The Good, The Bad and the Funny at MoMA

New York City and the Museum of Modern Art are so close--pay a visit.

A recent business trip to mid-town Manhattan ended early enough to afford me a few hours of free time that I gladly spent at the Museum of Modern Art or “MoMA” as it is familiarly known.  I was saddled with a file containing paperwork from my meeting, but my pad of paper allowed me to take some notes during my visit so that I could relate my observations to my friends in this Patch with some semblance of accuracy.

The museum is very conveniently located on 53rd Street between 5th and The Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue if you like numbers).  It is in a city block and occupies six floors.   There is an excellent outdoor patio and garden with a fountain, reflecting pools and several sculptures.  It’s a nice place to vegetate and contemplate after visiting the various collections inside. 

Now, let me tell you about the art inside.  First, I will accentuate the positive.  Here is the “good.”   One of the first pieces that caught my eye and imagination was Martin Kippenberger’s sculpture called Martin, Into The Corner, You Should Be Ashamed Of Yourself.  This aluminum mannequin wearing Levis jeans and facing the corner is what some modern art aficionados probably think I should do when they read some of my comments below, but I beg their pardon in advance.

In one of the first galleries I visited there is a wall of Henri Matisse etchings.  The simplicity of the etchings and lack of clutter is easy on the eyes and allows the mind to play with the images and fill in the blanks and complete the figures and scenes depicted.  I encountered four Andy Warhol screen prints entitled Sunset that were commissioned by an architectural firm for a building, but like so many fine works this four piece set found its way to MoMA for all of us to enjoy.  I am not a huge Warhol fan, but appreciate his repetition with color variations and this is a good example of that aspect of his work.

One of the most surprising finds I made was a collection of pencil and watercolor works by Rudolf Freund.  He was the longtime illustrator of covers for the Scientific American magazine.  His depictions of birds and insects are so unique and stunningly beautiful.  They are realistic but not clinically so and each work has “personality.”  Freund’s collection was next to a collection by the Quay Brothers who were apparently inspired by Freund.  A few of their works were interesting but a bit short of inspirational.

In the Noel and Harriette Levine Gallery 2 there is an intriguing collection of black and white photography and in the adjacent Leanne Bovet Roberts Gallery an even more intriguing collection of black and white photography.  I truly enjoy black and white photography as it eliminates the “distraction” of color and allows the faces and juxtaposition of people, objects and buildings to dominate one’s thoughts.  Black and white photography is also timeless in the sense that colors that go in and out of style are absent from clothing.  The photographer “artist” can better convey ideas with this medium and I know I appreciate that very much.

Now, let me contradict myself on my observations about black and white photography, and gush a bit about Robert Heinecken (not the brewer) and his Recto/Verso color works that at first blush appear to be photography, but are described as “contact printing” from magazines.  This involves taking a page from a magazine and laying it on photosensitive paper and exposing it to light.  Both sides of the magazine page are simultaneously printed over each other and the melding is mentally occupying as one attempts to parse out which image is from which page of the magazine.  Hold a page from a magazine up to a bright light and you can get the idea of what Mr. Heinecken has created.

When I made it to the fifth floor I felt more at home with the surrealist collections, although they were alongside the impressionistic works and I was challenging myself to define what is surreal and what is impressionistic—in a way aren’t they synonymous, a distinction without a difference?  In any event I am a big fan of Salvador Dali and one of his most recognizable works The Persistence of Memory is on display.  Many might refer to this painting as the melted pocket watches and that’s what it certainly appears to be.  There was a healthy representation of surrealist works by Max Ernst and a fantastic painting by Rene Magritte, The Empire of Light, II.  At first blush one might remark that there is nothing surreal at all about the dim night scene of adjacent houses illuminated by a lamppost with deep shadows at the periphery.  Then it jumps out that the sky is bright blue with puffy white clouds.  The power of the artist’s imagination to unite the night with the day in this manner is unique and a visual delight.

There were some early Picasso and Georges Braque cubist representations of human forms and everyday objects.  Some of the commentary about these works noted the interest these two artists had in communicating their “vision” in this manner but they did not meet with critical acclaim from the art critics of the day.  I have always been torn over my views on this genre and generally avoid it, but appreciate how Picasso and others have stepped outside of established boundaries.  MoMA is indeed a gallery for the “out of bounds” and thankfully so.

The collection of impressionists is outstanding with works by George Pierre Seurat, Paul Cezanne and Edvard Munch dominating much of the gallery.  Munch’s The Storm done in 1893, is a presage to The Scream series of works Munch began in 1895.  The ghostly figures in The Storm are less detailed in their features, but are all holding their heads with their hands as is depicted in The Scream.  Hands holding heads is a convention near and dear to Munch and used in several of his works. 

MoMA had Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night on display (heavily guarded I might add).  Across the way was Gustav Klimt’s The Park which, if viewed from bottom to top, starts as a soft park-like lawn and forest at the bottom eight inches of the canvas and then as one’s eyes drift upward into the tree canopy it never ends (well after three feet or so it does) and occupies the portion of the canvas where one might expect to see the sky.  It was so peaceful getting lost in the repetitive leafy sky he created.

One must-see is a portrait by Otto Dix who painted his personal physician Dr. Mayer Hermann.  Simply awesome and amusing is all I can say.  I dare anyone to look at this near caricature without smiling.  Please let me know if you can do that.

Now, before I get to the “bad” let me share with you the “funny” from my visit.  Keep in mind that I only had a few hours to spend in the museum and was slowing myself down by taking some notes.  While making my notes in front of the Freund collection I was waylaid by a “museum troll.”  Please don’t confuse him with the trolls who comment in the Patch, but a troll nonetheless.  I was keeping to myself and working quietly and unobtrusively, stepping back to make my notes so as not to monopolize the artwork, as the museum was busy.  Suddenly a quirky but friendly gentleman asked rather insistently over my shoulder if I minded telling him why I was making notes.  He was clearly a frequent flyer at MoMA who had long since become bored with the art and had moved on to his fellow patrons for his entertainment.  Here is our colloquy:

“Do you mind telling me why you are making those notes?”

“I don’t mind at all.”

He then asked, “Are you a student?”

I thought the question was why I was making notes, but rather than tell him that I simply answered the question.


“Are you a professor of art?” I was beginning to like him.


“Are you a curator?” The annoyance of his interruption was diminishing.


“Well, why are you making those notes?”

“I write a blog from time-to-time and want to get my facts straight about my visit here today.”

“A blog! That is so totally cool!” he shrieked.  Oh crap, I thought, why did I have to say that?  Why not just say it was part of my community service project ordered by the court after my recent release for a manslaughter conviction.  I am just not as quick on the draw as I used to be.

“Do you get paid you to write a blog?”

“Um, no.” He fell back into annoying troll territory.

“How do people get paid to write blogs?”

“If I knew I would get paid myself, but it probably has something to do with your readership numbers which has something to do with the quality of your blog posts.  I do it for fun.”  I was not going to mention that I only get a few accidental readers and that my last post was about my trip to a NASCAR race, which, I mentally noted, is about a billion miles away from MoMA.

“Well how much do people get paid to write blogs?”

Back to short answers—“I don’t know.”

Fortunately someone nearby caught his eye and he slipped away before I could chase him away by insisting that I saw him selling hot dogs at the Daytona International Speedway during the Coke Zero 400 in July.  Oh, the strange thoughts that pass through my brain amuse me to no end.

I warned you that this was coming—the “bad.”  In my opinion there is a good deal of “faux art” on display at MoMA.  Exhibit A is Robert Ryman’s Twin.  This oil on cotton is apparently very similar to all of his paintings as it was noted that he only paints white squares.  When one gets beyond the fact that anyone can do that the sheer genius of the man shines through.  Provided that you have a steady stream of wealthy customers who cannot get enough expensive white squares it really doesn’t get any better than that for easy income.  How many real world “naked emperors” are out there?  This is the part where it would be appropriate to say “Phil, get in the corner.”  I must persist.  How would one determine if a Ryman is real or fake?  I imagined a press conference given by a museum curator: “As you know, there is no way to tell the difference between a real Ryman and a fake Ryman visually.  We don’t even know which side is up quite frankly.  According to a chemical analysis of the paint used we have concluded that the specimen presented at auction is indeed a fake.  You see the paint used on the fake was Benjamin Moore ‘Light Eggshell,’ while Ryman only used Sherwin Williams ‘New Parchment.’ Um, well, let me get back in the corner.

But wait, I’m not done.  There is another work A Wall Pitted By A Single Air Rifle Shot. These words are printed across the top of the wall and beneath is a vast expanse of white wall and as I scanned for the pit mark I quickly realized that there was none and the “art” was the words, and I just got punked.  I tried to drift away nonchalantly hoping that no one saw me looking for the indentation in the wall--back into the corner Phil.

I’m still not done.   Whenever I tee up modern art for ridicule it usually involves a Jackson Pollock “work.”  I would say “painting” but you have to use something besides a squirt gun to attain that status in my mind.   There were three excellent and likely famous pieces by Mr. Pollock in one room that made me recall an episode of the Colbert Report where Steve Martin came on to hump his book on modern art only to find himself at the butt end of Steven Colbert’s razor sharp wit.  Martin was treated to an “art quiz” wherein Colbert displayed a piece that was either a Jackson Pollock or “Done by my four year old nephew.”  The odds were 50/50 but the pressure was immense.  Martin picked Pollock, but was informed that Colbert’s nephew created that one.  This was repeated with similar results on a few other pieces to the delight of the audience.  It’s getting claustrophobic here in the corner.

Sorry for the long post, but in all sincerity, please make a visit to MoMA a priority and soak up some culture.  Trust me when I tell you that you don’t need to like everything, but you will find some things you like very much and the trip will be well worth it.  I will be the guy in the corner.

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Trevor Coleman February 04, 2014 at 10:21 AM
"A wall pitted by a single air rifle shot" is actually a conceptual work - the piece can either be displayed as just the text, or just an actual wall pitted by an air rifle shot, or both. The work is the idea of the work, and the artist left it up to the curator of the museum how the work would be displayed. The work is obviously a bit tongue in cheek, but it also presaged the intellectual property discussions that are just part of every day life in the digital world. A song is a song, whether it's an mp3, a CD, or a music video on MTV. Conceptual artists were playing with that idea decades before the rest of us caught up. That exhibit was my FAVORITE!


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