Modern art notes

Thank you, Greg, for the MoMA passes you sent

me. I initially intended to give them to recent immigrants who know nothing

of modern art, and in fact I will do that eventually. But an opportunity came

up, so last weekend I took Mr and Mrs N to MoMA. They’re not immigrants; they’re

just visitors from abroad. And although they’re not rich, they could afford

the $20 admission, especially considering how weak the dollar is these days.

But I wanted to see how relatively unsophisticated visitors would respond to

the new MoMA.

When I wrote about the MoMA entrance

fee last month, I basically attacked the priorities of MoMA’s board: they

clearly seemed much more interested in spending money on architecture than they

were in bringing great art to the masses. So using my overseas visitors as representative

of said masses, I tailed along behind them, looking to see what they liked,

what they didn’t, how they reacted to the new museum.

The Ns loved the Picassos. Picasso is pretty much the only modern artist they

knew well, they’d seen the Picasso Matisse show, and they loved coming back

to many of the same paintings again. The lesson here is that repeat visits are

hugely important, even when there are gaps of a year or more between them. And

the $20 entry fee certainly mitigates against repeat visits: once you’ve "been

there and done that" you’re less likely to shell out a second time, absent

some special exhibition you haven’t seen before. In fact, however, if and when

you do return, it’s more than likely that you’ll have a much better time on

your repeat visit.

MoMA’s actually a prime example of this: by the time our visit was over, I

was utterly exhausted. Many people have remarked upon the woeful paucity of

seating at MoMA; when that is combined with visits which can take hours, lots

of walking, and lots of intense focusing on art, you end up leaving the museum

utterly drained. Familiar art is, well, a bit like Matisse’s comfy armchair:

it’s just as rewarding, but less work, than unfamiliar art.

Yet the Ns were undaunted by the huge array of utterly unfamiliar art that

they faced at MoMA. I was especially impressed with the time and effort that

they put into the contemporary galleries, which are now undoubtedly the centerpiece

of the new MoMA.

It’s important to remember that there are two types of people in this world:

the kind of people who would never dream of taking a freight elevator up to

the 11th floor of a gallery building in West Chelsea in order to see a small

Morandi show, and the kind of people who would never dream of not doing

so. Pretty much all the visitors to the new MoMA fall into the former category,

while pretty much all the people who’ve written about it so far fall into the


Mr and Mrs N went straight for the contemporary galleries upon entering the

building: it’s only natural, the way it’s laid out. For all the talk of the

Signac starting off the exhibition, in fact it was pretty much the last painting

we saw, more than three hours after we entered. The real start of the exhibition

is the lobby, with the Newman sculpture and the late paintings from Monet, de

Kooning and Johns; after that, it’s right on into Matta-Clark and Twombly.

Neither of the Ns recognised a single work of art in the contemporary galleries.

Art-world types look straight at the Twombly or the Koons and immediately it

plops into its designated space in their mental filing cabinet. It’s always

good to see such works afresh, but it’s very easy to forget how difficult they

are the first time they’re encountered. The Ns spent a lot of time

in the contemporary galleries, not because they loved the art, but because they

took care to really look at every work individually, read the (generally excellent)

wall texts if there were any, and make a serious attempt to engage with the

art and try to understand it.

The primary example of this, in my mind, came not in the contemporary galleries

but upstairs, on the fourth floor. MoMA’s collection of minimalists is nothing

compared to Dia’s, of course,

but they still attempt a show, albeit with the idiotic decision to exhibit a

Carl Andre floor piece while at the same time not allowing people to stand on

it. Given that at least, oh, 60% of the power of an Andre comes when you stop

onto it, the decision does seem to defeat the purpose of showing it in the first

place. But not far from the Andre is a Sandback string piece. Mrs N looked at

it briefly, and immediately asked an incredibly good question. The piece is

illuminated by four or five spotlights, which mean that the string creates multiple

shadows on the wall behind it. Mrs N wanted to know whether the illumination

and the series of shadows was part of the artwork or not – a very astute

comment, especially considering that the whole concept of a piece of string

as art would probably have struck her as utterly ludicrous only an hour or two


In the contemporary galleries, wordy installations, especially the the Rem

Koolhaas piece, received a lot of time just because there’s a lot of text to

read. But all the other pieces did too, from Felix Gonzales-Torres’s paired

clocks to Andy Warhol’s Rorschach painting. And it struck me that thousands

of people every week will view the content of the contemporary galleries at

MoMA as being a snapshot of the very best contemporary art there is –

just as MoMA has the very best post-impressionists or cubists or abstract expressionists.

MoMA, then does not have the same kind of freedom that other museums have,

to put on interesting takes on marginal artists or a contrarian view of contemporary

practice. The rest of the museum is so canonical – and the art in the

contemporary galleries, with their super-high ceilings, is presented as so important

– that MoMA is essentially forced to both play it safe and to seriously

get to work improving its collection of art from the past 30 years. Let the

Pompidou Center in Paris be the place to go for eye-opening exhibitions which

change the way we look at contemporary art – or put those on in the gorgeous

6th-floor special exhibition galleries. The big contemporary galleries off the

main atrium make an unambiguous architectural statement that they house great

and important art.

Of course, there are two enormous problems with this. Firstly, no one can agree

on which contemporary artists are the greatest and most important; and secondly,

MoMA probably doesn’t own the best work by those artists anyway. Maybe the solution

is to mix things up a bit: rather than adhering to the strictly chronological

segregation which MoMA has at the moment, bring some of the great paintings

from upstairs down to the contemporary galleries, and start setting up shows

where Picasso and Duchamp are seen alongside their heirs.

For the time being, though, the main result of my visit with the Ns was that

I left with a newfound sense of awe for the responsibilities that MoMA’s curators

toil under. Visitors to MoMA, if the Ns are any indication, are not looking

for easy art, and nor are they looking to be entertained. They’re willing to

put in a lot of work, if that’s what modern art requires. In return, MoMA should

do its utmost to repay the effort, by treating art – especially contemporary

art – with the seriousness it deserves, and by making the development

of a world-class contemporary art collection the museum’s number one priority.

They’ve got a great space, and they’ve got a great audience. Now all they need

is great art.

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