MoMA: Art address in New York

MoMA: Art address in New York

In numbers, the MoMA has 2,00,000 works of modern and contemporary art by over 10,000 artists spanning the last 150 years. In a word, it’s overwhelming

The museum is a must-visit in New York.

By Modern Art’s most famous address in New York is the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). I had heard much about this signature museum and so made a beeline to its mid-Manhattan location after hitting the city. Even then the collection, a visual treat spread over six floors, was quite overwhelming.

The elderly gentleman who was at the information desk (each floor has one) seemed to understand my dilemma. He asked kindly how much time I had in hand and then suggested the ‘must-sees’. This is helpful to those who are not residents and have to make do with limited time. To give you an idea, on display in this iconic museum are 2,00,000 works of modern and contemporary art by over 10,000 artists spanning the last 150 years.

I took the gentleman’s advice and set off for the Permanent Collections on the 4th and the 5th floors. The entry fee also includes a free audio equipment (ID required), wonderfully handy to get an insight into the works.

To assess how popular this museum is, you have just to stand aside in a corner and, like the poet, ‘stand and stare’. The escalators are always full of people.

As I entered the 5th floor, I silently thanked my gentleman-guide. It locates some of the greatest works by artists in the modern age. Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night features in Gallery 1. A turbulent sky, bright stars and the landscape over Saint Remy (where the artist was confined to an asylum in his last years) mirror van Gogh’s creative genius.

van Gogh's 'The Starry Night'. Photos by author

Or, think of Henri Matisse’s The Dance (I) with a group of women with no embellishments, dancing joyously in the backdrop of vivid blue and green. If you are a dancer, or appreciate dance, you cannot but help feel a sense of ‘life and rhythm’ that Matisse believed was the essence of dance, flowing from the painting.

Later, I came across another Matisse work, the third and final in his series of dance at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. But here, the dancers were painted in red, the green of the grass hardly visible under the feet. Art historians find a tribal, even a ritualistic mood, in this painting. Looking closely, I somehow was reminded of the dances among some indigenous communities in central India, their vibrant moves under the canopy of Mahua flower trees, however far-fetched it would seem. Matisse painted the series for a wealthy Russian industrialist who commissioned three large canvases to decorate the winding staircase of his mansion in Moscow. Two of them are in MoMA. In fact, the dance I painting at the MoMA was apparently only a preparatory sketch for the artist.

In their lifetime, Matisse and Picasso were great rivals - and admirers. The miniseries 'Genius: Picasso', aired on National Geographic channel recently, brought out the fractious relationship between the two great artists of the 20th century. At MoMA, Picasso, of course, keeps company with his rival-friend with paintings like Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but what is different is the Spaniard’s sculptures.

More than paintings

Fortunately, a special Picasso Sculpture exhibition (spanning 1902-1964) was on during my visit. While Picasso’s paintings are more famous, his sculptures, 700 in all, were sporadic, but “occupied a deeply personal place.” They were highly influenced by African and Oceanic sculptures. This, I learned, through a ‘Gallery Conversation’ with an art expert, a big plus for art lovers at MoMA. The free daily tours give an idea of how an artist’s mind works, so to say. As the guide took us around the creations, whether the famous Head Of a Woman, Man With a Lamb or She Goat, it was easier to fathom the ever-experimental artist’s personal look at objects.

Monet’s impressions of water lilies as he perceived them blooming in the pond in his country home adorn many well-known galleries around the world. At MoMA, his canvas of the lilies is huge, filling up a whole wall, and transport you to a cool countryside as if you are in an island of peace, even though you are in the midst of the hustle and bustle of New York.

Looking at Marc Chagall’s I and the Village, where his Jewish-Russian childhood is portrayed vividly, you also think of the film Fiddler on the Roof with its pastoral scene in Russia with a Jewish family at the centre, who later have to leave the country, persecuted for their religion.

Henri Rousseau never stepped out of Paris, but looking at The Dream tropical garden, it’s hard to believe. His sole inspiration was visits to the zoo and the botanical garden. Talk about the extraordinary imagery of artists. In the painting, a nude woman on a sofa (reflecting domesticity in a humdrum life) dreams of a lush jungle. His The Sleeping Gypsy is placed in the East, too but poses a quixotic question: was the girl dreaming of the lion? Or, was the lion dreaming of devouring her in the lonely desert as she was sleeping?

That is the problem... there are so many signature works that you feel humbled and dazed. You want to savour all of them.

But the watch reminds that time is ticking away.

The fourth floor displays works by the Modernist era, especially abstract expressionism, a radical movement that emerged in New York in the 1940s, the so-called ‘New York School’ where individualism and the metropolis took centre-stage. Think Jackson Pollock’s One (Number 31, 1950), considered to be a masterpiece of the drip technique — its maze of interweaving colours with an innate energy (remember the Ed Harris-acted biopic Pollock where he is shown experimenting with this format?)

For us living in this media-centric, selfie-crazy age, Andy Warhol’s ‘The 15 minutes of fame’ seems even more relevant today. His Gold Marilyn Monroe series is striking. The sex symbol looks distant, her make-up smudged, “everything is slipping away in that Byzantine glitter... it’s as if death is lurking somewhere.” It was actually a publicity shot for the film Niagara.


In tune with the times

On the other spectrum, Warhol’s social comment on modern life through Pop Art, as in the iconic works like the Campbell’s Soup Cans, reflects his belief that art is not for the elite alone but for everyone and everyday items like soup cans can create vibrant art.

At first, MoMA was founded as an educational institution in 1929. A brainchild of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller of the New York millionaire family, and two of her friends Lillie P Bliss and Mary Quinn Sulllivan (often referred to as ‘the Ladies’), the collection and idea became a hit instantly and new premises had to be found. MoMA also screens animation films, Oscar-nominated documentaries, shorts, Hollywood classics, and experimental works regularly.

In short, the museum constantly keeps pace with the contemporary art scene in all its dimensions. It also reflects the philosophy that a museum is a living entity, not just a collection of collectibles.