The combination of being alone with great art after so many months and returning to a community of art lovers — at a time when civic life in America feels in a state of rolling collapse — was almost deranging.
The Met and MoMA are New York’s two most popular art museums, but the contrast on Saturday was stark. The Met saw 8,500 visitors through its doors that day — more than the 4,000 to 7,000 it had anticipated, but well below the 25,000 the museum routinely sees on summer Saturdays. Still, it felt hectic in places, and I flinched to watch people pour in and out of elevators or congregate around wall labels.
At MoMA, by contrast, you could almost hear crickets. I floated up the escalators in a part of the museum that usually feels like a midtown shopping mall in December. Now it’s like a Patagonian airport at 4 a.m. The sensation was haunting, like ambling through a silent dreamscape by Giorgio de Chirico.
MoMA, which reopened to the public on Thursday, is letting in only 100 people an hour. For years, critics have wanted MoMA to get back to a less harried and more contemplative atmosphere. Yet no one envisaged the circumstances that would fulfill their wishes. It was sobering.
In pre-pandemic times, 70 percent of the Met’s visitors were tourists. At present, New York City tourism is pretty much down for the count. So now, in a year when the Met was supposed to be celebrating its 150th birthday, its reopening is, above all, “a message to New York City,” said Kenneth Weine, the museum’s chief of communications. (As always, New Yorkers can either make a donation or enter free, so, he added, “this is not a revenue exercise.” At MoMA, a corporate sponsor has kept admission free through Sept. 27.)
At the Met, reminders of the past six months are everywhere. One of the busier exhibitions, “Photography’s Last Century,” is a display of celebrated photographs from the Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Collection. Tenenbaum’s parents, Arnold and Lorlee Tenenbaum, pillars of the community in Savannah, Ga., both contracted covid-19 in March and died within a few days of each other.
Melody Myers, who lives in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and works for CNBC, was visiting the Met for the first time since June of last year. She had booked her ticket online two days before the reopening. She carried a tote bag emblazoned with “I’D RATHER BE READING” and wore a Nike “JUST DO IT” T-shirt. In front of Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises,” I asked her what it meant to be there on the museum’s first day back.
She has been trying, she said, “to get back to a sense of normalcy.” Visiting the Met, she said, “feels like a step forward.”
Inside “Making the Met,” a celebratory exhibition that nonetheless tries to be forthright about the museum’s complicated history, the show’s deputy curator, Laura Corey, was eager to eavesdrop on visitors’ conversations. But Corey hadn’t counted, she said with a laugh, on how hard face masks would make it to hear them.
The show, the curator said, “has been my whole life for two years.” The installation was two-thirds complete back in March when the virus walloped New York, the Met closed and the entire staff went home.
Then George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country, and the Met was caught up, like museums elsewhere, in the reckoning around race. The exhibition’s introductory wall text was rewritten five times, Corey said, as “the world kept changing.” After four months, the installation team returned, expecting to need only three days to complete the job. But new health protocols meant the process took closer to three weeks.
“Just to see people here, it’s everything,” said Corey, who worked under the exhibition’s lead curator, Andrea Bayer. “This is why we do what we do.”
Cynthia Swain and Carrie Smith, who live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, were loving the show.
“It was like a ‘greatest hits’ collection,” they said, singling out a quilt by Faith Ringgold, a huge wall-hanging made from bottle tops by Ghana’s El Anatsui, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of “Madame X” and Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein.
“Until the pandemic,” Smith said, “we built the Met into all of our Saturday afternoon walks across Central Park’s Great Lawn. We like to look at new exhibits and have tea in the Petrie Court Cafe.”
“To have the Met disappear,” Swain said, “was like a hole in the heart.”
After a couple of hours at the Met, I met up for lunch with The Washington Post’s theater critic, Peter Marks. Together, we walked back to the museum, past the new sculptures by Kenyan American artist Wangechi Mutu installed in niches on the building’s facade, and found ourselves in the Egyptian wing, looking at perfectly preserved Middle Kingdom models of Egyptian workers. Some were sifting grain or slaughtering cattle, others were rowing riverboats.
If Mutu’s contemporary sculptures could be emissaries from “Black Panther’s” Wakanda, these were emissaries from an actual African culture, 4,000 years old. They are like set design models.
“Oh, my God, just look at them!” exclaimed Peter, who has lived through the pandemic in New York and is still, like so many others, waiting for the theaters to reopen. He was almost undone.
I left Peter inside “Making the Met” and made my way to MoMA, where I had my own little moment. For five minutes I had been standing, utterly alone, in a gallery filled with paintings by Henri Matisse: “The Red Studio,” “Dance (I)” and “The Piano Lesson.” Then, on the escalators, my eyes settled on a public health sign urging us all to “PLEASE PROTECT ONE ANOTHER” from the virus.
Rather than the Matisses, it was the sign, and a suddenly sensitized awareness of everything it implied — the sorry story of these past six months — that had me suddenly verging on tears.
On any normal day, the things you can see in museums like the Met and MoMA are enough to collapse time, confound categories, leave you euphoric or unhinged. But when almost nothing is normal — when news headlines, personal grief, anxiety, bewilderment and omnipresent tension crowd out a deeper sense of life’s complexity and of the human continuum — a heavy dose of art is medicinal.
Look, for example, at those Egyptians getting through their day, about 1½ million rotations of the Earth before now: If they could do it, then so, surely, can we.
Underground burial preserves art (these models were buried with a royal chief steward), which is one reason the Met is filled with tomb sculptures. Among the most moving are the “Mourners,” small alabaster sculptures made in Burgundy in the 15th century. Heart-catching condensations of pure grief, they feel spookily in tune with images we’ve been seeing all over the world this year.
You can see them in the “Making the Met” show, where they stand in perfect counterpoint to the radiant calm of the late-6th-century bronze sculpture from India — labeled as a “Buddha Offering Protection.” That which you offer you may also receive: This Buddha first found protection in Tibet after India’s Buddhist monasteries collapsed in the late 12th century. It was brought to the West in the 1950s when Tibet’s monasteries were destroyed.
Its serenity appears undimmed.
Times have been tough before. At MoMA, I was reminded that Piet Mondrian painted “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” in 1942-43. There are no words to describe what was happening in the world at that time. Yet there it is, “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” with just a little craquelure in the yellow.
Or consider Félix Fénéon, one of France’s greatest art critics, and the subject of a superb show at MoMA. A secret anarchist and passionate advocate for both workers and artists, Fénéon was arrested and tried on charges of planting a bomb. (He was let off.) The most precious works in his collection were three tiny paintings — female nudes as strange and serene as 6th-century Buddhas — by Georges Seurat. Each one, he said, was “a tiny picture, but a miracle work of art.” He made velvet covers for each and carried them — for protection? — in his waistcoat pockets every time he left Paris.
What I am trying to say? Just that almost every object in these two great museums has some kind of complicated, weird or death-defying story behind it. This is something you can be told, and grasp in the abstract. But you can’t begin to realize the richness and complexity of what’s on offer unless you’re actually there, with the objects in front of you.
And now, finally, the doors are open again.