Facelift, Cafe, Trite Shows Degrade Morgan: Lance Esplund

"Color Study for Homage to the Square" by Josef Albers. The small oil is among approximately 80 studies for larger paintings in the Morgan Library & Museum's monographic show "Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper," on view through October 14. Photographer: Werner J. Hannappel/Morgan Library & Museum via Bloomberg

Why are so many museums beginning to look alike?

That’s what I asked myself recently at New York’s Morgan Library & Museum, where lately I’ve encountered, among other exhibitions, three shows of contemporary sculpture, “Dan Flavin: Drawing” and the current “Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper.”

What are these shows doing in this place?

Housing one of the world’s most extensive and renowned collections of rare books and illuminated manuscripts, the Madison Avenue gem had thrived for almost a century simply as the Morgan Library.

Now, like so many newly face-lifted and rebranded arts institutions intent on multitasking, the Morgan suffers from both an identity crisis and an inferiority complex.

I don’t begrudge expansion, competition and diversity. Museums need to evolve and cross-pollinate to flourish, but not at the expense of their roots, their core values.

Diversity is a problem when it leads to humdrum homogeneity; when it prods an inimitable institution to leap on to the curatorial bandwagon.

Bauhaus color theorist and painter Josef Albers (1888-1976) was less talented than his wife, textile artist Anni Albers. Yet he usually gets top billing. He’s represented at the Morgan by color studies for his signature series “Homage to the Square.”

Be Hip

Just shy of rigorous paintings, the studies resemble high-quality studio exercises. Like the “Homage” series, they are laboratory experiments. Thoughtful repetitions on a theme, they exemplify the work of a pedagogue practicing as a painter.

Since its makeover began in 2006, the Morgan has been pushing into new territory. An institution that once beamed with distinctiveness, quality and purpose, it has morphed into something almost unrecognizable -- and also sadly familiar.

Like the Morgan’s recent exhibitions devoted to Bob Dylan, Philip Guston and Dan Flavin, the Albers show is less remarkable for its merit than for its venue. Clearly the Morgan wants to distance itself from its bookishness and to participate on a broader, hipper, more contemporary stage.

Awful Redesign

The Morgan’s downfall began in 2006 with Renzo Piano’s ill-conceived reconfiguration. His intervention ruined the floor plan as well as the atmosphere. Once, we entered from a side street and stepped into an intimate foyer as we turned into the stately rooms with their books and display cases.

Now the galleries are awkwardly connected to a ghastly lobby which also serves as exhibition space and sprawling cafe.

Ever since then, the collection and shows have taken a distant second place.

Standing in this noisy lobby, among eaters and a handsome array of three contemporary sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly, then on a stairway landing, where I was confronted with a Keith Haring drawing, and, later, upstairs in the Albers exhibition, I felt as though I could have been in any of 100 museums around the U.S. -- anywhere but the good old Morgan.

In 2005, the Morgan appointed its first curator of modern and contemporary drawings. On paper, this was a solid move. Along with its unparalleled collection of books and manuscripts, an important cache of drawings makes up the three-pronged core of the Morgan’s holdings.

Red Alert

This spring, the Morgan appointed Joel Smith as its first curator of photography. Smith, who starts in September, will build, oversee and exhibit the burgeoning collection, which constituted only a small number of photographs during Pierpont Morgan’s lifetime.

To me, though, these decisions are red flags. They signify an institution that is not expanding but rather losing its way.

Many museums are adopting Wal-Mart’s one-stop model. The Morgan is not alone in its desire to be competitive and relevant.

Yet no New York museum saddens me like the once-magnificent Morgan Library. Every time I walk through its doors, I feel that the place has lost more of its former self. Soon, I wonder, will there be anything left?

“Josef Albers in America: Painting on Paper” runs through Oct. 14 and “Ellsworth Kelly: Sculpture” is on through Sept. 9 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Ave. Information: +1-212-685-0008 or http://www.themorgan.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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