The Museum of Modern Art, now firmly ensconced in a shiny new building that opened in 2004, is all clean lines, white walls, and well-lit corners. But MoMA is home to what is arguably the world’s greatest collection of modern and contemporary art, has its secrets nonetheless. Even some of the artwork you think you know best might hold a few surprises, once you look a bit closer.
Gallery 8, Floor 5
Contemplating Monet’s magnificent “Water Lilies” might send you into a swoon of tranquility. That was the artist’s aim, as a matter of fact; he hoped to create “the refuge of a peaceful meditation in the center of a flowering aquarium” with the many works he painted in this series toward the end of his life, when his vision was dimmed by cataracts. (For more than 20 years after his death, these now beloved later paintings were dismissed by the art market as the product of a man past his prime.) There was little tranquility at the museum in 1958, however, when two other “Water Lilies” canvases in the collection were destroyed by fire. The triptych that is now one of MoMA’s most recognizable treasures was purchased the next year from the artist’s son as a replacement.
The eagle sore
Gallery 17, Floor 4
When Robert Rauschenberg stuck a real taxidermied bald eagle in his 1959 masterwork “Canyon” a mixed-media collage that also includes a pillow and some cardboard, he couldn’t have known how complicated he was making things. The presence of America’s national bird—which is under strict federal protection—made it illegal for the Rauschenberg’s most recent owners, the estate of art dealer Ileana Sonnabend, to sell it. Which was not great for them, since the IRS insisted it was worth $65 million and wanted $29.2 million in taxes and another $11-plus million in penalties. The feds finally said they’d drop the matter as long as Sonnabend’s heirs agreed to give the Rauschenberg to a museum where it would be exhibited publicly. In late 2012, the eagle landed at the MoMA.
Rooms with a view
The museum’s many enormous windows open vistas to the city beyond its walls, framing the surrounding mélange of architecture with stark precision. A particularly striking view slides by when you’re riding the escalators between the fifth and sixth floors: you’ll see, past the museum’s spectacular sculpture garden, the Gothic Revival frills of St. Thomas Episcopal Church; the Mediterranean Revival Italian Renaissance façade of the University Club on West 54th St.; and the gilded finial top of the Elizabeth Arden building (formerly the Aeolian building) on Fifth Avenue, a 1926 neoclassical gem that has unusual curved corners. Another great viewpoint can be found in the gallery that holds Monet’s “Water Lilies”: step right up to the window and it feels like you are hanging out over West 53rd Street. You can glimpse the top of 30 Rockefeller Center from here.
Woman on a mission
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller, was largely responsible for founding the museum, along with Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan (fun fact: Rockefeller hired this writer’s great-great uncle, A. Conger Goodyear, to be the new museum’s first president). Despite having a fabulously rich husband, Mrs. Rockefeller had to raise funds for the new institution from other people, since John D. loathed modern art of all kinds. The fledgling MoMA bounced around from home to home before landing in its present location in a building designed by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone in 1939.
“A microcosm of Manhattan”
The museum rapidly gained in prominence and power once it was established in a permanent home. The buildings on the site underwent several redesigns and renovations over the decades, and MoMA acquired more and more of the property on the block between 5th and 6th avenues and 53rd and 54th streets. In 2002, the museum closed for a two-year reconstruction and expansion that retained at its heart the Philip Johnson–designed Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. “The model for MoMA is Manhattan itself,” architect Yoshio Taniguchi, who was selected for the high-profile job, told New York magazine. “The Sculpture Garden is Central Park, and around it is a city with buildings of various functions and purpose. MoMA is a microcosm of Manhattan.”
The museum’s film collection is one of its gems, but getting tickets for the screenings that go on all week requires some advance planning. If you are a non-member, tickets become available one week ahead of time starting at 9:30 a.m. at the main lobby information desk. They are included in the regular price of admission, although you have to pay a dollar extra if you’re buying them in advance of the screening date. Tickets are available for members at the same time online.
The chairs in the sculpture garden were designed by the artist Harry Bertoia in 1952. (They are available for sale in the museum store, should you be so inclined.) Every morning, they sit in tidy rows awaiting the museum’s opening. By midday, they have migrated all over the garden, traveling with people seeking the sun, forming little groups to chat, in search of that perfect vantage point to see the works by Picasso and Matisse, or perhaps the graceful Art Nouveau Paris Metro entrance sign. The chairs themselves become a living work of art.
Where it’s @
A couple of years back, the museum acquired the @ symbol—yes, the one you use in your email address—thanks to the efforts of Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design. Here is Antonelli’s explanation on MoMA’s blog of how the museum “got” the @, which is on view not only on your smart phone, but also on a wall in the museum’s Architecture and Design galleries: “The acquisition of @ … relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that ‘cannot be had’—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection. The same criteria of quality, relevance, and overall excellence shared by all objects in MoMA’s collection also apply to these entities.” A commenter on the site was skeptical: “Even after reading the article, I’m mystified.”
You’re getting warm
Every Saturday afternoon and evening from June 29 to September 7, PS1, the museum’s Queens branch, hosts a lively outdoor summer program called “Warm Up” which features DJs, drinks and an art installations in the courtyard. This year, it’s a “temporary urban landscape” called “Party Wall.” This outpost in the industrial neighborhood of Long Island City is as loose and free-form as the main museum is Modernist and elegant.
Want a little privacy? MoMA’s new media lounge allows you to watch works of your choosing from the museum’s extensive video collection in viewing booths made of brightly colored cloth panels that can be moved around to accommodate individuals or small groups. These intimate little environments provide a welcome refuge directly adjacent to the busy second-floor cafe and restaurant.
The oldest profession
“Les Demoiselles D’Avignon,” the 1907 Picasso masterpiece depicting five women in a Barcelona brothel that the museum has owned since buying it in 1937 for $24,000, is considered one of the most important works of art in history. Entire books have been written about it, detailing the artist’s creative process and the various influences visible in this seminal painting—from African masks to the works of El Greco. The Cubist movement may have derived its name from the cube-shaped breast of the figure on the far right. The figure on the far left, in her turn, at first depicted a man entering the brothel, and her pose retains a slightly masculine air.
When you enter the museum, the general flow of foot traffic tends to take you to the right, up the stairs to the soaring atrium on the second floor, the site of large-scale special exhibits. From there you can keep going up with throngs of fellow visitors by elevator as far as the 5th floor, or by escalator all the way to the 6th. But if you head left immediately after having your ticket scanned, you will find another, much more peaceful way to ascend, in one of the elevators tucked away at the lobby level. These will take you to the 6th floor at the top of the museum.
“The Migration Series” by Jacob Lawrence
Gallery 13, Floor 5
You could walk right through this small side gallery in your rush to see MoMA’s greatest hits by the likes of Frida Kahlo and Vincent van Gogh. Stop. Lawrence’s 30 small tempera paintings illustrate one of the most compelling stories in American history—that of the Great Migration, the early-20th-century exodus of African Americans from the agrarian South to the industrial North. Lawrence, who died in 2000, tells the epic tale with precision and economy. It will move you.
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