MoMA Plunge

By Holland Cotter

The New York Times
July 27, 2007 Friday
Late Edition – Final

The average Manhattan midsummer day is hot, rank and long. Some of
us keep to the great air-conditioned indoors; others head for the
country. Both options are available at the Museum of Modern Art,
and the word must be out. Have you seen the ticket lines lately? The
lobby of 11 West 53rd Street is an ocean of flip-flops and shorts.

Not that the museum itself is in a kick-back mood. It’s taken some
serious critical heat since its 2004 reopening. MoMA bashing is the
art world sport that Whitney bashing was in the 1990s. People say
the Yoshio Taniguchi building is leaden, space hogging, art hostile.

Tongues wag about the museum’s cozying up to corporations and about
extravagant spending (as if this were new to the art industry). And
then there’s the $20 entrance fee.

But a lot of people don’t seem to care about any of this. Day after day
the visitors arrive, armies of them, primed to take their expensive
plunge into one of the coolest collections of modern Western art
in the world. That’s the bottom line: You go to museums to see art;
MoMA owns fabulous art.

And a surprising amount of that art, which was once in the vanguard
of culture, is about very old-fashioned things, like love and death,
and landscapes and seasons, and one season in particular: summer.

In the hot months artists have traditionally fled Paris and New York,
but only to take working vacations. They went to the country for
refreshment — to wash the studio light from their eyes, as Georges
Seurat put it — but also to capture an image of nature on the spot,
and to store the memory of it for later use.

So why not follow them on their summer travels — to the Riviera and
Long Island, Provence and Cape Cod — by which I mean up and down the
Modern’s escalators to different galleries on different floors? Let
the artists give you a tour.

I took one recently. It was a workout, but it was great, and it ended
with an anyone-can-join-in party: beach blanket bingo with Seurat (a
real doll); Henri Matisse in a skimmer (let’s have a smile, Henri);
Liubov Popova, in from Russia (she designed her own bathing suit,
and earrings, and shoes); and Pablo Picasso, who flexed nonstop. I
worried that they’d have nothing to say to one another. They had
everything to say to one another. The conversation was magical. And
when it was over, they each went their separate ways.

I’d never thought of Matisse as an outdoor person, and he isn’t
really, despite all his early fiery Fauve landscapes, of which the
museum has a slew. His is an indoor disposition. An environment
of contained domestic order gives him the freedom to arrange and
disarrange the world at will, take it apart, collapse its space,
control its expressive temperatures, determine its confusions.

This is what he’s up to in "The Blue Window," painted in the bedroom
of his home outside Paris in (according to the museum) the summer of
1913. Everything is blue: the walls, the window, the table holding
vases and pots, the trees and garden outside. It’s as if the sky had
invaded the house, or interior shadows had leaked outside.

The refrigerated atmosphere is perfect for summer, though a trifle
airless. A fan would help, and MoMA’s third-floor design gallery has
one: a neat little cast-iron German model made around 1908 that would
look right at home on Matisse’s table.

Giorgio de Chirico was most likely studio-bound the summer he finished
"Great Metaphysical Interior" (1917), a dark, suffocated picture
consisting mostly of a setup of easels coming to life in a sort of
"Sorcerer’s Apprentice" fantasy. Right in the center, though, like an
open window, is a painting within the painting, a view of a lakeside
house or hotel in a lush garden landscape.

Picture-postcard perfect, the scene feels like a breath of fresh
country air. It seems to have "Weather is beautiful — wish I were
there" written all over it.

Gardens, of course, can offer some of the most exotic trips on
earth in the span of a few feet. Claude Monet’s half-blind summer
strolls in his gardens at Giverny were interstellar. To his failing,
deepening vision, the image of flowers, rippling water and reflected
clouds was a trip to an alternative universe, one at once cosmic and
materialistic. Is there a difference? He seemed to pose the question.

Art asks this same question constantly. Sam Francis brings it up in
his ceiling-high "Big Red" (1953), an Abstract Expressionist painting
that is also a carpet of roses crushed underfoot: artifice that
bleeds. Polly Apfelbaum asks it, quietly, in a small 2002 collage
of dyed velvet dots arranged in grid formation, or, if you prefer,
of buds pushing up through the earth in neatly tilled rows.

(You’ll find the collage in the modest, excellent show titled "Lines,
Grids, Stains, Words," organized by Christian Rattemeyer, on the
museum’s third floor.)

A garden is what you make of it. The affluent couple in John Currin’s
painting "The Gardeners" (2001) don’t make much, as they chat and
shovel their way toward the cocktail hour, unaware that they seem to
be digging a grave.

An artist like Arshile Gorky would have seen this instantly.

Spiritually an outcast, a refugee, he saw existence as a condition
of loss, a shattered Eden, recoverable, if at all, only in art. The
abstract garden in the various paintings he titled "Garden in Sochi"
is at once both actual and fantastic. It was inspired by the memory
of a real garden from his childhood, one that his father planted and
tended. But that garden was in Armenia, where he was born; Sochi was
an elegant Russian resort town on the Black Sea, famed for its balmy
climate and luxurious hotel-sanitariums.

Why did Gorky transplant a precious symbol from his ruined past —
his mother died in the Armenian genocide — to foreign soil? Maybe
Sochi’s association with restored health and worry-free leisure
attracted him. He would have been riveted, and unsurprised, by
Richard Pare’s contemporary photographs of the city in "Lost Vanguard:
Russian Modernist Architecture, 1922-1932," a show on the museum’s
third floor. The sanitariums still stand, but are crumbling.

The tropical gardens of a once-vibrant vacation spot are overgrown,
on their way to oblivion.

The Modern has its own garden, the Sculpture Garden. And it too is
overgrown this summer, though not with plants. It is almost entirely
taken up by two humongous sculptures by Richard Serra, whose work
also claims the special exhibition gallery on the sixth floor and
the second-floor space usually assigned to the museum’s contemporary
collection. The garden still has plantings and trees, but mostly you
stare at towering rusted-steel Serra walls.

But haven’t you had enough of nature tamed, of summer indoors,
of autumnal introspection in July? If so, dash back to the design
department, rev up the ’63 Jaguar convertible roadster on display
there (top speed: a blistering 149 miles per hour), grab a Cady Noland
license plate drawing from Mr. Rattemeyer’s show and speed out of town,
choosing the route as you go.

In the museum’s atrium you’ll pass large, grassy Joan Mitchell
paintings, fragrant with heat and loam. Upstairs you’ll encounter
a fleet, blocky watercolor of a mill that Picasso knocked out in
the Spanish town of Horta de Ebro in 1909, when he vacationed there
and started getting Cubism off the ground. Nearby you’ll see Georges
Braque’s tawny, deciduous "Road Near L’Estaque," a late-summer scene
of hills, dense trees and a distant view of the sea.

MoMA is thick with trees right now. Max Ernst’s tiny "Forest and Sun"
(1931) is all linear arches and loop. Agnes Martin’s 1964 painting "The
Tree" is a cage of light built from thousands of twiglike lines. For
greenery, though, nothing is greener than Jasper Johns’s "Green Target"
(1955): leaf-green, hope-green, it’s a traffic light set on "go."

And if you obey it, you’ll soon clear the woods and find yourself on
a rise, approaching the sea. You can catch its glint in Mondrian’s
easy-to-miss "View From the Dunes With Beach and Piers, Domburg"
(1909). By the time Milton Avery’s "Sea Grasses and Blue Sea" (1958)
comes into sight, you can smell the salt air. You’re there.

Park, unload the picnic basket (Andy Warhol packed it, so lots of soup)
and spread a blanket. Popova’s design-savvy "Painterly Architectonic"
would make a nice one; so would "Colors for a Large Wall," painted
by Ellsworth Kelly in 1951 in toasty southern France.

You can pick up a game on the beach. The girl in Roy Lichtenstein’s
"Girl With Ball" (1961) is headed your way. Or you can hit the waves,
thanks to John McCracken’s "Absolutely Naked Fragrance" (1967),
an enameled pink slab of a sculpture roughly the size and shape of
a surfboard, leaning against a gallery wall.

Time passes imperceptibly. That’s the way vacations are. One minute
the flares and glows of Robert Delaunay’s "Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun
and Moon" (1912 or 1913) are burning through your closed eyelids. The
next you’re awake and watching Jackson Pollock’s skeins of white
foam — his monumental "One, Number 31, 1950," a MoMA treasure, was
a late-summer work — spread and dissolve on the ocean’s surface as
the sun begins its descent, a little earlier than it did a week ago.

Back on the highway you slow down to take in a series of four Seurat
landscape paintings, of harbor scenes at different times of day. The
last one, "Evening, Honfleur," is a tender portrait of the seaside
resort on the Normandy coast where the young artist passed the summer
of 1886. The sea is rough and the winds brisk year round in this
part of the world. But you’d never know this from Seurat’s scene of a
beach, a wedge of sea and a stretch of cloud-banded sky, brought into
being one dot of paint at a time, with the dots spreading, like sand,
or pollen, or a humid haze, out of the picture and across the frame.

Drink in its tranquillity, its cool grace. Soon you’ll be back in
town. Mondrian’s "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" (1942-43), that beeping,
dancing geometric sizzler, automatically puts you there. But Honfleur
at dusk stays in your eyes, ends your tour and carries you out to
the street to the end of a perfect getaway summer day.