Meet the new mess

    But Serota’s second critical initiative doesn’t deserve any applause. In fact, it deserves boos all round. He it was who invented the chaotic way of presenting a collection that involves the ejection of sense and its replacement by stimulation. For reasons that are understandable but not forgivable, Serota has traded in the ambition to enlighten, which had hitherto been the main concern of a museum hang, and replaced it with a manic desire to keep you interested at all costs. The result is a museum experience that suffers from the curatorial equivalent of Parkinson’s disease: an inability to keep still.

    The specific example of Parkinson’s curating that concerns us here, the rehang of the entire permanent collection at Tate Modern, the first such rehang since the gallery opened in 2000, is a new mess much like the old mess. Touted as a total reorganisation of the gallery’s holdings, it is actually a continuation and perhaps even an intensification of the original chaotic ambition to do away with the legible stuff. such as chronology or a division based on national schools, and to replace it with a system driven by that entirely unhelpful process known as curatorial whim.

    On paper, it says here, we have actually returned to a chronological hang, with the four main “isms” of modern art — futurism, minimalism, surrealism and abstract expressionism — each given a self-contained empire in which to trace their history. Various airport analogies were being bandied about when I went on my visit. What we have here are four new “terminals”, each of which covers a particular art destination. The first terminal tackles futurism’s trajectory. The second destination is minimalism. And so on. All the terminals are self- contained, with their own floor space. Once you’re inside one, the only way out is back where you entered.

    Taking the Heathrow analogy a step further, at the centre of every terminal is a hub, a main gallery filled with appropriate examples from the collection, which sets the tone for everything else. Radiating from these hubs are the spokes, a range of galleries that supposedly follow a chronological plan from the beginning of the 20th century until today. You can follow these in the correct order. Or you can wander in and out of the hubs as the mood takes you, making other connections.

    If all this sounds complicated on paper, wait until you actually get in there and try to follow a line of thought. Chronology, hubs, directions, focus — they all cease to work as one unexpected spectacle succeeds another in the humungous mashing-up of time and place that is the reality of the new hang at Tate Modern. The futurism terminal, for instance, begins with a dramatic face- off between Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, from 1913, and Roy Lichtenstein’s much-loved Whaam!, from 1963. The Lichtenstein painting shows an American fighter plane blowing up the enemy with a rocket. The Boccioni sculpture is a bronze of a running figure. Why have these two been brought together? Actually, that’s pretty obvious. Both of them are energetic evocations of explosive movement and, in both their cases, this movement has a destructive urgency to it. They have been chosen to hang together at the outset of the futurist terminal because this sense of movement and that air of destructive urgency are emblematic of the mood ahead. So, is this pairing a bad thing? Yes, it is. Why? Because it is completely, utterly and irrevocably accidental.

    Pure happenstance has brought these two artworks together at this point. Lichtenstein’s painting isn’t actually about movement or the destructive force lines of the mechanical age. His painting is about the allure of the comic strip. A typical Lichtenstein, which Whaam! isn’t, would show a young girl in front of a mirror, fretting about her date that night. What counts is the dramatic isolation of a single frame from a comic whole. Only by completely disregarding the ambitions of the artist, and by outranking them with the curatorial urge to play snap across the ages, can you justify hanging the Lichtenstein next to the Boccioni.

    Why not include Whaam!, instead, in that bit of the minimalism terminal in which Jenny Holzer and others deal with the text in art? What are the letters “Whaam!” if not a great big text? Or why not hang a red Bonnard in Boccioni’s place, because Whaam! has lots of red in it too? When you dispense with sense and order in a museum hang, you leave yourself entirely at the mercy of optical impressions. The result is theatre without the play: drama without a script.

    Why has the Tate chosen to invent these unhelpful ways to show art? One reason, as we know, is to disguise the huge gaps in the collection. The national holdings in cubism and fauvism are so paltry that they do not add up to a proper display, particularly when asked to rattle around in spaces as large as these. In the hub of the futurism terminal, some pictures are so high up that they cannot be examined, while others are so undistinguished, they barely have a presence. So it has been padded out with unlikely bedmates. What should suddenly loom up among the cubists but a painting of a German red-light district by George Grosz. Shouldn’t Grosz be in the expressionist hub? And what’s that beyond the Grosz? Isn’t that a wall of full-colour seaside images of the British at play by the very much alive Martin Parr? And surely that over there is Degas’s Little Dancer from 1880? What the hell is it doing in the futurist hub? I could go on and on. The chaos never ceases because the sense never starts.

    And it never starts because the real cause of this disaster, the actual reason the Tate chooses to play lucky dip across the ages, is not because the collection contains so many gaps, but because the gallery employs too many curators. All of them get namechecked on the labels of the rehang because Tate Modern is a museum driven by the urges of its guards and not of its artists. By dispensing with chronology and nationality, we have entrusted the national collection to the forces of happenstance. What is being recorded here is not the journey of modern art in the past 100 years, but the current fancies of Tate curators.

    Of course, it’s not all bad news. Although Tate curators are generally hopeless and massively undereducated in the history of art, some know more than others and follow their whims more productively. The surrealism display struck me as consistently interesting, and the Tate’s holdings here are, of course, much more impressive than its weak cubism collection. The abstract expressionist terminal — it is actually called Material Gestures — is also well judged, though the new Rothko display of the gorgeous purple paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant is once again botched. It didn’t work last time because the lighting was too flat. It doesn’t work this time because the lighting is too intense.

    The minimalist terminal has some fine sights, too. Carl Andre’s bricks are finally displayed with appropriate gravitas. And what a wonderful surprise to see Joseph Beuys’s masterpiece, the VW camper van with its trail of 24 sledges hanging from the back, borrowed from the museum in Kassel, where it provides a welcome relief from the patchiness of the Documenta display.

    So, scattered throughout the whole effort are various memorable works and moments. But no amount of pleasing moments can make up for the final disappointment of discovering that a big mess has been replaced by a big mess.