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MoMA's Moment

A Bigger Museum Leads to a Loss of Intimacy

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 20, 2004; Page C01


Sometime soon, a 17-year-old kid will come to New York for the first time. She'll be from a small town somewhere in America. She'll have prepared a list of things to see: the Empire State Building, Times Square, Rockefeller Center -- and then, almost as an afterthought, the Museum of Modern Art. Saturation coverage of today's launch of the museum's massive renovation and expansion -- a $425 million, 630,000-square-foot building -- will have reached her in her almost art-free home.

She'll brave the lines and fork out her precious $20 for admission. And then, many exhausting, exhilarating, unexpected hours later, she'll come away a different person. She'll be on her way to becoming one of our great artists, or a groundbreaking art historian, or the kind of collector who founds museums -- or maybe an unusually happy small-town cop who is also a lifelong lover of modern and contemporary art.

Barnett Newman's "Broken Obelisk" dominates MoMA's new 10-story atrium, further dwarfing Monet's "Water Lilies," which seems lost in the sun-drenched space. (Photos Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

She'll have figured out the fuss about Picasso, having traced the artist's path from tame Rose Period pictures to the terrifying "Demoiselles d'Avignon," and then out the other side to all the very different strangenesses the "Demoiselles" produced.

She'll have fallen hard for Matisse at his most colorful and decorative but realized that there's a tough core in there, too.

Pollock will cast his spell, as will Warhol and Donald Judd, but she'll also fall in love with "minor" works that professionals barely acknowledge: the wax heads of Medardo Rosso, a rare sculptor who tried on impressionist ideas; an exquisite wall relief by second-string cubist Henri Laurens; the latest knotted-carbon chair by Marcel Wanders, out on the cutting edge of radical Dutch design.

This is the visitor who matters most -- more than any cultured connoisseurs or jaded critics, with their notebooks full of niggling doubts. And the new, bulked-out, buffed-up MoMA, now celebrating its 75th anniversary, can't do wrong by our neophyte art lover: It's got more room to show more art than it has ever had before. Short of turning off the lights, there's not much that MoMA could have done to keep its fantastic holdings from making an impact.

In addition to MoMA's usual collection of modern paintings and sculptures, with masterpieces stretching from van Gogh to Eva Hesse, there are expanded spaces custom-built to show prints and illustrated books, architecture and design, photography and drawings. For the first time, there's also space -- almost an entire floor -- dedicated to a rotating display of fine art of the more recent past, from 1970s conceptualism to the latest in video and installation art.

The Modern is no longer a smallish, eclectic accumulation of art objects that you can more or less absorb in a single day. It's now an assortment of almost separate collections that happen to live under a single roof.

It's not so much that the old MoMA has really been given much more room to breathe. In some classic areas of the collection, the density of works on view has stayed about the same; some painting galleries may be even more tightly hung than they were before. It's that there's just so much more art on show. For anyone keen on really getting to know the works of art they see, MoMA is now at least a three-day visit, almost on the scale of the Prado or the National Gallery in London. The new Modern feels almost encyclopedic in its coverage of the visual arts of the last 100 years. It has become the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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