Breaking News: John Elderfield To Retire

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Elderfield — Photo: University of Leeds

The Museum of Modern Art just informed its staff that John Elderfield, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, will be stepping down in July of next year. (MoMA curators face a mandatory retirement age of 65.) Kim Mitchell in the museum’s press office tells me that no successor for Elderfield has been chosen yet and that the search process is yet to get underway.

Elderfield has been in MoMA’s top curatorial job since he succeeded Kirk Varnedoe in 2003, but he’s been a curator there since 1975. Over the years he’s been the driving force behind some of the most gratifying shows the Modern ever presented, including the magnificent Matisse retrospective in 1992, the Bonnard retrospective six years later — a show that made Bonnard an infinitely more credible painter in my eyes; I don’t care what Picasso thought — and the great Martin Puryear show that’s up right now.

Elderfield, who was chosen by Time a few years ago as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, also co-curated the indispensable Matisse-Picasso show of 2003, as well as the great mini-show last year that brought together all four of the paintings Manet produced of The Execution of Maximilian. He got a more mixed reception for co-producing the three shows from 1999-2000 that were called Modern Starts, a thematic cross-mixture of works from MoMA’s permanent collection. Those shows traumatized some people by departing from the museum’s usual organization of shows by artist or medium or “ism” and instead mixing together art from several departments. They struck me as a useful ice breaker.

When the newly expanded MoMA re-opened three years ago it was also Elderfield who supervised the re-hanging of it’s permanent collection, a rehanging that has never satisfied everybody — either it departed too much from the art historical flow chart devised by Alfred Barr and codified by Bill Rubin or it didn’t depart enough. But the rehanging has also proven to be flexible — Rubin’s beloved Cezanne Bather is even back for now in its central position, but probably not forever. It brought more artists from Latin America into the mix. And it inaugurated the idea of changing galleries dedicated to individual artists.

MoMA is constantly criticized for not being quick enough off the mark when it comes to contemporary art. Point taken, and one that the museum implicitly acknowledged this summer when it hired Kathy Halbreich, former director of the Walker Art Center, as an associate director at MoMA with a focus on that area. But MoMA is something that no other museum anywhere in the U.S. — or the world for that matter — is or can be, a truly encyclopedic museum of Modernism. It’s mission as curator of the (still recent) past is crucial to its institutional purpose, and in that capacity Elderfield performed adroitly and sometimes brilliantly. In an era of dreadful, jargon-clogged art writing, he also produced catalog essays that are models of lucidity. And he brought some major works into the museum’s permanent collection, including Rauschenberg’s Rebus and Jasper Johns’ Diver, one of Elderfield’s favorite paintings.

As a way of holding on to him while letting him go, the museum has created the title of Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, and in that consulting role Elderfield will be on board for a couple of major upcoming shows devoted to Matisse and DeKooning.

World’s easiest New Year’s prediction — the search for his successor is going to be the obsession of 2008.