MoMA Rehangs Its Collection

The Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection is on the move. It’s not leaving the building but it’s in motion as never before. On Saturday, MoMA will unveil what it calls the Fall Reveal, a rehang of about a third of its holdings, or 20 of 60 galleries. This is the first phase of an ambitious plan to regularly rotate the entire collection. In short, the result bodes extraordinarily well.

There are some wonderful acquisitions to be appreciated and some pieces that have been in storage so long they might as well be new. Given its own stand-alone gallery on the fifth floor for the first time, Gerhard Richter’s wrenching “October 18, 1977” takes on a new prominence. This 1988 suite of 15 blurry gray paintings about the capture, suspicious deaths and funeral of the Baader-Meinhof anarchist group meditates, appropriately, on the power of the state. Also here you’ll find the architect Hermann Finsterlin’s rarely exhibited “Study for a House of Sociability” in polychrome plaster and paint from around 1920, which presages Frank Gehry, Milan’s Memphis designers and Frank Stella.

In the buildup to the reopening of its newly expanded building last October, the Modern announced a philosophical reorientation that broadened its focus to a global, rather than just Western, history of modern art. Its traditionally siloed art mediums would also be integrated; painting and sculpture would share space with photography, design, works on paper, film and music. But perhaps most exciting was the ambitious plan to switch out a substantial chunk of the collection every six months. For an institution where permanent collection displays once lasted, largely untouched, for 5 or 10 years, this pace was tantamount to warp speed.

Visitors would see more of the museum’s riches — as long as they kept coming back. Curators would engage with these riches more deeply, in cross-departmental teams. Perhaps curatorial thinking would move faster under the pressure.

This first Fall Reveal indicates how the museum pulled off this prodigious effort. The collection is still spread through three levels and proceeds chronologically from the fifth floor (1880s-1940s), to the fourth (1940-1970) to the second (1970-present) — with the same group of galleries on each floor reinstalled each time. In addition, while the art changes, the galleries on four and five remain dedicated to a fairly defined style, period or medium. You will encounter new examples of design or photography, Dada or Pop Art in pretty much the same place. The rehang has more holdovers in terms of artists and even artworks than I expected. But the overlay of the previous and the current installations can create a pleasant sense of familiarity: Was this here last time? In this gallery? On this wall?

Admittedly, certain irritants persist: Some galleries still studiously avoid helpful names of art movements, opting for phrases that are bland or vague. The fourth-floor gallery, with a mix of what most people would recognize as Pop Art, was previously “From Soup Cans to Flying Saucers” and is now “Domestic Disruption.” No offense, but maybe the museum needs its own writers’ room.

Otherwise, the first Fall Reveal mostly feels like a good settling in, another step in a process whereby visitors, curators and art are getting to feel at home in the new Museum of Modern Art. Here are some of the standout galleries, floor by floor.

The fifth floor display is temporarily two galleries short for the next week or two. A large one will be devoted to Parisian art and design between the World Wars, another to Weimar portraiture. I’m looking forward to seeing Gabriele Münter’s “Woman in Thought II,” a painting from 1928 acquired last year, and perhaps writing about these spaces later.

According to the Laws of Chance This is the first of the rehung galleries on the fifth floor and once again it concentrates on Duchamp and his Dadaist confreres. Appropriately, it has been installed according to chance. The melody that wafts through the gallery is one of Duchamp’s earliest uses of chance: the 1913 “Erratum Musical,” composed (for three voices) by drawing notes from a hat. Following suit, the curators established the sequence of the works on view by drawing their titles from a hat, too. It looks surprisingly normal except for the wince-worthy placement of two wall vitrines side by side.

A Modern Media World This photography gallery now centers on images commissioned for magazine ads, book illustrations and social documentation, and later elevated by MoMA to art. (The display offers the relatively humble publications in which they originally appeared.) The numerous photographers include Paul Outerbridge, Germaine Krull, Andre Kertesz and Tina Modotti, whose exquisite “Telephone Wire, Mexico,” from around 1925, is both spiritual and abstract. Also on view is a sleek black Bakelite radio the size of a small tombstone, designed in 1933 by Serge Chermayeff.

Abstraction and Ornament This gallery offers the most surprises with a dense presentation of some of the wonders of the museum’s holdings in early modernist design. An imposing cluster at the center of the gallery includes a 1927 wall hanging in a syncopated geometry of white, black and gray by Anni Albers; a large window grille — possibly for a store window — in sinuous ribbons of wrought iron by Antoni Gaudí; two colored glass windows by Frank Lloyd Wright; and an elevator grille from the Chicago Stock Exchange designed by Louis Sullivan in 1893 that points the way to the lean, playful elegance of Alexander Girard in the 1950s.