All the things MOMA taught me

- John L. Silva () - December 12, 2004 - 12:00am
People had begun to line up in front of the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) as early as six that morning. After having been closed for the past two years, with only a temporary museum in Long Island City, and a reconstruction totaling $858 million, this was the much awaited re-opening.

When I got there just before 10:00 a.m., the line had snaked five rows deep on 53rd Street, extended north on Fifth Avenue, and snaked again on 54th. November 20th 2004 was a cold, drizzly day but that didn’t stop the over 10,000 people who waited up to two hours to enter this immense new façade of subdued black Zimbabwe granite and glass.

The MOMA was always the big fancy treat when I lived in New York many years back. The sprawling Met (Metropolitan Museum) uptown was my first museum choice because it had a "Suggested Entrance Fee"; poor students like me could pay even a nickel to get in. At the Met, I could see the world’s treasures from the Neolithic to the Master Painters. But if I wanted serious contemporary art, it was the MOMA and you had to pay full admission. It was $5 way back then and by the mid- 90’s was up to a steep $12 per.

But it didn’t matter. After checking your stuff in the cloakroom and facing an escalator in that bright, all-white interior of the former building, I knew I had arrived in art Shangri-la.

There was enough art at the MOMA to enliven a stodgy radical like myself. There were the Suprematists, those post-Bolshevik artists who wanted nothing to do with bourgeois anything and decided to use only lines, the color red, and montage to celebrate Socialism. There was Diego Rivera and Siquieros with powerful proletarian and Mexican Revolutionary themes to raise a clenched fist. To express solidarity with the women’s struggle I’d search for Frida Kahlo and her anguished renderings. Edward Hopper’s lonely scenes of gas stations and hotel rooms were more haunting than any reading on the great American Depression. Picasso’s epic Guernica further solidified my anti-war views. And dear David Hockney‘s huge colorful canvases of his beloved dogs were a pure gay celebration.

The MOMA justified my budding interest in collecting old photographs. It was one of the first institutions to have a Photography Department and its very own gallery. Fifty years ago photography wasn’t considered fine arts. But forward thinking MOMA thought otherwise.

There was Brassai on MOMA’s walls with his poignant photographs of Parisian life in the 30’s. There was Tina Madotti and her images of workers and class struggle. Robert Frank’s America in the fifties was a searing pictorial history book.

MOMA’s most important effect on me was to discern the design aspects of everything around me, from the natural to made objects and to evaluate their aesthetic value. The top floor of the old MOMA was the Architecture and Design Gallery and that was always my last but favorite stop. It was there that I learned to appreciate the design of a Braun coffee maker, a Noguchi paper lamp, a Barcelona chair. There was a red Cisitalia 202 GT, a roadster built in 1946 prominently displayed, its aerodynamic one-unit design extolled. Danish silverware, Finnish fabrics, portable Japanese television sets, even the most mundane items like ballpoint pens and tape dispensers didn’t escape MOMA’s scrutiny and seal of design approval. After many visits, I developed a keen sense of weighing an object’s aesthetic appeal with its functional value.

By the mid 90’s, a visit to the MOMA felt claustrophobic. The collection of over 3,000 paintings and sculptures were spilling out of the galleries and hanging somewhat rudely in the hallways. Imagine a Diego Rivera close to the Men’s Room. There were also no more slow days. There was a crowd clogging the galleries every day and this worsened during the weekly free nights.

Two years ago, MOMA closed its Manhattan museum to construct a new building on their site and on adjacent property they had purchased. They opened a temporary museum in nearby Long Island City. It was just a subway ride away but many (like myself) from the Celestial Kingdom of Manhattan thought Queens was off the face of the earth. So, I forgot about MOMA for awhile and contented myself with the Guggenheim, the Whitney, the venerable Met, the International Center of Photography and a half dozen other exceptionally good museums in Manhattan.

But the MOMA’s opening day with its crowd of faithful waiting outside was proof that the institution, the visual arbiter for the most important artworks of the 20th century, was not forgotten.

The new MOMA is Yoshio Taniguchi’s first museum building outside of Japan. In his home country, he’s completed eight museums, a numerical feat considering the paucity of museums and the intense competition for such prestigious projects.

You enter the spacious ground floor of the new building and you are bathed, surprisingly, in natural sunlight coming from glass windows five stories high and facing the sculpture garden. The 21-foot height in some of the galleries (the equivalent of two storeys), the use of white oak floors and windows running the length of the ceiling makes this immense granite and steel structure feel light and almost levitating. Having completed my Architecture 101 lessons from the MOMA, I can confirm Taniguchi’s addition is in keeping with the International Modern design that characterized the first MOMA building 75 years ago, and its six subsequent additions and renovations.

Most importantly, Taniguchi’s design is not a Guggenheim Bilbao or an LA Getty Museum, two structures whose brilliant facades sometimes overwhelm the artwork within. Taniguchi’s design is "quiet", as he himself describes it, blending perfectly with the street and the MOMA buildings of his predecessors Philip Johnson, Augustus Noel, Philip L.Goodwin, and Edward Durell Stone. I felt that quietude after my initial swooning, walking on ramps that opened onto secret windows and vistas, so very Japonaise. In the end, a long lost friend of a painting appears and the enchantment begins once more. Taniguchi’s masterpiece recedes like a sliding paper window into the glazed walls, deferring to a Picasso in front of me.

It felt like I was at an airport awaiting loved ones coming out of the tube. Room after room, I encountered my old favorites. Rivera and Siquieros were back, vigorous and unfailingly radical. The Suprematists still held my esteem and Frida continues to bear her anguish quite well. But time has a way of chipping at political correctness to make me enjoy other styles and colors. I was drawn to Dali’s surrealism, to Matisse and his engaging colors, to Bonnard’s breakfast scene on a terrace, and even to Jackson Pollock’s splattered canvas which I once sniffed at as bourgeois decadence.

But I have limits. In the cavernous Contemporary Gallery on the second floor, large installations with found objects strewn on the floor repelled the social-realism-fuddy-duddy-me, causing a search for the nearest exit.

What a delight at the newly expanded Photography Gallery seeing Brassai and Lisette Model again and their images of 1930’s Europe. Edward Weston’s California mountains and forests were reminders as to how I became a tree-hugger. There’s Tina Madotti, Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange’s photographs reflecting all elements of the human condition. My taste though ends with Diane Arbus and her sixties photographs of America’s underside. Anything past that, in color, and in slice-of-life snapshots blown up, grates on me, and I usually stomp off pining over photography’s golden age.

There was one last section to go: The Architecture and Design Galleries now moved to the third floor of the new building. Aha, the blazing red Cisitalia appears again–pure eye candy–now posed dramatically by a huge window just waiting for me to drive her away. There again are the assortment of delightful chairs from the Arts and Crafts period to the post WWII era fiberglass chaise lounge of Charles and Ray Eames. The fabrics, the everyday devices, the lamps, all now shown expansively in so much more space. To my happy surprise, independent of MOMA’s imprimateur, my Mac Ibook and Canon digital camera were there on display as devices with aesthetic distinction. MOMA taught me well.

It was on a staircase landing, three floors high, looking out the huge window onto the sculpture garden, seeing the contrast between the garden and busy 54th Street outside that I had my I-Love-New-York moment. Despite 9/11 and the economic downturn in the city after, the MOMA trustees and its staff plunged headlong into this effort, found the money and, undaunted, set an opening date. With my museum eyes, I was overwhelmed by the gargantuan task each department had to do in preparing their galleries, removing works from storage, transporting them and displaying them to their greatest advantage. On that day, we, visitors of the world, descended on this architectural triumph to feast on a collection of artistic achievement. Many of us tarried in leaving and when we did, strolled serenely away.

The author is Senior Consultant for the National Museum of the Philippines. Email him at

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