Wednesday, March 09, 2005

MOMA Mia - My modern where art thou?

In the late nineteen forties when I was an art student at the High School of Music & Art, I bought a student membership to the Modern Museum and begain a love affair with that museum and its art that has lasted for most of my life. Not only was membership cheap, but the museum was just large enough to hold a fine collection of the major modern artists, yet small enough to feel like you were viewing their work inside a beguiling, curvacious modern home, one where you were especially invited to linger, have a cup of coffee, and look at the art treasures of the modern world. It was a place where I met my friends, took my dates to see classic silent films, ate inexpensive snacks in the member's cafeteria, sat in the garden and gazed at the big breasted bronze statues and Rodin's Bazac and felt like this marvellous museum belonged to me. It lifted my life as all great experiences with art can do. The museum was rarely crowded, and dedicated to art rather than commerce or mass tourism, the only concession to commerce was one small bookshop that sold art publications. It all felt organically connected to the humanism of the French modernist art that it predominately displayed.

I remember the big three; the agonized Guernica of Picasso, the huge Matisse painting, and most of all that primitive Rousseau of the sleeping Arab, highlights in what was a small but perfect collection of abstract and surrealist art. That feeling of personal affection for the museum continued for many years. Then with each expansion, something was gained in terms of new exhibition space for the growing collection, and something was lost in terms of the pleasure of looking at great art in a comfortable, human environment.

Last week my wife and I visited the new MOMA. Ours was only a two hour visit as we took in the new building, a splendid photography show, and a fine drawing exhibition, and then ran for our lives feeling oppressed by the building and the overabundance of art, and shops, and tourists. We never made it all the way up to the permanent painting collection, deciding to take in the rest on another day when the museum might be less crowded. I don't know how they accomplished it but they even managed to present the vast Manet Water Lilly painting as a huge rectangle of brackish water. I could not believe that this was the painting we all loved. When first approached it felt like airport art, the painting an intruder in the immaculate space. The much praised use of huge glass walls which allowed different floors and various exhibitions to flow into each other was an architectural triumph and a disaster in the presentation of art. One could take in other floors, look down at the garden, but for me, the visitor had a better view of other museum visitors than of the art. Why did nobody anticipate this as they studied the plans and renderings of the building?

The museum was now more than a repository for great art, it was a tourist attraction, something to write home about, but alas, not everything worth writing home about is worth loving. What was missing was a building that placed art in some human, proportionate context. The design was so clever, so accomplished, and yet so cold and unfriendly. Here we had the museum as a theme park, entertaining yet chilly, and ruthlessly informative, unwelcoming to anyone who had come to look at art, rather than tourists and escalators and shops. Unlike the Metropolitan Museum where if one is lost, one makes remarkable discoveries, finding pockets of painting and sculpture that one might not have been drawn to before, if lost in the new MOMA you kept looking for an exit. There seemed no way one could have a personal connection to a picture in that vast space, there were no delightful discoveries, only more "important" exhitibions. Most successful perhaps were the exhibitions of modern industrial design, the everyday products that were displayed in cases, and seemed at home in a glass warehouse, the objects reminders that people could actually used industrial design objects in their everyday lives.

We plan to visit MOMA again soon, hoping to amend or correct our first impression, but even if I grow to respect the building (one could never love it) there is no way that it can compare with that marvellous old building on 53rd Street that allowed a young man to have a first love affair with modern art. Yes, the world has changed, and one must accept that different times have different needs. But some things are constant. Human beings need human scale in 2005 as we did in 1950.

It is not the fault of scale alone. One can still visit the vast Metropolitan Museum and have an intimate experience with its pictures, deal with crowds of tourists, and yet focus on the art. The art is housed in well proportioned rooms, not interesting architectural spaces. Here at the new MOMA, the building swallows the art experience, its architecture which at first seems so seemingly light and elegant soon becomes an oppressive presence; a great transparent whale of a museum, a building to respect, perhaps, but never to love. Perhaps love is too hard to build into museums these days. It doesn't cost enough money. Sherman Yellen