the digital and cultural worlds, the stuff buildings need to house is getting smaller while the buildings themselves are getting bigger.)

Even the most exhaustive analysis of the Richard Serra show wouldn’t fully explain why the museum’s first wave of reviews was so positive, while recent coverage -- beginning about a year after the building reopened and continuing into this year -- has been so consistently nasty.

There are a number of possible explanations, but I think one stands out. It has to do with the difference between a short-term and a long-term view of museum architecture, between global trends and personal nostalgia.

Those of us who wrote so positively about the expansion in November of 2004 were focused mostly on its crisp, cool restraint, which in Taniguchi’s best work borders on the ethereal. The design was an obvious corrective to the wildly sculptural museum design that had reached epidemic proportions around the world after the success of Frank Gehry’s 1997 Bilbao Guggenheim. As Daniel Libeskind and other highly idiosyncratic, Expressionistic architects were winning museum jobs around the country, MoMA decided to go in the opposite direction. There was something genuinely refreshing about that. Our mistake, in retrospect, was to think the choice was also surprising.

In fact, the Taniguchi design was from the beginning a clear expression of MoMA’s conservative and perhaps even slightly uptight view of itself and its place in the museum world, and of its zealous interest in polishing and expanding its real-estate holdings. The harshest critics of the new building -- Tomkins, Saltz and Smith, especially -- have been visiting MoMA for most of their lives, and writing about it for most of their careers. It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to suggest that for them the old MoMA -- the nimble, more adventurous one -- was most impressive and enjoyable when they themselves were young. The New Yorker headlined Tomkins’ piece “I Remember MoMA.”

The Taniguchi design, therefore, lived a kind of double life from the start. It appeared as a well-executed antidote to museum-architecture excess, a trait that proved catnip to me and many other critics when it opened. And it was symbolic of a MoMA leadership that has lost the ability to use architecture -- or any other means, really -- to advance the cause of Modernism rather than sealing it in amber.

It is that second quality that has the MoMA bashers so worked up. And now that the early spell of the Taniguchi design’s timely elegance has worn off, it seems obvious to many of the rest of us as well.

If it leaves MoMA officials and readers of the New York press feeling a bit of whiplash, this discussion is on balance a healthy one for the museum world and for criticism. It’s not often we get a chance to reassess our earlier judgments of a new building. It’s rarer still that we get to watch as the critical consensus on a piece of architecture waxes and wanes in a matter of months rather than decades.

The new MoMA, while perhaps not so new anymore, keeps providing opportunities to do both.