I visited the Museum of Modern Art on September 9. It was my first stay in the city since March 15. It was already eerie. September 11 was unthinkable and happened fast. The COVID catastrophe keeps unfolding, an oozing amalgam of death, bravery, and science fiction.
I don’t doubt New York’s resilience. We need it back in all its gaudy splendor, though. Seeing the first floor of the Empire State Building empty was a shock. Times Square — on a matinee day, at that — was empty. Rockefeller Plaza was empty. Countless small storefronts are boarded up. The sidewalk restaurants are a nice sign of life but one among few.
The vibe is working-class. “No stuck-up people,” I thought, but they’re bound to return, as will the grubby money shufflers and the social climbers. Now, the energy’s coming from the people who can’t Zoom, and it’s sweaty, physical energy. There’s lots of construction noise. I’d just returned from Rome and stayed in the Flower District. Lots of hauling, dirt, and squirts of water. It takes work — and dirt — to make beauty. It’s the closest New York gets to farming.
People are blacker and browner and younger. I liked it. No tourists, who always annoy me since they don’t look where they’re going and stop in the middle of the sidewalk. Down-and-outs are everywhere, sleeping, muttering, panhandling, but that’s been building for the last few years. Crime’s up. It’s sad to see the city slink back to the early ’90s or, horrifying to think, the ’70s.
On the way to MoMA, I walked by Saks. I like to look at the windows. I consider fashion art and the decoration of department store windows a niche art with, at its best, an aesthetic worth studying. Beige is in. Think buff, camel, tan, sand, biscuit, and oatmeal. Dependable, calm, neutral, comforting.
Think “everything New York’s not right now.” The city is in disguise, shell-shocked and uncertain. People are masked. They are frightened and don’t know what to say, and no one feels free to speak his mind anyway. I’m surprised black’s not in vogue, since the city has so much to mourn.
Historians claim that Rome was sacked seven times, but I can only remember the Gauls, Goths, Vandals, Normans, and Charles V. The Nazis, I recall, didn’t smash the place. New York, though, takes the avant-garde cake — it sacked itself.
Back to MoMA, but, first, a rant detour. Months ago, I drew from Ralph Waldo Emerson and suggested that museums be “the opener of doors” when the reckless, insane lockdown fever finally ebbed. At some point, I said, we needed to get back to normal after an unprecedented, destructive, bizarre hysteria. At some point, we’d have punished our children enough, keeping them from school, and punished low-wage workers thrown from their jobs, all to beat COVID-19, a little worse than a bad flu season and just one of a million challenges we fragile humans face each day.
Our museums could lead the way. They’re big, visible, admired institutions. They’re in many businesses, but one is managing crowds. Their air is purified by HVAC systems. Our biggest obstacle to a normal life is fear, though now I’d add laziness, hypochondria, and selfishness. By opening their doors, which they could easily do, museums had the power to signal that it’s safe to live and to thrive again rather than hide in the closet, masked and paranoid. Museums owed it to their communities and especially to the performing arts, devastated as they are by the public’s fear of communal spaces.
Alas, most museum leaders sat on their richly compensated butts, feigning prudence as they learned to love lockdown leisure. All they needed was a little courage, a bit of civic mindedness, and the notion, once assumed and ingrained, that museums serve the public, not the comfort of the museum staff. Museums are not-for-profits. Their primary mission is to open their doors to the public, not keep them shut. I have no doubt that the bitter meltdowns among many museum staffs stem from months of unnatural isolation, fear of layoffs, and AWOL bosses.
The Met is still closed three days a week. I got a message from the director of its Watson Library, one of the city’s great art libraries, assuring library-card holders that he’s “passionate about access,” and, by the way, we’re going to stay shut for another two months. A few days later, I got another message from the director telling me about the hundreds of boxes of books that the staff at the Watson Library must unpack and process, boxes that arrived while the library was closed, delivered by people who, by the way, actually had to work. Apparently opening the mail takes precedence over opening the doors.
I’ve got boxes of books I haven’t unpacked, and I moved back to Vermont five years ago. I’ll get around to it, but, in the meantime, I’ve got more urgent things to do, and, Mr. Passionate About Access, so do you. Hundreds of scholars and students need the materials you’re keeping behind closed doors.
It was nice to be back at MoMA and to have it almost entirely to myself. I was curious about its health protocols. MoMA stationed a greeter and a guard on the sidewalk of its 53rd Street entrance. The guard was posted to direct me to the greeter, who asked if I had an online ticket. No walk-ins allowed. I did but needed to go to the ticket desk to get it. Nicely designed glass barriers separated me from the polite, helpful young woman at the ticket desk. I got my ticket and then had my temperature taken. All was well, and off I went. I like visitor-service people. They’re usually young and enthusiastic and deal with that special breed of New York crank all day. They do it with aplomb.
Is it overkill? No, they’re doing what they have to do. Big “Let’s Stay Safe Together” signs were everywhere, on every floor, in every transition space. They’re a distraction, unnecessary, and, after a while, unnerving. Once or twice, but everywhere? Instructions on hand-washing in the johns? Well, a mother’s touch is never a bad thing. There are black disinfectant dispensers everywhere. They look like baby Darth Vaders. MoMA’s a design museum, too, so everything has high production values.
After $450 million spent to renovate the place, I still couldn’t find the elevator. And I never could get the WiFi to work. Never mind. I was happy to be back in a New York museum that’s actually open, and I love MoMA. It’s one of the world’s great keepers and makers of heritage.
MoMA started with tons of Rockefeller money, which is oil and robber-baron money. Philip Johnson’s presence is everywhere. He was a Nazi in the ’30s. It’s a hoot to see his name on galleries filled with great art by Jews. He gave some of it. MoMA is many things, among them a lesson in treating the past with empathy. Punishing the past is a waste of energy. I wish the SJWs would see this, but they can’t learn anything. They’re too dense.
MoMA is doing its bit. It opened as soon as it legally could. It’s open seven days a week, 10:30 to 5:30. Thanks to UNIQLO, a clothing maker, it’s free until September 27. That’s a generous gift. Until the city’s theaters and art scene rise from the coma that our craven, incompetent masters imposed willy-nilly, New York’s not New York.
I haven’t written about MoMA since the renovation, which finished last October, and this isn’t a review. It’s my version of impressionism, dabs of this and that, and since there’s no impressionism at MoMA — the collection starts with Cézanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh — I can make the style mine.
It’s one-third bigger, with 47,000 square feet added. The addition augments the $850 million rebuild from 2004, but some say it rectifies it. Forever a Yankee tightwad, I’ll note that $1.3 billion spent on infrastructure is obscene. MoMA’s in Midtown, I know, and if things aren’t extraordinarily expensive, how can they not be good, but it’s a not-for-profit, a.k.a. a charity, and that demands modesty and circumspection. Demolishing the lovely Folk Art Museum, a gem, was a crime against beauty. Spilled milk, water over the dam and under the bridge, don’t worry, be happy. I’m willing to move on.
The courtyard is spacious, airy, sleek, and inviting. There, I know I’m in a serious, edifying place. It’s not intimidating, though. Lots of cushy seats and a welcoming staff help. So do an abundance of outside views. The courtyard merges through mile-high glass walls with the beautiful Abby Rockefeller sculpture garden. The finishes are first-rate.
Is it corporate? That’s the general criticism of it, but I think that’s wrong, or misses the point. It’s streamlined, lustrous, and uncluttered — and unfettered — by history. That’s one of the points of modern art. MoMA’s courtyard clears the mind or, more precisely, opens the mind. It’s a modern style, and that’s why corporations absorbed it.
The galleries are big, neutral, and arranged to welcome a ramble or something more programmed and disciplined. I spent half a day wandering. The new Félix Fénéon show is superb. He was the dealer and critic who supported the careers of Seurat, Bonnard, and the Italian Futurists. It’s so good, I wish it were bigger. There’s a worthwhile Dorothea Lange show that closes September 21. The survey exhibition on 20th-century textile art has worthwhile points — mostly on technique — but it was a little of this, a little of that, to the point of incoherence.
MoMA is doing many more things I admire. It’s using its vast, sublime permanent collection to populate its temporary exhibitions. MoMA’s done blockbuster loan shows by the dozens. The Matisse/Picasso, Gerhard Richter, Seurat drawings, and Martin Puryear shows, though years ago, are still experiences of unforgettable majesty for me. In the past few years, though, it’s been doing smart single-artist and theme shows using only its collection or, in the case of Fénéon, showing its art and borrowing from New York collections. This is not only economic efficiency, a god the Vermonter in me worships, but it allows the riches in the vault their moment to sing.
In the permanent galleries, MoMA has anchor rooms on Action Painting, pop art, Harlem, color-field painting, Dada, Picasso, Downtown New York, and other themes. These are the masterpiece rooms, and everything looks great. I can’t say there’s one “best feature” of the New Do, but I definitely love the little, in-between galleries that will rotate with small work from the permanent collection, usually works on paper but not always, arranged around an artist or narrow theme.
There’s a room now, for example, on Frank O’Hara, the poet but also a MoMA exhibition designer. Two rooms are given to Matisse’s Swimming Pool cutout from 1952, with a fetching video showing the artist and his assistant making it. I learned a lot from a small gallery devoted to abstract photography. These spaces are like mini-seminars, the kind of focused installations the best college museums do. With the extra space, MoMA has become a museum for all seasons.
Favorites like Matisse’s Red Studio, from 1911, and the late Water Lilies by Monet will always be on view — the big Monet has a nice, new niche — but lots of things in the permanent collection will rotate. I like this. Each gallery has a wall panel with a short statement on the room’s theme. Otherwise, there are no didactic object labels. That’s good, and a MoMA tradition. There are so many fantastic things on view, and it’s best to let them speak for themselves. Jasper Johns’s Flag, from 1954–55, is as absorbing as ever. Early Picassos such as Boy with a Horse, from 1905, and Ma Jolie, from 1911, are as magical as ever.
The first thing I’d ditch is the juxtaposition of Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon, from 1907, and Faith Ringgold’s American People’s Series: Die, from 1967. People who say the pairing’s brilliant and shocking must watch Lawrence Welk on Sunday. It’s neither. It’s banal and awkward. I know, they’re both about fractured bodies and appropriation, which is boring, but, beyond that, it’s no walk on the moon. One is about prostitutes, and one is about a race riot, and both low-down subjects get the big, salon-type treatment. Picasso was Spanish, so, when he painted it, he was an outsider artist. Spaniards in Paris were outré. Ringgold is African American, so I guess there’s a match there.
Ringgold is a good artist, but the two paintings play together in the most superficial ways, mostly on the basis of size and the number of figures. And Ringgold’s painting is over 50 years old. Its female figures wear miniskirts! Its bright, cheery colors undercut a violence signaled mostly by splotches of red meant to be blood. Take away that, it could be a game of Twister.
As post-war art goes, it’s an Old Master. It’s not radical now and, unlike Picasso’s painting, never really was. It’s a riff on Guernica and Goya’s Third of May. Die is a painting that makes rich liberals feel sad and guilty, and that makes them feel good.
The better juxtaposition is what was outrageous or sacrilegious or subversive in 1907 against its match now. Self Portrait, Nursing, by Catherine Opie from 2004, would do the trick. It’s got wall power, and it’s her take on Raphael’s Madonnas. Or Kara Walker’s Forty Acres of Mules, from 2015, or the big Basquiat on view in MoMA’s Downtown New York room, though it’s on loan. Something that says, a hundred years on, “Take that, Picasso.”
Post-’70s art is an impossibly big topic, and it’s something of a struggle for MoMA, as it would be anywhere. MoMA’s collection has always been international, but “international” years ago was New York and parts of Europe. Now, China, India, and Africa are new players and rightly so. Artists there are remaking aesthetics. Nothing since 2000 can be said to have stood the test of time, since hardly enough time has passed, and, anyway, we’re in a canon-bashing era. Choices are endless, as are voices arguing what’s the best of the new. Filters and gatekeepers are gone.
The contemporary galleries begin with Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills, from the late ’70s, but published in 1982. It’s a good start. After that and a gallery for Keith Haring, Barbara Kruger, Martin Wong, and the overrated Jenny Holzer, the rest of the galleries of the art of our time feel like a big, questionable jumble and a tribute to gigantism.
Like the art of our time, though, it’s a work in progress. Much as the thrust of MoMA once was the art of New York and Paris, now it’s identity art, and most of that is one-tinny-note stuff. Lots of great art gets cut if gender or race rule the roost. I’d make it a point to rotate these spaces every three months, which is what I did at the Addison Gallery when I was director. There, we redid the entire museum every three months as Phillips Academy’s school terms rotated. Making those spaces a version of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition is a good way of showing what’s really happening now.
MoMA addressed the financial fallout of the COVID hysteria with dispatch. It eliminated unfilled positions, cut salaries, and adjusted its education and visitor-services staff to reflect a steep drop in visitorship. I’m certain it is admissions-sensitive, since it attracts millions of paying tourists. That disappeared, so the money hole opened up fast.
Glenn Lowry has been the director for 25 years now. I’ve never heard anything bad about him from people who work at MoMA. MoMA hasn’t experienced the constant turmoil I’ve seen at the Met since Philippe de Montebello retired, with flopped building campaigns, staff dissension, the Met Breuer disaster, and budget drama. Lowry strikes me as a no-drama leader. He’s certainly a master fundraiser. I esteem anyone who could run massive museum-building projects.
So, a great visit. I haven’t done any New York stories since last year. I’ll get to the Met soon, but first I’ll write stories about what dealers are showing. The art fairs, I’m sorry to say, are not going to happen for a while.