I have always been prone to conservative tastes in music, literature, and art. I remember having long discussions in high school about the emptiness of contemporary music and the inanity of modern art (at the time, I knew close to nothing about visual art, ancient or modern). Every painting I encountered from the 20th century only confirmed my prejudices—using a minimum of technical skill to create images that were either incomprehensible or simply dull. At the ripe age of eighteen I mourned the decline in standards and the decadence of our culture.
Luckily, my tastes have broadened somewhat since then (though not as much as could be desired), and I have come to cherish the Museum of Modern Art as one of the great museums in New York—indeed, of the world.
Like many New York landmarks, the MoMA is a product of the Rockefeller family. Specifically, it was conceived and funded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, along with two of her friends.
Abby was the wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who himself had a great love of art. However, he and his wife had diametrically opposed tastes. Junior was fond of Chinese porcelain and medieval art (which led him to develop the Cloisters Museum, uptown), while his wife was enamored with modern art. This occasioned not a few marital squabbles, since the straight-laced and puritanical Junior considered modern art to be degenerate and scandalously uninhibited. To add insult to injury, Abby wanted to demolish their old home to make way for the museum. Nevertheless, Junior offered the requisite financial support for his wife’s project, and so the MoMA was born. It opened in 1929, just a few days after the financial crash (while Junior was busy dealing with Rockefeller Center); and this opening marks a watershed in the institutional acceptance of modern art.
Upon entering the MoMA, the visitor should go all the way to the top, the fifth floor (American style), and then work her way down. Nearly all of the museum’s most famous paintings are to be found in this gallery, so it is best to go with fresh eyes.
Almost immediately you will find the most famous painting in the collection: Starry Night. Like La Gioconda in Paris or The Birth of Venus in Florence, Starry Night is always surrounded by a swarm of buzzing tourists. Predictably, this detracts from the viewing experience. Much of the pleasure of a great painting consists in minute observation; and this is doubly true of Van Gogh’s works, which are so thick with paint that they are nearly tactile. In any case, I need hardly say that Starry Night is one of the great images of Western Art, as instantly recognizable as Guernica or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The swirls in the night sky have been as overanalyzed as Mona Lisa’s famous smile: as turbulent manifestations of the artist’s epileptic visions, or as a profound insight into the physics of nebular star formation, or as an allegorical representation of Christ.
While I think Starry Night is undeniably among Van Gogh’s best, I admit that overexposure has diminished my enjoyment of the painting. It is like hearing a song played one hundred times on the radio: even if it is a great song, it will lose interest eventually. In any case, the painting is exceptional in many respects. Unlike the majority of Van Gogh’s mature work (characterized by the artist’s strong commitment to observation), it contains several imaginative elements. For one, the village in the distance is an invention: it was not visible from his window at the monastery in which he was staying. More striking, the swirls in the sky seem to be a purely imaginative detail—not only invented, but fantastical. Are they clouds, wind, or a spiral galaxy? Nothing quite seems to fit, which is strange in a painter so obsessed with working from nature.
The final result is a painting whose effect is somewhat different from Van Gogh’s other mature work. The Starry Night Over the Rhône, for example, is typical of the artist in that, despite not being “realistic,” it evokes the sensation of an actual starry night. The Starry Night in the MoMA, however, evokes a quite different feeling: that of a cryptic, quasi-mystical utterance.
Another famous painting in this gallery is Henri Rousseau’s The Dream. It features a nude European woman reclining on a couch, in a reclining pose reminiscent of many European female nudes, such as Titian’s Venus of Urbino or Goya’s The Naked Maja. But she is not in a living room, but deep in the jungle, surrounded by exotic birds, tropical plants, two lions, and an African person playing the flute. The style is exaggerated and cartoonish, not exactly dreamlike but heavily stylized. The woman’s portrayal, for example, is almost Egyptian in its perspective: her body facing forward but her head entirely in profile, with both of her braids somehow in front of her chest. My favorite aspect of the painting are the large, hypnotic eyes of the lions, which serve to make the animals seem terrified rather than terrifying.
However, I must admit that, on the whole, I do not find the painting terribly captivating to look at. I do appreciate it as a kind of satire of bourgeois dreams of the exotic: the gentile French woman, dozing in her salon, lost in daydreams of the lush forests of the Africa. And perhaps the snake tail sticking out from the bushes, and the fruit hanging on the tree above, tell us that this imaginary Eden is liable to implode when faced with actual knowledge.
In the next room there are several works by Picasso, including what I consider to be, after Guernica, his greatest: Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. (In this case, Avignon refers to a street in Barcelona where prostitutes would congregate, not to the city in France.) It is a brutal, disturbing work. Picasso painted it in 1907, when he was still relatively obscure and was embroiled in a rivalry with the older Henri Matisse. At the time there was widespread interest in so-called “primitive” art, such as that of sub-Saharan Africa, Oceania, and pre-Roman Iberian sculpture. The painter Gauguin (who died in 1903) also contributed to this interest, since he had spent the last ten years of his life on the island of Tahiti, and had cultivated a “primitive” style in his late works. (This can be seen in Gauguin’s The Seed of Areoi, also at the MoMA.) Picasso combined this interest in the exotic with his admiration of Cézanne, whose daring landscapes pioneered the geometrical simplification that would become the basis of Picasso’s mature style. (The MoMA features several excellent works by Cézanne, including The Bather.)
The result is a painting utterly unlike any other in Western art. Five nude prostitutes gaze at the viewer, who is supposed to be a potential customer in their brothel. But there is not a hint of sensuality about these ladies of the night. Indeed, the extreme distortions of their bodies, and the mask-like form of their faces, transforms them into threatening monsters—particularly the two women on the right, whose faces bear the obvious influence of African art. The women have been literally objectified: reduced to distorted, two-dimensional placards. But the objectification turns them into objects of fear rather than desire; their curves are sharpened into knife-blades, their frontal gazes—traditionally a sign of invitation—are instead frightening blanks, devoid of any discernible emotion.
Compare this work with Matisse’s Le bonheur de vivre (The Joy of Life), completed just the year before; it shows us a colorful landscape full of voluptuous nudes, luxuriating in sensual pleasure. This is the ever-beguiling fantasy of sex. Picasso shows us the reality beneath the fantasy, the ugliness that we push into the shadows. For the relationship between the viewer as client, and the prostitutes gazing back, is dehumanizing for both parties. The women are visibly dehumanized—turned into thin masks, which perform their sexual function without pleasure or pain, without lust or hatred, but only a blank apathy. For his part, the client’s desire for sex becomes yet another financial transaction, performed mechanically—without enthusiasm and even without real desire—to fulfill mundane biological urges.
Perhaps I am reading too far into the painting, but for me the image represents the consequences of a repressive sexual morality: wherein a single man’s only opportunity for sex is the brothel, which in turn fuels a market that preys upon vulnerable women, pulling them into a cycle of poverty and abuse. Yet this is only one of an endless list of interpretations, as the helpless critic struggles to make sense of this pitiless image.
It was not a long way from these distorted forms to Picasso’s major breakthrough: cubism. Several cubist works of his hang nearby, as well as those of his partner in cubism, Georges Braque. I must admit that these works of “high” cubism always leave me cold: they are monochromatic and chaotic images, with at most the purely intellectual interest of a crossword puzzle. But there is no denying that cubism was the most influential movement of the period; through the painters’ experiments with perspective and abstraction, a new idiom was developed, a pictorial language that Picasso (among others) would later use to great effect.
Not far from here is a room mostly dedicated to works by Marcel Duchamp. Now, Duchamp is one of the most influential figures in 20th century art; in his program, The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes dedicates ample time to his work, and most of what he says is quite positive. For my part, I have been unable to penetrate this artist’s work, in part because he seems to represent what I generally dislike about modern art: namely, its abandonment of aesthetic qualities for intellectual games or self-involved irony.
An example of this is his piece To Be Looked at (From the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour. It consists of two panes of glass with a magnifying lens mounted in the middle. On the glass is a geometrical design of a three-dimensional pyramid. The glass was unintentionally cracked during transport, which greatly appealed to Duchamp’s sense of random creation. I can see that the piece is a sort of ironic comment on science and perspective; the design and the lens suggest the meticulous representation of space, and yet it is a mere parody—the image through the lens is distorted and fuzzy. It is also a sort of ironic comment on the act of seeing in a gallery, since the viewer must dedicate a frankly unrealistic amount of time to experience the visual distortions induced by the lens. In other words, the whole point of this work, which uses symbols of seeing scientifically, is to see badly. Yet is it interesting to look at?
Another example of Duchamp’s work is Three Standard Stoppages. He made this by dropping a meter-long thread onto sheets of glass, so they it fell in haphazard shapes, and then gluing the threads to the glass. Afterwards, he made wooden “rulers” (whose length is less than a meter, since the thread is curved) using these shapes. The idea (or so the MoMA audioguide explains) is to show the arbitrariness and the boringness of the standard meter, as opposed to the spontaneous naturalness of these shapes. This is a fine idea; but again I do not see the point of creating a work of art which only serves as the prop for an argument. I remain old-fashioned enough to think that it should be beautiful in itself; this is one of my many intellectual shortcomings.
A room nearby is dedicated to the work of Giorgio de Chirico. Indeed, the MoMA has perhaps the world’s greatest collection of this elusive artist’s work, including his most famous painting: The Song of Love. Like so many of Chirico’s paintings, it is a baffling image: a rubber glove hangs from a wall, next to a beautiful antique bust (of Apollo?), with a green ball on the ground in front—all of this in a cartoonish urban landscape. Like many, I can only hazard a guess of what this all means. I suppose that the powerful juxtaposition of the bust and the rubber glove is suggestive of different interpretations of the human body—one a unique idealized image, another a prefabricated utilitarian object—indicative of the many cultural manifestations of the same underlying reality. But, really, whatever interpretation we choose to impose, the image persists; and it is memorable.
Another memorable image is Dance (1) by Henri Matisse. The work in the possession of the MoMA is a preliminary work for a decorative panel in the Heritage Museum, Saint Petersburg. If you keep in mind that this naive image was created in 1909, you can get an idea of how revolutionary it must have been. For there is not a hint of realism in the work; not only do the figures lack detail, but their postures are impossible—anatomically and perspectively. The landscape consists of two blobs of color, slashed across the canvass. And yet it is an utterly convincing image of joyous celebration. The freedom from realism is transformed into a freedom of all restraint, a kind of basic delight in movement and release. The painting is also a convincing demonstration that childlike can produce lasting art.
I have a much more negative opinion of another so-called childish piece in the collection, White on White, by Kazimir Malevich. Malevich was the creator of the Suprematist movement, which emphasized the use of basic geometrical shapes—squares, circles, lines, and so on—with a black-and-white color scheme. White on White consists of an off-white square positioned diagonally in a white canvass. Neither this painting nor any other of the Suprematist works on display produce even the slightest iota of emotion in me; they are not visually interesting or intellectually stimulating.
But I should not pause to cast aspersion, but should dwell on the paintings that I do like. Among these is, naturally, Claude Monet’s wonderful painting of water lilies, stretched out on an enormous canvass (well, actually three canvasses). In the later part of his life, Monet retreated into his own estate; here following Voltaire’s advice, he cultivated his own garden. This became his artistic haven, where he would sit for hours, working. The most famous and stunning results of this aesthetic quest are these enormous representations of the surface of his lily pond. (Monet made several of these; most are collected in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.) The work is unmoderated aesthetic bliss: the swirling colors are so inherently peaceful and pleasant that they induce a sort of meditation, an artistic absorption in color and light.
I see that I am rattling on and on, as I tend to do, so I will restrict myself to two more paintings. But be advised that this list is only representative of my tastes, and does not adequately reflect the wealth of beauty on display.
As a somewhat begrudging fan of Dalí, I was delighted to finally see his Persistence of Memory. This image is so famous that it requires no description. Nevertheless, I think it is worth pausing to savor this painting’s brilliance. For no painting I know is such a convincing depiction of time. Contrast this work with another whose subject is time: The Ages and Death, by Hans Baldung. This painting, which hands in the Prado, represents time by showing its effect on the female body. It is an exceptional painting, well executed and well conceived; but it has none of the haunting power of Dalí’s work. For here time itself ages—it melts and droops pathetically. In Baldung time is universal, inescapable, and adamantine; but for Dalí time itself takes place in a larger environment—that suggested by the rocky landscape—and is itself subject to change. This leads us to ask: what is ultimate, after all?
The last painting I will mention is Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950. Admittedly, giving the name of a certain Pollock seems silly, since I at least would be at a complete loss to pick one out of a slideshow. Nevertheless I do want to single out this painting, and Pollock’s work generally, for its extraordinary energy. Though superficially random, any amount of inspection will reveal that, in fact, Pollock exerted an extreme level of control over his paint drippings. The result is a sort of explosion of human movement, an exploration of gesture, a kind of visual dance, where the overlapping colors create a rhythmic sensation, and the blobs of paint sticking out of the canvass make it nearly tactile.
If she is at all like me, the visitor will be quite exhausted by the end of this gallery. Yet this floor, although it contains the majority of the MoMA’s most famous works, is only a small fraction of its total exhibitions. On the next floor down are the more contemporary works, from 1940 to 1980. I will pass over this gallery in silence since, for me, visual art after the Second World War is hit or miss—and usually the latter. Below this, on the third floor, is a rotating special exhibition on architecture. When I went last year it was a fascinating exposition dedicated to Frank Lloyd Wright; this year it is dedicated to communist Yugoslavian architecture. On the second floor (European first floor) the collection continues from 1980 up to the present. Finally, on the ground floor is the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller sculpture garden, a peaceful place full of bizarre statues, plants, and benches, which is perfect for having a short rest.
This does it for my virtual tour of the MoMA. It is well worth a visit, not only because of its wonderful collection, but because it is one of the most significant institutions that governed artistic taste in the 20th century. Next, I will examine a museum founded by Abby Aldrich’s conservative husband: the Cloisters.