What good is an art collection if a museum doesn’t shake it up once in a while? The Museum of Modern Art has increasingly been acting on this principle. Its latest upending is “The Long Run,” a yearlong installation that is utterly engaging if slightly mild: around 130 works of art spread throughout the galleries and hallways of its fourth floor. With a couple of exceptions, these works have been made since 1970 by, as the title implies, artists with careers of some length.
The presentation forsakes the myth of Modernism that the Modern is identified with — of art as ceaseless progress fomented almost entirely by the innovations of ambitious young (white) men. Instead, it focuses on artists, some famous, some not so famous — Lari Pittman, Ernie Gehr, Joan Jonas — who have just kept on making art, regardless of attention or affirmation, sometimes saving the best for last. The focus here is on art as an older person’s game, a pursuit less of innovation than of authenticity and a deepening personal vision.
The show’s 15 galleries swing energetically between what are essentially small solo exhibitions of works by artists the Modern collects in depth — Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Cy Twombly, Gego and David Hammons, who looks great here as both sculptor and painter — and thematic groupings of artists usually represented in the collection by far fewer works, sometimes only one or two. Whatever the category, everything here was made by an artist who was at least 45 — and usually quite a bit older. The oldest is Georgia O’Keeffe, whose seeming abstraction of a white plane receding into blue, titled “From a Day With Juan II,” was made in 1977, when she was 90, and is inspired by the Washington Monument. The painting appears in “The City,” one of the early thematic galleries, among works by Kerry James Marshall, Romare Bearden and Mr. Gehr. A sidebar space is devoted to 11 photographs of New York City street scenes from 1971-81 by the great Helen Levitt (1913-2009), whose gritty poetry hovers ineluctably between color and black and white.
Attention is paid to “late styles,” those unexpected bursts of fresh creativity that some artists summon toward the very ends of their lives, typically in their 70s or 80s. In fact, the show opens with two celebrated examples. In the first gallery stands “Articulated Lair” (1986), a disturbing environment by Louise Bourgeois, who didn’t really begin her mature work until she was past 60. Black on the outside, this folded-screen circle, made of old doors, is mostly blue and white inside. It’s like stepping into a beautiful mind, but dark thoughts intrude in the form of hanging black shapes that conjure sausages, clubs and sides of beef.