Brett Beyer/Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro

The renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art looks to connect the museum to New York City while telling a fuller story about modernism.

Women’s empowerment, concentrated wealth, Instagram tourism, Black Lives Matter, and evolving gender expression: These are some of the topics engaged by the new Museum of Modern Art, which reopened Sunday with 47,000 more square feet of gallery space after a $450 million expansion and renovation. Growth brought an opportunity for the museum to reexamine the triumphal pageant of Modernism that has long been MoMA’s calling card. In its renewed, larger space, it has not only improved circulation around the galleries, but broadened and deepened the story of modern art.

The architects opened up the entry area, dropping the museum store down one level and allowing views from and to 53rd Street. (Brett Beyer/Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro)

To design the overhaul, MoMA selected architect Diller Scofidio + Renfro, working with the corporate architect Gensler. Back in 2014, jaws dropped when the museum announced this ambitious two-phase expansion, barely 10 years after it transformed every square inch of the museum, as well as erecting a major curatorial facility in Queens. In 2004, Tokyo architect Yoshio Taniguchi expanded the museum by 252,000 square feet, in the process largely obliterating a 1984 overhaul by César Pelli and removing almost all interior traces of the original 1939 building by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone, as well as additions from the 1950s and 1960s by Philip Johnson.

53rd Street elevation. The new “blade stair” is at center. (Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro)

Taniguchi relegated the older structures—with their lower ceilings and smaller galleries—to supporting roles, using a set of elevators and escalators as the hinge between the older, smaller, more intimate MoMA and the vastly enlarged new museum (you could hardly call it a wing) to the west with its lofty, monumentally scaled galleries.

MoMA had acquired additional land to the west, but sold it to a developer, Hines. MoMA itself became as a conduit through which Hines moved unused air rights from properties to the east and across the street. (Mastering the art of transferring developable square footage from nearby parcels to the target site is a necessary skill for New York City developers.) That made possible a super-luxe condo tower, veined with diagonal struts, that tapers to a point at 1,050 feet above the street. Designed by the Paris architect Jean Nouvel, it houses the new MoMA galleries and is nearing completion.

In other words, New York City’s ability to attract people wealthy enough to pay tens of millions of dollars for an apartment is what birthed the museum’s expansion. It’s not the first time. MoMA’s galleries wrap Museum Tower, luxury condos designed by César Pelli that underwrote the 1984 expansion (also designed by Pelli), and now the only visible remains of it. The price paid for real-estate-as-cash-cow is sunlight. The museum’s iconic 1953 garden is cast into almost complete shadow by the towers’ looming bulk.

MoMA also acquired the adjacent Museum of American Folk Art, an intricate design by Tod Williams Billie Tsien that lured visitors through idiosyncratic collections on several intimate levels. That museum failed (though has reopened elsewhere), and MoMA acquired the building, then demolished it for the expansion project, in an act widely regarded as cultural vandalism. MoMA would no doubt have recognized the architectural significance of the Folk Art had it not been the perpetrator of its demise.

Compared to DS+R projects that overturn orthodoxies, such as the galleries dangling over the waterfront in Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art or the strange spongelike exterior of the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, MoMA’s needs were prosaic—crowd management. Since the museum had rejected ideas about retaining layers of its architectural history (and ruled out any role for the Folk Art in the addition), the architects found themselves constrained to extending the palette of Taniguchi. Overall, the visitor still experiences MoMA as exquisitely proportioned, slightly clinical knife-edged minimalism, if subtly, and sometimes ambivalently, reinterpreted by DS+R.

The architects set about pumping air into the entrance, a low, crowded tube of space that was often filled with milling visitors, making an off-putting first impression. DS+R raised a ceiling and blew out a lobby side wall to fit an expansive ticketing area, and dropped the museum store a full floor, yet introduced full-height exterior glass walls so that the experience of looking in and out to passersby could be shared.

View of the lobby and ticketing area, with the museum store below. (Iwan Baan/Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro)

There’s now room for art in the lobby, although the initial work on view, Echo (Danny the Street)—cheerful movie-marquee light and sound sculptures by Philippe Parreno—hangs from the ceiling at a safe distance from swarming visitors.

To ease crowding, the architects carved out two new vertical routes to large gallery floors above. What’s called the “blade stair” showily displays its look-Ma-no-supports engineering without overly disturbing Taniguchi’s discreet minimalism. It warms his immaculate palette with satin-finish steel and birdseye maple. This stair serves new single-artist “project” galleries, above which is a double-height, black-box studio for unique display needs and performances.

The minimalist blade stair, supported by a thin vertical spine that hangs from the roof. Glass balustrades on the seven-foot-wide risers are cantilevered and held in place with pins. (Iwan Baan/Courtesy of Diller Scofidio + Renfro)

DS+R also opened a new hallway from the lobby to the older east wing, where it connects to a new stairway cantilevering from a wall covered in startlingly figured black-and-white marble. The new stair rises to meet the clean-lined Bauhaus stair, on the second floor, which is among the few artifacts remaining from the Goodwin and Stone building.

The new galleries and stairs all draw the city—the inspiration and subject of so much Modern art—into the experience with full-height glass walls. The view is of densely built-up Midtown Manhattan, so the jumble of buildings outside seem to press themselves against the glass.

If more circulation choices dissipate MoMA’s crowds, visitors may be able to develop a more personal connection to the art. Those who actually care what they are looking at may less frequently need to swim through hordes staring at their phones or taking pictures of the art with their phones. (Warning: This may be too much to hope for.)

Whichever way you reach the galleries that house the permanent collections on three upper floors, this much-enlarged “story” of Modernism is enriched with thematic rooms, mixed disciplines (art and design cheek by jowl with “fine” art) and bravura mixes of media. Stirring film, delicate works on paper, and lots of photography cozy up to paintings and sculpture.

Installation view of Paris 1920s (Gallery 514). On the far wall are Tarsila do Amaral, The Moon (A Lua), 1928, and Fernand Léger, Three Women, 1921-22. (© 2019 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar)
Wu Tsang, We hold where study, 2017. Two-channel video (color, sound; 18:56 min.). (The Modern Women’s Fund. © 2019 Wu Tsang)

MoMA has long built its origin story of Euro-American Modernism around its great holdings, but that story no longer consists of a single, mainly male, heroic narrative. Instead, the visitor discovers many stories braided together that now include many riveting works by women and people of color. These choices better recognize modernism (small m) as a global cultural and social force that at its best is democratizing and inclusive. The story is so big now, and so unsettled (as perhaps it should always be), that MoMA promises to change one-third of the hang every six months—a costly and conceptually challenging undertaking that no museum of comparable size has attempted.

People may miss some of their favorite paintings. They may lament the intimidating size of the museum, which makes it easy to lose your way. They may tire of the sleek consistency that mandated demolition of the Museum of American Folk Art and the disappearance of the messy but eloquent layerings of time. At least some of these losses are unavoidable in an institution serving 3 million annual visitors.

They’ll have to commit days to exploring the museum thoroughly, but MoMA’s new voices, experiences, and expressions are bracingly transcendent—if the initial presentation is any indication. The art on view makes a powerful case for the museum in an era as convulsive as that which fired the imagination of the artists whose work was corralled to found the Museum of Modern Art in 1929.

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