When we arrived at the Museum of Modern Art on New York’s 53rd Street on Black Friday last, I expected to see long lines of people, but the sidewalks were clear! The MoMA had reopened on Oct. 21 after a total reorganization and lots of publicity. I breathed a sigh of relief. The museum opens at 10, and we arrived at 11:15. Not bad for a group of five that had trekked from downtown Brooklyn.
The new MoMA is much larger than the old, and occupies most of 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. You can get lost in it! But the exhibits have a new slant: "Modern art" now includes more women, artists of color and artists of many ethnicities. It’s no longer mostly white males from Europe and North America. (Similar changes have taken place elsewhere, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art farther up on Fifth Avenue).
In late morning, the building was not that crowded, but by 4 p.m. the crowds were worthy of the NYC subway system. Friday evenings, when entry is free, are very crowded. People of all ages come here from all over the world. What are they looking for?
Chief curator Ann Temkin has said that visitors to the museum “did not sign up for art history course.” Consequently, the traditional -isms of art history are no longer part of the MoMA’s vocabulary. "Abstract expressionism" is now "action painting," "color field painting" is "planes of color," and "unsteady optics" has replaced "op art." Even the straightforward "pop art" is now "From Soup Cans to Flying Saucers."
Art historian Hal Foster, writing in the London Review of Nov. 7, calls this a “dumbing down of written information,” and criticizes the “vaguely generalized titles” that replace the old designations. The new approach, he suggests, assumes that “people just don’t care enough, or wouldn’t get it if they did.”
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In any case, most visitors seem to experience pleasure and excitement. I have seen a group of 50 or 60 people arranged in a semicircle looking at Van Gogh’s "Starry Night" in rapt, intense admiration. Clusters of visitors also take seats in front of Jackson Pollock’s "Number One," Monet’s "Water Lilies" and Picasso’s "Demoiselles d’Avignon."
Me, I found myself contemplating Andy Wharhol’s "32 cans of Soup." This work consists of four rows of eight paintings each of Campbell’s soups cans, circa 1966. Some of these soups are no longer around. Oxtail, anyone? I was not alone. There is something mysterious about a great work of art. It pulls you in.
By 2 o’clock, we were hungry. The MoMA’s two restaurants were full, with waits of 45 minutes. I had spotted a Brazilian steakhouse across the street, but that would take too long. Fast food was reported to be a 15-minute walk away. Our time was short. We decided to stay.
Richard Serra’s huge works are hard to ignore. You can walk around them, walk through them, look up at them, or kick one and break a toe. His sculpture, "EQUAL," consists of eight 20-ton metal boxes, arranged in four 11-foot towers. Although not astronomically oriented, they remind one of Stonehenge. Their surfaces are dark and rough. The two boxes in each tower are slightly out of line.
You are alone with it. Instead of walking around staring at your device, you confront space and mass in time and have to navigate a route, aware of your insignificant flesh-and-bones existence next to these enormous blocks. It’s like Browning’s existential 1886 poem, "Child Roland to the Dark Tower Came," but here, there are four towers.
Speaking of Picasso’s "Demoiselles d’Avignon," it is in the same room with Faith Ringgold’s "Race Riot." Faith Ringgold is a black woman artist, 89 years old. Picasso, a white male, has been generally heralded as the greatest painter of the 20th century. Both paintings are large works. These meetings — let’s not call them confrontations — didn’t used to happen. I would like to have seen "Race Riot” confronting Picasso’s "Guernica,” which portrays an aerial bombardment on a Spanish town during the Spanish civil War, but "Guernica" left MoMA for the Prado museum in Madrid many years ago.
It was almost 5 o’clock. We had to get back to Brooklyn. A few hundred artists and the Brazilian steakhouse would have to wait until next time. We bought giant mustard-coated pretzels and hot dogs from a street vendor and headed for the subway.
Ed Rossmann lives in Aurora and has been an educator most of his life, including 17 years in high school.