Thursday, November 29, 2012

MoMA Gains Treasure The Met Also Coveted

The above headline appeared on a recent front page article in The New York Times; 
It signifies a recent episode in a  battle of titans.

Above: Robert Rauschenberg,"Canyon," the work of art in question.

In 1880, The Metropolitan Museum of Art was opened in its current location with
an extensive collection of antiquities. Gradually, it began to acquire wide ranging
historical collections that embraced virtually every culture of the world.  Contemporary
art, especially contemporary American art, never appeared among its priorities. In 1949,
director Francis Henry Taylor, hired Robert Beverly Hale, an instructor at the Arts
Students League, to be curator of contemporary American art. At one point, MoMA
contemplated giving some of its modern masterpieces to The Met so that it could
concentrate on more recent developments.

 In the 1960s, Met director James Rorimer, appointed Henry Geldzahler, curator
 of contemporary art, and later curator of 20th century art. At that point, The
Met began to acquire a visible presence in the modern art scene. Geldzahler, was
a high ranking member of the Warhol inner circle.

 Above, Andy Warhol, Below from left to right: Henry Geldzahler, David Hockney, David Scott He curated a landmark exhibition,
New York Painting and Sculpture: 1940-1970, which included his favorite
contemporary artists and became the talk of the town. This exhibition established
The Met, for the first time, as a major player in the New York modern art museum

Prior to that, from the mid-1930's until the mid-1960's, the Museum of Modern
Art totally dominated the interpretation and presentation of modern art in New York.
Founding director, Alfred H. Barr. Jr., developed his Eurocentric interpretive
modern art canon which was visualized in the presentation of MoMA's collections.
These galleries influenced the way in which at least two generations viewed the
evolution of Western European modern art from the late 19th century to the mid-
20th century. Below, is a diagram accompanying MoMA's 1936 seminal exhibition,
Cubism and Abstract Art, which elucidates Barr's theory. Although some avant garde 
American artists of the post-1913 Armory Show generation were represented in 
MoMA's collections, they were viewed as peripheral according to Barr's thesis. 

In the wake of Post World II abstract expressionism,  MoMA presented a series 
of "discovery" one-man exhibitions of emerging American artists. At the end of 
1956, there was a Jackson Pollock exhibition. Alfred Barr called Jackson Pollock
the most important American artist of his day. MoMA's authority and supremacy
were never questioned.

During the 1960's, New York was a  seething caldron of new American art.  There
was "pop art," "op art," "minimalism," "fluxus" and more. Grace Glueck, art critic of  
The New York Times, said to me, "it seemed as though a new art movement was 
born every day." A new generation: Warhol, Johns, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg,
Oldenberg, Judd, Indiana, Samaras, and Segal, among others, were being shown 
in midtown and downtown galleries.

When Alan Solomon, director of The Jewish Museum, presented a series of major 
one-man shows of this new avant-garde, the established museums were caught off 
guard and scrambled to catch up. It was at this point that fierce competition between 
the major museums erupted. Frank Lloyd Wright's recently completed Guggenheim
Museum joined the fray. 

Although an earlier generation of abstract expressionists obviated Alfred Barr's 
canon, he embraced them - possibly because they were following the painterly
path of Western European art tradition. However, the next generation rejected
that tradition, utilizing a bewildering array of materials and techniques, such as 
Rauschenberg's combine which is at the center of the recent Met/MoMA flap.

While The Met was beginning to embrace modern American art in the late1960s,
a serious rivalry with MoMA was yet to erupt. Geldzahler was replaced by Thomas
Hess, who, in his brief tenture, broadened the scope of The Met's  contemporary art
collection and exhibition policies. Following him as head of the Department of
20th Century Art, was William S. Lieberman, a former curator at MoMA.

A sometimes mentor and good friend for many years, Lieberman was a brilliant
curator of early 20th century School of Paris art. Lieberman had been a protege of
MoMA's founding  director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr. In 1979, after William Rubin had
been appointed Director of the MoMA's Department of Painting and Sculpture,
Lieberman decided to abandon MoMA for The Met. During his years at MoMA,
Lieberman did what all curators do - develop a coterie of major collectors whose
collections eventually come to your museum. Bill was extremely adept at this.
He was trusted and admired by major collectors.

Lieberman brought masterpieces of modern European art from two major private
collections to The Met.  Florene May Schoenborn (Mrs. Samuel Marx) left 18
works of masterpiece quality, including Picasso's 1915 " Guitar and Clarinet on
a Mantlepeice," (below) to The Met.

In 1998, Natasha and Jacques Gelman donated 47 paintings and 3 bronzes by
major School of Paris artists to The Met. Philippe de Montebello, Director of
The Met, said, "This outstanding collection, the most generous and significant
to the Department of Modern Art - in fact one of the most important gifts of
art ever bestowed on any area of the Museum ..."

Pierre Matisse, "The Young Sailor," 1906

Thomas Campbell, the current director at The Met sees modern art as an important
area of focus. He has proposed that The Met utilize the Whitney Museum's soon-to-
be vacated Breuer building on Madison Avenue to house its modern art collections
and to present exhibitions.

Does this suggest that The Met and MoMA are on a collision course? Does this
suggest that The Met and the Guggenheim are going to become competitors?
Are there other scenarios unfolding? Unfortunately, there are no solid answers
available at this time. The situation is unfolding and we have to wait and see what

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