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From the Studio Blog

What the Hell Was Modernism? The Museum of Modern Art tries to open itself up

By Jerry Saltz  for New York magazine.  Can a museum devoted to modernism survive the death of the movement? Can it bring that death about? Ever since the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 14th century, most art movements have lasted one generation, sometimes two. Today, after more than 130 years, modernism is, at least by some measures, insanely and incongruously popular — a world brand. The first thing oligarchs do to signal sophistication, and to cleanse and store money, is collect and build personal museums of modern art, and there’s nothing museumgoers love more than a survey of a mid-century giant. In the U.S., modernism represents the triumph of American greatness and wealth, and it is considered the height of 20th-century European culture — which Americans bought and brought over (which is to say, poached).Kids sport tattoos of artworks by Gustav Klimt, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch, Piet Mondrian, and Andy Warhol (you might not think of him as a modernist, but we’ll get to that). Our cities are crowded with glass-walled luxury riffs on high-modernist architecture, the apartments inside full of knockoffs of “mid-century-modern” furniture. Donald Judd’s sleepy minimalist studio outpost in Marfa is now East Hampton in West Texas, a secular pilgrimage site for millionaire collectors, full of expensive restaurants and fancy second homes. As recently as 1994, my wife and I were offered a house there for $5,000.

And people pay — not just for the art, or for environments that call it to mind, but to see the works themselves, even briefly. Witness the Museum of Modern Art’s daily crowds, full-price guests forking over $25. Last year’s annual attendance was just over 3 million (do the math). People take selfies with Starry Night; adolescents feel big feelings because the world didn’t understand Vincent, though they have understood him very well now for well over a century. Movies are made about him and about Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, and Warhol (and the woman who shot him). And Jean-Michel Basquiat — the most recent in the long line of world-straddling geniuses — who died in 1988 at the age of 27. We all know the stories, from destroying one’s own work and committing suicide to womanizing and pissing in fireplaces (in this way, modernism is Hollywood Babylon). And while we take our parents to the Met to appreciate old art, tradition, and “good technique,” we go to MoMA because modernism is cool, still — a sequence of revolutionary gestures, shocks, and succession stories that, we think, tell us something about radicalism and experimentation.
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