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Strength in depth

review - Modern Painting and Sculpture: 1880 to the Present at the Museum of Modern Art Edited by John Elderfield. MoMA, 2004. 536pp. £36.95. Distributed by Thames & Hudson

If you scan the reams of critical comment that greeted Yoshio Taniguchi's transformation of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) last November, you find that there is as much focus on the way the museum's permanent collection is installed as on the building itself.

That's because MoMA owns paintings and sculptures of such high quality, which so well represent the major artists and movements of the 20th century, that it has become the place in which the history of modern art is unfolded; the more so because for years the works have been installed with such an air of authority. With Taniguchi's new building came the opportunity to rethink the display completely, and the person primarily responsible for what we now see at MoMA is chief curator John Elderfield - author of this book, which presents some 300 items from the permanent collection.

While the old 'authoritative', largely chronological, installation had its critics, MoMA has rightly decided against the dubious 'thematic' grouping of works, which has been in vogue in recent years - most notoriously at Tate Modern in an attempt to camouflage great gaps in the collection. MoMA doesn't have those gaps, so, as Elderfield says, 'since the Museum's painting and sculpture collection remains unique in its ability to afford a synoptic historical overview of modern art since 1880, it has a responsibility to do just that'.

But while MoMA remains a place where artists and movements are presented successively in depth, the new arrangement is less prescriptive in route and potentially more flexible in the use of space (while some rooms are more-or-less fixed, others will change).

It's also more various in the connections it creates between works - both within the individual galleries and on sightlines from one gallery to another. Hence, for instance, one can look from a room of Matisses through to a wall in the next gallery on which Picasso and Matisse, clearly in dialogue, are side-byside, in paintings that are then - surprisingly but persuasively - related to some 'metaphysical' cityscapes by De Chirico.

This new handbook to the collection is rather sober and conservative in format.

Works are grouped by movement, with illustrations and texts collated separately. (The texts, by a number of authors, are all extracted from previous MoMA publications, which works well. ) The gain is that paintings or sculptures can be juxtaposed, and connections implied; the snag is that you have to keep leafing back for the commentary. There's no attempt to suggest multiple relationships by using several smaller images on a spread;

which, as an adjunct to the normative onework-per-page, would reflect more accurately what has happened in the galleries.

While the bulk of the book is filled with well-established 'classics', the works from the past 20 years or so, in the concluding pages, are bound to seem more provisional. Who knows what will stand the test of time? Elderfield admits that he and his colleagues must act on hunches as well as their eyes; he accepts that some items will be deaccessioned, 'correcting lapses of historical understanding'.

In the past, Elderfield has written with great insight on artists such as Matisse and Morris Louis; his account here of MoMA's evolution, if illuminating, is also a little dutiful, with its lists of bequests and acquisitions.

But one sentence in particular suggests that MoMA is in good hands, when Elderfield writes: 'Ungovernable things can happen in front of great works of art because they are transformational objects that occupy our thoughts as we occupy them with ours.' One hopes that Taniguchi's new building, which at times seems more geared to circulation than contemplation, will let MoMA's marvellous collection act in the way that Elderfield describes.

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