Photo by Sam WIlliams
“I‘ll come back to the Museum of American Art when I find out where it is,” wrote one visitor in the Museum of American Art’s guest book. Geographically, it’s at No 91 Frankfurter Allee, but getting in isn’t so straightforward.
I went with a friend from overseas who’s fond of mystery. We found number 91, but the museum wasn’t there. There’s another number 91, it turns out. But there was no answer to the doorbell and the theatre next door knew nothing of its neighbours. Number 95 was open, so we ducked in and scrambled from Hof to Hof, over fences, through side doors and cellars, until we hit a dead end in a playground. A woman was there with a couple of kids. She obviously thought we were pedophiles and asked what we were doing. We told her. “The only way in is back the way you came,” she said.
She was wrong. The only way in is through the internet. I set up an appointment by email and returned. This time, the Hof was open and a tall man was standing there. He led me to a ground floor apartment. The only thing to mark it out as a museum was a tiny sticker on the door. Inside is an entrance hall and three more doors, chapters in a story introduced by a text in the hall: once upon a time, an adventurer and ethnographer from the New World travelled to the Old World to investigate the curious objects natives were making there. The man was Alfred H. Barr Jr., first director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), established in 1929.
The main room is dominated by a large MoMA model on a table with a painted diagram hanging over it: “Cubism and Abstract Art”, the family tree Barr drew to accompany a MoMA exhibition in 1936. That diagram turned “Modern Art” into an instant historical category: a series of genealogically connected international movements. Before that diagram, there were just national schools – groups of guys who knew each other and drank together. Tiny paintings cover the walls of the model MoMA beneath it. If you look closely, some of them are familiar. “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” by Picasso. Except this one isn’t... “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” reads a miniature Magritte across the miniature hall.
Barr later arranged a series of international post-war exhibitions to showcase American artists in Europe, part of a swathe of “cultural re-education” handsomely funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The paintings of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell became the vehicles. Painted copies of those paintings now hang in the MoAA’s pristine living room: pure 1950s from the furniture and jazz records down to the dish of plastic fruit on the sideboard.
I sat down in the living room with my anonymous host to ask about the time capsule I’d stumbled into. He set the needle down on the record player and nodded at the recording machine: “Turn it off,” he said. “Then we can talk: no one can represent the Museum. The Museum has no face.” So we let him remain faceless. Though I did try to protest: “You know things that I don’t know,” I said. “Yes. And you know things I don’t know. The only difference between you and me,” he said, “is that I have the key.”
But the key to what? The museum’s permanent collection is a set of clues designed for the visitor to unravel. It would spoil the fun if we did that for you, even if I could: like the man said, what do I know that you don’t? All I can do is share a few facts. Which isn’t without problems – the museum plays fast and loose with those, too. Its trustees, it boasts, include Gertrude Stein, Piet Mondrian, and Barr as well as Dorothy Miller, who succeeded him as director at MoMA. The MoAA claims to have been founded in 1956. That would explain the furniture, but not the fact that it opened in 2004, apparently a joint project of Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin gallerist Gregor Podnar and others funded by the Kulturstiftung des Bundes in Germany and the Museum of Jurassic Technology in the US.
“What is Modern Art?” asks the front cover of the MoAA catalogue. Inside are a series of short stories by an anonymous author and an interview with the MoAA’s curator, Walter Benjamin, whose name is on loan from a German art theorist of the 1930s: “Confusion is sometimes the first step towards learning or relearning,” s/he says by way of explanation. This will infuriate many. Which is precisely the lesson, if any, the MoAA wants to impart. “Modern Art” is a story like any other: part biography, a bit of politics and a convenient framework for making sense of strange occurrences. But frames have a habit of sliding out of view, like the architecture of a familiar city. Here, it’s the architecture on show – not just the model MoMA, but the idea of a “museum” of any kind. “Modern Art” emerges from that architecture like a cuckoo out of a clock, and a tale of sound and fury told by an idiot.
Check the MoAA website for details about monthly talks.