Out of the Closet
New York’s museums are mysteriously averse to the New York School.
Jan 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 19 • By DAVID GELERNTER
New York’s was a school of many geniuses; and New York museums own many of their artworks. The Modern currently has just one Pollock on view, and deigns to exhibit one or two spectacular de Koonings and a few Cornell boxes. The Met has no Cornells on display but does well by Stuart Davis, and usually shows a couple of pieces each by the biggest New York School stars. But you never see enough art to understand the school as a whole, or grasp what the excitement was all about.
The Met could easily open a suite of New York School galleries on the lines of (say) its Impressionist or Post-Impressionist or Attic red-figure or 17th-century French knick-knack departments. The Whitney and Guggenheim are smaller, but own some of the most important modern paintings ever to be locked away in closets. The Modern owns loads of New York School masterpieces but is tired of being an art museum and has decided to be a shopping mall instead.
The problem is partly a failure of imagination, a failure to grasp the symphonic power of these pieces when they are allowed to play together. But partly (and ominously), the failure is ideological. Stylish young curators are brought up to believe that art is a branch of academia, that art is argument by other means, that art for art’s sake is sophomoric, that beauty is embarrassing. And the unrestrained sensuousness of the greatest New York School pieces makes the stylish young curator’s skin crawl. This is a wickedly prudish era.
The solution is obvious. Let someone buy a few adjacent townhouses not too far from midtown. Knock out some walls and make a new, small-scale museum. (The one fault in the Modern’s de Kooning show was the overscaled height of the walls in the new galleries, which made enormous paintings look puny.) Let the big museums each lend some of their New York School pieces. They’ll never miss them. (They barely know they’ve got them.) And then stand back and let the art speak for itself.
David Gelernter, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a professor of computer science at Yale and the author, most recently, of Judaism: A Way of Being.