Museum of Modern Art

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 221 minutes (3 hours, 41 minutes)
Best thing I saw or learned It’s nigh impossible to pick a “best” at MoMA. But I feel a special love for Mark Rothko’s melancholy, soothing No. 16 (Red, Brown, and Black) from 1958. 

Museum of Modern Art, New York

UPDATE APRIL 2021: This review is obsolete, as it was written before MoMA opened its most recent expansion (which I talk about a bit in the review below). I will hopefully publish an updated review…soon. A lot of my take from a few years ago is still pertinent.

The walls at the Museum of Modern Art don’t meet the floors. It’s a minuscule  detail. I feel certain many visitors don’t even consciously notice it. I’m not sure why the architect did that. But think about the words that describe the collection:  “groundbreaking,” “earth-shattering.”  I like to think they decided MoMA’s treasures are too wonderful to touch something as mundane as a floor. So the art, and the walls on which the art is hung, don’t.

More mundanely, I also wonder whether (and how) they dust all those wall-floor cracks.

Museum of Modern Art, New York
Demoiselles on Floating Walls

MoMA has arguably the best collection of any New York art museum.  The Met has vastly more, and collects far more diversely, but as a result its collection encompasses huge variations of interestingness and quality. The Whitney owns some amazing art, but it focuses too narrowly. The collector-based museums, like the Frick, the Morgan, and the Neue, are all indelibly colored by the tastes and predilections of their founders.

The Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection contains a mind-boggling array of not just representative works by the best artists of the 20th century, but the best (or if not the best, then the most important) works those artists produced in their careers.  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; Matisse’s dancers; ginormous Monet water lilies; The Starry Night. The. Starry. Night.

Museum of Modern Art, New York
No Caption Needed

Paintings as famous as the artists who made them. It’s overwhelming. And funny to consider how many of those iconic works were derided, hated, not museum worthy, when three intrepid society ladies founded MoMA.

The Building

MoMA started out on Fifth Avenue, founded in 1929 by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Lillie Bliss, and Mary Quinn Sullivan. It moved into a five-story townhouse on West 53rd Street in 1932, and has resided on that block ever since. Like some sort of fungus of high culture, it has slowly but inexorably grown, swallowing up other buildings, remaking itself repeatedly in the intervening years as its hunger for art, and its ability to draw crowds, have driven it to expand into larger and larger spaces.

Museum of Modern Art, New York
MoMA’s Latest Expansion: Growing Like a Fungus of High Culture

It is currently in the midst of yet another expansion.  MoMA took over the former home of the American Folk Art Museum building a couple of doors down and unceremoniously tore it down, to be replaced by a luxury high rise with even more gallery space in bottom floors.

Probably this, too, will prove only a temporary solution.  I am sure that in another decade or two it’ll be on the prowl for yet more space. Or maybe by then we’ll all be going to museums in virtuality, and physical artwork will be filed away for safekeeping in climate controlled vaults deep underground.

I mostly like MoMA’s current building. It’s main downside is that it can be inconvenient to navigate.  The big temporary exhibition spaces are perched at the top of the museum’s six floors, but only some elevators extend that far, and the escalators force a meandering path upwards.

Museum of Modern Art, New York
Views Into the Atrium (With Louise Bourgeois Spider)

MoMA’s galleries on the second through fifth floors, including the permanent collection, wrap around a vast central atrium space. And the museum’s design carefully opens views into the atrium—and out into the city — at strategic points. It’s generally easy to tell where you are and where you’re going. The atrium poses its own challenges — curators don’t always manage to fill it effectively. Oftentimes it feels like a waste of space. But when it works, it’s great.

MoMA also boasts a terrific sculpture garden.  It’s free–you could visit MoMA and just hang there for a bit. In nice weather it can be the best part of the museum.

Museum of Modern Art, New York
Lobby and Sculpture Garden

Is “Modern” Modern?

I feel sometimes that the art world made a titanic mistake when it allowed “modern” to become locked to a specific time, roughly from the 1920s to the 1960s. As a result we are forced into odd constructions like “post-modern” to reference what came after. I wonder if it’ll happen again. If god forbid “contemporary” came to refer to say the 2000s to the 2020s, and we have to start talking about post-contemporary art.

Still, we live in the world we live in, and I doubt anyone will be able to reclaim “modern” now that it’s fixed forever referencing a time in the increasingly distant past.

MoMA gets justifiably criticized for not always knowing what to do with or about, well, post-modern or contemporary art or artists.  Its absorption of MoMA PS1 in Queens helps it address that. PS1 offers a safely distant space for putting the stuff that no one’s quite sure whether it’s good or not yet.

Additionally, MoMA falls down a bit when it comes to the context, precursors, and influences of the pantheon of “modern” artists. From today’s vantage point it’s easier to see even seemingly revolutionary artists like Picasso and Pollock as part of a tradition that extended before, and after, them.  But MoMA often seems to treat them as sui generis, with no art that matters coming before.

I’m oversimplifying, of course. MoMA’s collection doesn’t simply stop at 1970.  And it puts on good contemporary shows from time to time. Its film series are wonderful, too.  It has a design department to rival the Cooper Hewitt — it’s hard to argue with a helicopter.

Museum of Modern Art, New York
To The MoMA-Copter!

Is Fashion Modern?

In addition to a wonderful show of works on paper by Louise Bourgeois (creator of giant atrium spiders), the big show when I visited MoMA asked the question, “Is Fashion Modern?” According to the wall text, it’s only MoMA’s second fashion exhibition in its history. So high time. And it certainly did its best to be encyclopedic, covering a huge laundry list of garment types and uses, with an inevitably political lens.

Museum of Modern Art, New York
Fashion: Kippahs and Slip Dresses

Given MoMA’s general temporal definition of “modern” one might be forgiven for interpreting the exhibit’s title question as “is fashion something that effectively ended in the late 1960s?” But the question actually is about politics and cultural changes and how—whether—fashion responds to them adequately.

Museum of Modern Art, New York
Little Black Death Shroud

The curators made some quirky choices. There are an array of little black dresses, including even a little black death shroud. But only one pair of jeans.  Other things include:

  • Tattoos, cleverly projected on naked mannequins.  
  • A hoody, inevitably a very political piece of clothing.  
  • Suits of every stripe (and plaid).
  • Bikinis and burkinis.  

I fear the curators somewhat disdained clothes that were too gendered or too fashiony.  I sometimes felt the exhibit argued that in the name of equality we should all be wearing unisex sacks of some sort of environmentally friendly ecru canvas.  Which, maybe we should.  But that would be a really dreary world.

Absolutely Visit the Museum of Modern Art

Museum of Modern Art, New YorkThe biggest problem with the Museum of Modern Art is that it is a victim of its own popularity. I can’t blame MoMA for being on everyone’s (including my) must-see list.

As a result, though, it can be extremely unpleasant to visit. Overcrowded on weekends and on free Friday evenings, it seems most visitors simply jockey and jostle to snap photos of the greatest hits rather than actually look at (much less think about) them.  It’s like trying to see art at the mall on Black Friday.  On a weekday in late January, though, it was wonderful — the calmest and emptiest I’ve ever seen it.  

Here’s a suggestion for the MoMA leadership, should they ever read this.  The museum already has members-only hours certain early mornings. How about instituting no-photos hours?  Just to momentarily keep the Instagramming, selfie snapping hordes at bay. I know it would be a bitch to enforce, and irritate a certain (irritating) class of visitor.  But it would improve the experience for visitors there for the art, not the spectacle.  

Even with the maddening crowds, the wonders of the collection make MoMA a must-visit place for anyone with the vaguest interest in art.  You will see things that boggle your mind and open your eyes.  Just try to time your visit strategically.

Museum of Modern Art, New York
Contemplating Pollock


For Reference:

Address 11 West 53rd Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues), Manhattan
Cost  General Admission:  $25


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