Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Nostalgia for The Modern

The member's opening at the sparkling new Museum of Modern Art was quite the New York event Thursday evening last. Festive attire was requested on the invitation, and many in the crowd followed suit: lots of glitter and fur, black clothing, of course, and unspeakably high-heeled shoes on the women. Smartmom saw one man in a kilt.

Smartmom, Hepcat and the two moms toured the vastly enlarged and reimagined museum. Yoshio Taniguchi, the architect, did a brilliant, if self-effacing job, of creating an epic-sized container for MOMA's collection of modern and contemporary art. It's not Wright's Guggenheim or Gehrey's Bilbao, architectural "masterpieces" that call attention to themselves more than the art. This building belongs, first and foremost, to the art—and what a collection it is.

Smartmom and her group arrived at 7 p.m. and were shooed out by the guards at 11 p.m. Four hours in the museum gave them only a partial taste of what's there. Smartmom enjoyed seeing old friends -- the paintings she's looked at since her childhood when innumerable days were spent at the museum with her art-oriented parents. It was a happy reunion with Matisse's dancers and his red studio; Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon;" Cezanne, Pollock's huge black and grey splatter work; a roomful of ravishing Rothkos; Rauchenberg's bed, John's American flag; Brigit Riley's op artistry; Rosenquist's "F11," Frankenthaler and many, many more including Smartmom's two childhood faves: Fernand Leger and the very lovable Claus Oldenberg, whose soft fan was hanging in one of the galleries.

Hepcat was miffed that Ad Rhinhardt's black painting called "Abstract Painting," did not have a bench near it. According to him, one must stare at the painting for at least ten minutes to notice that there are actually nine panels of different shades of black. Hepcat says he's going to write a letter to the museum to say, "You are mistreating your minimalists. Get a bench!"

The photography department was great as ever although Smartmom was surprised that Diane Arbus was represented by exactly one picture as were Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. There were, however, nearly 20 pictures from Robert Frank's influential series "The Americans." Philip Lorca DiCorcia was`also beautifully represented and there's way too much Cindy Sherman.

Smartmom wore black, of course, with a burgundy shawl and too-high pumps. Her feet hurt so badly after the first three hours of exploring she had to take them off and do the last hour in stockinged feet. Groovy Grandma, ever the design critic, declared the new museum, too big, and too much the same. "It's like Target," she said. "From room to room, the galleries are the same, the lighting is the same, the floors are the same. There's no mystery."

She's not completely wrong and the newspaper and magazine critics have also had their not altogether positive say. But Smartmom was excited by the sheer volume and integrity of the museum's holdings and awed by the architect's vast gesture.

Smartmom fondly remembers the old, old MOMA of her youth with its small galleries and darkly lit, gray carpeted photo department. The museum was full of quirky, special spaces. The small scale allowed for an easy intimacy with the paintings, a feeling that they were friends, members of the family. She remembers that wonderful painting of a stairwell in a stairwell that Smartmom always assumed was MOMA's stairwell (it's not). And that "Guernica" was the first thing you'd see on the second floor a few small galleries away from Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie." She loved that a few of the items in the design department were actually things that her parent's owned -- the Corbusier and Wassily chairs, Georg Jensen stainless, an Alvar Aalto stool, a blue portable Olivetti typewriter, and a pair of orange scissors. The plates and saucers used in the sculpture garden cafeteria were the same ones they had at home. In this and other ways, the museum felt like home.

The room dedicated to Monet's "Water Lillies," was probably her favorite. There she could get lost inside that painterly pond and stare out at the sculpture garden and The Dorset Hotel on West 54th Street.

In addition to touring the galleries, much of Smartmom's childhood was spent in the basement of the museum watching great films, including Fred Astaire's "Swingtime," D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation," Godard's "Breathless," "The African Queen," and Brahkage's "Dogstar Man." The room used to rumble every few minutes or so when the subway passed below ground, but the movies were free and the museum provided many valuable lessons in the art of cinema.

Ah, remembrances of things past. The MOMA as Madeleine cookie. So evocative, so full of memory and longing....

Interesting that a museum meant to represent the new -- the cutting edge, the contemporary -- is itself a source of nostalgia for Smartmom. Isn't nostalgia the enemy of modernism? Oh well, one can't help pining for an earlier and simpler time -- an afternoon at the MOMA on a Sunday afternoon in the late sixties and seventies. Smartmom was so much younger then. And so was The Modern.


At 9:31 PM, Blogger Udge said...

The opening sounds like it was great fun, wish I'd been there.

I await with some trepidation my next chance to visit MOMA, I too liked the old arrangement of smallish rooms. And I fear that a work by a friend of mine will have disappeared: Karin Sander polished a section of the plaster wall near the staircase on the second (?) floor. Does that wall still exist? (Perhaps the elegy is the natural expressive mode of people in the second half of their lives.)

Interesting to hear that you grew up surrounded by good taste, not just in MOMA. No wonder the two of you turned out so groovy.

My parents dragged us off every weekend to a museum or gallery (or so it seems in the distorting mirror of memory) which as a child I hated; but at some unidentifiable point that tipped, and I started enjoying Doing Art, to the point that I even began doing it on my own & trying to organize my friends to join in.

In this spirit, I hope you are inflicting art & culture on TS and OSFO. Viewing art, becoming comfortable with the subject and the place, is learned behaviour: it takes a lot of experience to be able to view artworks as friends.


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