Art or bust

Mom got me a membership to the Museum of Modern Art for my birthday. Which was spot-on of her, because I'd asked for it. She actually called back to check to make sure I hadn't said the Metropolitan, rather than MoMA, because she knows darn well I'm not a modern art fan. I'm more of a casual loather of most modernist attempts at anything art or architectural, and she knows it. To me, modern art (and architecture) conjures up Mondrians and useless canvases with one singular color and ugly, showoffy buildings and really, I'd much rather look at big expansive paintings that are capturing an historical moment, or telling a story, or in some way firing up rather than massaging my brain.

To each his own, of course.

But the MoMA is newly rebuilt, and the cafeterias have classy food, and it's really, really easy to get to, whereas the Met is more of a pain in the rear and you're more likely to run into screaming rugrats no matter what day of the week you go. (Can we get a day of the week when museums do not admit children under the age of 16? Does asking that make me a curmudgeon?)

I digress. So I was feeling a little low, spiritually and emotionally and creatively and decided to finally give my card a workout. (To make it pay for itself I need to get there at least 4 times.) I had heard that going to museums and just looking around helps get the creative juices going again, and whether or not that was true I really wanted to be out and about but doing something soothing, rather than watching more stuff blow up on a small or big screen, or having to surf to the next interesting story. I wanted a brain massage. And so: MoMA was perfect.

It was also delightfully surprising. I knew there would be big canvases of nothing but monotone color being trumpeted as works of "genius" with startling uses of "light," and the Brice Marden exhibit on the top floor, where I started off, took care of that right away. I mean, call me a complete pedant but I am never, never, going to find single-color enormo canvases interesting. Fortunately Marden also had somewhat amusing canvases of swirling lines that resembled something a very patient 5 year old might have put together, and in this case size did make the difference. I stood looking at one wall-sized thing for quite a while, enjoying the sheer blankness of the point, and got to where I felt I could almost fall into it. There was a strange disorientation I felt, ignoring the rest of the wall and the people around me, and it almost gained a three-dimensional effect. My grandmother used to have a painting on the wall near her apartment door; often when it was taking ages to leave her apartment I'd sit near it and wait for mom and my brother to be ready to go, and I'd end up looking at it. It wasn't of anything exactly, just a lot of colorful blobs and swirls and pockmarks in comforting green-and-blue-and-white hues. But what I did like about it is when I was bored and waiting for something else more interesting to happen I could stare at it and find shapes and images and start thinking about other things, almost like when you stare at clouds. The final piece of Marden's artwork before you left the gallery on the 6th floor was unlike any of his others — but was like the one in my grandmother's living room. (And no, I don't think she had a rare Marden.) I liked it because of that.

But when I got down another floor or so it was like going to a party expecting to see a few D-list celebrities and instead running into Brad Pitt: I had no idea MoMA was the current home of so many Cezanne, Seurat and Picasso works. Nor did I know it housed "Starry Night," which I had never seen in person. Stunning, with all those swirls and loops and rounded edges — yet the paint is stiff and standing up from the canvas in a raw, rough way. Later on I came across "Christina's World" by Andrew Wyeth and that was another total surprise, just tucked away on a side wall there it is and for a few minutes I had it all to myself because everyone else was interested in the Hopper across the wall. It's an amazing picture (I nearly typed photo there) because you look at it and the longer you do the more questions you have. What is he trying to say? For a long while I always thought it was of a young woman who had perhaps fallen asleep in the grass and woke up and saw her home; then I looked again and she's clearly not old, she has gray hairs; her pink dress is faded and worn, and her hands almost seem to have gloves on them. Her elbows are knotty. The whole picture has a worn, desolate look to it and the fact that she's wearing a pink dress amidst all of the goldenrod and gray makes it sadder. (An article on the Interweb indicates that Christina was a real person and she was, in fact, crippled, but that has never come through to me in the work. It's as though she's just down for a moment, rather than a lifetime.)

Also on hand was Dali's "Persistence of Memory," one of my favorite titles for a painting. (I'm usually disappointed that so many go untitled; it feels like a failure of imagination for a painter to not put a name on a work, or to be so dull as to call it "Number" something or other.) Anyway, it's much smaller than I had realized; I thought "Persistence" would be a big wall-sized thing, but it's not. It was hard to get close because of that; too many people in the museum tended to forget they make a better door than a window and would stand practically making moisture marks on the glass coverings, they were so close.

(By the way, they say no pictures but digital cameras are rampant; mostly they seem to prefer no flash, and these were all taken with the camera phone so I'm safe there.)

Anyhow, there were the obligatory dull Mondrians, and of course a few things that made me laugh — one art teacher got some friends and students to chew up and spit out pages of an art theory book he'd checked out of the library; another piece looked flat as I rounded a far corner and began walking the distance toward it, and then it became clearly three-dimensional, a leather spiral jutting out from the wall with a hole in the center and that made me smile because it was a trompe l'oeil that truly tromped me. I don't mind modern art so much if it engages me, or makes me think: One room had a large beige canvas filled with just a few short sentences, a quote from someone or from another art theory book, asking us to consider how in any piece of artwork all of the elements come together to form the art, and how words cannot ever express art's meaning. This kind of had me smiling because it presented a theory which then twisted back upon itself, as the contradiction of what words could not do for art — became the piece of artwork. So that's not so bad.

Whether or not the juices are recharged, I don't know. I do know I've had a thorough brain massage and feel better for it. And what better birthday present can you get than that?


  1. boomr on 1/13/07 at 6:01 pm

    You sure make me miss my city, but as far as spending the time to get emotionally, intellectually maybe even spiritually lost in any museum, for me, and as much of a pain-in-the-arse going up to 82nd Street is, The Metropolitan Museum of Art does it for me. I enjoyed reading what enveloped you, but in the MMA, those period rooms, their native pieces of furniture, upholstery, carpeting, the incredibly authentic height reproductions of the furniture, the paintings, the doorways and the rooms allowing for the significantly shorter men and women of those eras, for me it’s very Orwellian as a modern day Time Machine.

    And Happy belated Birthday, btw.

  2. R.G. Ryan on 1/13/07 at 8:29 pm

    The Wyeth alone is worth the price of admission.

    One down…three to go? 🙂

  3. Vox Nieuw Amsterdam on 1/15/07 at 4:23 am

    ‘morning!  Popping by to introduce myself. 

    VNA is Vox’s blog for NYC-based Voxers.  I hope that you’ll encourage other NYers to add me to their Neighborhoods and stay tuned for news regarding Meetups and other activities….

  4. Armchair News on 1/15/07 at 9:03 am

    This last post comes suspiciously close to spam, but I’m going to leave it ’cause it might prove interesting/useful.

    Just saying.