Turning onto 53rd from 6 Avenue, the first thing I saw was the word “MoMA” and its reflection written vertically in white on black in the distance. It’s written on a part of the building that’s stepped out from the rest, just wide enough for the logo. The letters reflect starkly against the smooth, dark glass of the building itself, so you can tilt your head to either side and still read it clearly. Upon seeing it, I knew that I was primed, that I was in my art critical mindset, because I immediately started thinking about how the logo’s representation—and the building itself—is an art piece, and how its reflection symbolizes art’s reflection of its surroundings. The logo echoes the hall of mirrors in the dialog of art. The stark white-on-black contrast represents the starkness the museum art experience: art in isolation, placed only beside itself. Furthermore, it is art wed to architecture. And so on. But mostly it’s just nice to look at.
Perhaps as a testament to the pace of New York, the MoMA was surprisingly quiet last Saturday morning, given that it reopened just a month ago after a two-year expansion and renovation project. It only took us about ten minutes to get our tickets, check our coats, and slide along the marble floor to a museum map. The lobby resembles the old lobby, though they’ve moved things around, so it wasn’t until we went into the museum, not until we went all the way up to the top and looked around, that I realized how much bigger this new museum is. I remembered the old MoMA as a small but highly concentrated, thoughtful collection of extraordinary works. After my recent visit, I knew I’d remember the new MoMA as an immense and highly concentrated, thoughtful collection of extraordinary works. We went straight to the top of the building. Looking over the 6th floor walkway, I could see down to the second floor, where ants walked around a 25’ high Barnett Newman steel obelisk that rises up from the center of the gallery. The 6th floor railings, all glass with a thin strip of metal at the top, look like they’d hold very little weight, so I had a heightened sense of vertigo when leaning over. A Water Lilies triptych along the 2nd floor gallery wall seemed to come even more into focus from this distance. Below the 2nd floor, I could see the bits of the lobby peeking through between the walkways. I saw the massive new outdoor sculpture garden below, which is visible from almost every area that lies outside of the galleries. At this high perch, looking down, I saw the building as an art piece again, this time viewed from the inside.
We learned a lesson in the 20th century about flat modern buildings: they have to come out feeling personal and, at least in places, intimate. The MoMA feels very good in that respect. There’s room enough for the work (and visitors) to breathe, but at no point does the museum feel like an empty cave. The galleries are intimate and the walkways are open and warm and full of natural light.
We spent a lot of time on the 5th floor galleries (“Painting & Sculpture I”). My favorite piece to see in person, kitschy as it may have become, was Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The texture is incredible, of course, and one detail you’ll never see in a reproduction is the framing: they framed it so you can see a bit of the canvas behind the painting, especially on the top and left sides. Once you see the canvas, you can see that he actually didn’t cover the whole thing with paint: the canvas peaks through in various spots. But when he does lay it on, he lays it on thick.
I’m currently reading “Life With Picasso” by Francoise Gilot (a review will be forthcoming), so I was happy to see Picassos in full force at the MoMA. On the 5th floor alone, they had two or three roomfuls of Picassos from the 1900-1920s, and it gave me a good reminder of his earlier Cubist style and how it evolved as that period ended. I was surprised by the stylistic diversity in his work, though. To my eyes, the MoMA was not just showing off the variety of their Picassos; rather, they wanted you to see how he managed to produce such consistently strong paintings while never staying with one palette, mood, or medium for very long. As soon as you think you know Picasso, he switches gears.
Unfortunately, we didn’t spend as much time on the other floors. We saw the gallery of video art—a big, dark room with its walls lit by a dozen or so video art pieces—and one brilliant piece in particular, called 89 Seconds at Alcázar by Eve Sussman. In it, we see actors in period costumes gather together and situated themselves in a scene that looks exactly like Velasquez’s Las Meninas. The sets and the costumes were perfect, and the lighting and filming style made the whole thing look like a moving painting.
Starving and tired, we ran through the photography galleries at the end and managed to get a glimpse of some very nice pieces: some large-format Andreas Gursky photographs, a big Cindy Sherman wall of B&Ws, and a gallery full of “decisive moment” photographs—Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, etc.
I was in a bit of a daze on Saturday, partly in shock from seeing so much at once (both in New York and the museum), partly loopy from a too-short rest the night before. But the MoMA still struck a strong inspirational chord with me. I highly recommend it.