Saturday, November 20, 2004

MOMA Leaves Queens, But P.S. 1 Is Still Here

We were invited to a "sneak preview" of Museum of Modern Art, thereby saving ourselves $20 per person on the admission tickets ($40-). There was no food available, other than the coffee that was made available to us in the second floor entry area (more on that in a moment), so we saved a few bucks there. Also, although the gift shop was opened (and my wife talked me out of a $10 coffee mug), the book shop, where we were more likely to purchase, was closed. We saved about $75, and maybe we will plow that back into a donation for a worthy cause, but more likely, we will deem ourselves worthy of the money.

If you care about these things at all, you know something about it by now. The entry way is a massive glass atrium enclosure, no ceiling until the 6th floor. The ceiling on the main part of the second floor, even apart from the atrium is higher than you can see. The wall space is stupendous, especially on 2 and 6. Monet's Water Lillies, which dominate any room are swallowed up in the space on 2. Rosenquist's F-16, an enormous piece, fares better on 6, because it is all alone up there.

The atrium area leaves you with the impression of being in the lobby of some super-corporate skyscraper on steroids. It is a little like going into the Time Warner Shopping Plaza on 59 Street, only much more so. As you are going up the escalators, you are struck by the long, narrow windows that you can use to look out on the street.

The second and sixth floors are immense spaces, swallowing everything. They are antisceptic, and the work has to scream out for itself. Paintings were swallowed up in that space, and it is only now, 24 hours later, that I can remember what paintings I saw there (the Chuck Closes were on 2, together with some of the later Warhols, and the text¬based painting of the late 70s and early 80s. I'm sure there were a lot of paintings on 2 that I don't remember.). Mostly, the installations on 2 are the things that survive the high ceiling, white walls.

The permanent painting and sculpture collection, the stuff we working philistines who actually have $20 want to see, is housed on the 5th, 4th and 2nd floor, in chronological order. The 5th floor has Impressionist pre-cursors, the Picassos, the Matisses, the Surrealists and breaks right before Pollack. The 4th floor has Pollack, Abstract Expressionism, Mimimalism, Pop through the 60s. Although some paintings are moved out of chronological sequence in service of some other point that the curators are trying to make, the "Chicken Little" crowd has vastly overstated the issue.

There is a lot of space for more depth now, especially for Mexican painters, Rivera and Kahlo and Clemente, and other painters from Central and South America. Also, more women, Even a couple of Bill Traylor pencils on cardboards, that darling of primitive art, lines up in chronological order, as if he was one of the artists that the other artists of the 30s even heard of.

We didn't see every single room, but it seemed to me that Surrealism was more dominant than it had been before, even if! did miss all of the Duchamps (my wife says no, we saw them, I don't remember them).

The ceilings on the 5th floor are also higher, and there is also more wall space, the paintings are spread out more, but it is not like on 2, where the walls swallow the paintings. What 5 does have, and what you may have seen in some of the newspaper pictures, are wide angles. Unlike the old place, the paintings don't jump at you so much, you see them from a great distance now, and your ability to see them from that far away has the effect of seeing many of these paintings for the first time. The effect is pleasant and jarring at the same time, far more so than the transplant of some of these same paintings from 53rd Street to MOMA Qns over the last few years.

You are also struck by something akin to American Imperialism. "Starry Night" is on the center of a long row of paintings. There is one of the Gaugins, then some other heavy hitter, I think a Degas, the "Starry Night," and two famous French paintings right after it. A very rich meal, all on permanent display for New Yorkers.

My favorite moment of the day was seeing one of my favorite paintings, also one of the oldest paintings (what a middle-aged man I am), Rousseau's The Dream. The Modern has re-hung the painting so that instead of having to look up to see the painting, you are now on eye level with the snake charmer, the sandman, and you have to look down into the vegetation to see the snake and the lions. I may have gotten such a thrill from the change because I know the painting so well. Maybe others will find other small pleasures from their favorite paintings.

The placement of the paintings on 5 and 6 have not changed as much as other people say. There are not a lot of words on the wall, not a lot of paintings contain descriptions demanding you to react to the painting in a certain way. Of course, this might just be crass commercialism. If they are not posting free signs telling you what to see, then you are more inclined to spend your extra money on an audio tour, but even then, I did not see a lot of paintings with numbered labels on them (the signal to press a button on the audio tour.)

The 4th floor did not have the big entryways. The ceilings did not seem so high. Maybe by then, two hours into our visit, I had gotten used to things, but my old friends on 4 were still the same to me, joined by some new ones, but not any more or less swallowed up than I had seen them before, both at MOMA or Whitney or at the Tate.

The drawing collection is bigger than ever, but it felt the same as in the old place. The light was better, the space was better, but the ceilings did not really seem that much higher. The design collection seemed great, but I don't remember spending much time in the design collection in the past, so I don't have a lot to compare it to.

As I said before, I do not feel that the sequencing of the permanent collection, or the points that are trying to be made by that re-sequencing, to be all that earth-moving. I have read a lot of hand-wringing, and I have seen quotes from people, including some of the curators at the Modern, indicating that big changes were afoot, but these curators have to say that big changes are afoot, or they wouldn't be paid big money. Mostly, what was added was depth, and the depth causes a certain shifting, both physically and emotionally, in your reaction to what you are seeing. The MOMA is still governed by the historical, chronological approach, even during those moments when landscapes were side-by-side¬-by-side-by-side.

Even though we enjoyed being in the museum for free, or because we were in the museum for free, we did not get a full blast of what our visit might be like. For example, the museum experience is not complete for us unless we have had a meal in the cafeteria, which was closed. We also like to spend a lot of time in the bookstore, since the museum bookstores, generally, are better stocked than most libraries (at least as far as art books are concerned).

I also have a sense that the atrium will be used as a sort of public square. There may be vendors when you walk in, or a cafe, or even noon-time and Sunday concerts. So even though we had a free sneak preview in a less than crowded museum, we will not have the full experience until we show up on a busy Sunday afternoon.

There is a lot of stuff out there about the new museum if you care to find it. None of them make these points, so I will make them here:

Kimmelman in the Times raised pros and cons. Others liked it less, some more.

Three things to note about the experience of going to the Modern during these next few months.

1. After the first year or so, what the Museum does, at least to the general art-going public (whatever that is) is a function of its special exhibitions and its new acquisitions. Going to the Modern over the next six months to see only the permanent collection is like going to OldTimers Day at Yankee Stadium but not staying for the game with A-Rod and Derek Jeter. It may be more fun to see Reggie Jackson then any of the current players, but you are missing the Main Event.

That is true even in a museum full of Picassos and Pollacks. The permanent collection is only ever kind of permanent anyway. Things are seldom together for any one time. Matisses may be in Madrid in exchange for Hockneys being displayed in the current special exhibition, etc. These permanent collection paintings are meant, to me, to frame the main exhibitions and to frame the ongoing changes in the collection. I said that I thought that the museum may have left information off the walls in order to sell more audio tours. It also sends another message that the historical collection is meant to be the closet, the backdrop.

If this museum is simply about 20th century Modernism, then the sterile building is no longer just a big box where the paintings are allowed to speak for themselves, but a mausoleum. It is unlikely to me that MOMA is going to let an academic definition of what it means to be Modern in the 20th century ruin the museums mission in the 21st century.

I think all the fuss about what the hanging of the permanent collection is about to be a lot of picking at a small target. People are complaining because the permanent collection is the only art in the museum to complain about.

2. In order for the museum to thrive in the 21st century, in order for it to be something vital, the MOMA must continue to present contemporary work. There is always contemporary work at MOMA, but it is sometimes a little hard to find. One interesting thing about the MOMA Qns experience is that because the space was so small, the one contemporary show really stood out. It made the MOMA Qns experience, which has been derided by Manhattanites as a 7-Train to hell, to be a far more accurate experience of what the MOMA's function ought to be.

In the new larger space, contemporary shows have to be larger as well. It turns out that the contemporary shows were not large enough in the old MOMA, and they are going to have to be larger (or more numerous) in the new MOMA.

3. Another way to keep the MOMA both "Modern" in the Picasso sense, and "Contemporary" and vital in the sense that I mention, is to make more use of MOMA's ownership of P.S. 1. Everyone knows about P.S. 1, but those of us who go there know what a terrific place it can be. P.S. 1 really is a converted old-fashioned elementary school. It has a lot of up-to-the-minute art, and each classroom contains different surprises. There are a lot of installations, and a lot of art from people and places I would not think of generally (Art of Mexico, Art of struggling Irish Youth, Art in 21st Century Queens), and a lot of art I am just as happy never to see again. However, it is contemporary and it helps define the new scene. It also helps that P.S. 1 is in Queens, because there is nowhere on the planet, right now, that is more contemporary than Queens!

The old cafeteria at P.S. 1 has become a nice place to pick up a sandwich, and the schoolyard, which contains some really odd sculpture, converts nicely into a safe community party on certain Saturday nights, and a family recreation and crafts center on summer Sunday afternoons.

The current MOMA website has a very visible link to P.S. 1. However, when the two museums were in walking distance of each other, MOMA Qns did not advertise its connection to P.S. 1 very heavily. Someone must have been too worried about being tainted with being too "outer-borough" for some people.

In offering a less expensive alternative to what is contemporary, P.S. 1 can serve as a breeding ground for the sorts of concepts that MOMA is becoming too big and entrenched to take care of. The key is for both museums, and the states of mind that both museums represent (Modern versus Contemporary)(Big versus Small)(Europe versus the Americas) to work with each other. Sort of like what Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs need to do in the years ahead!