In museums, bigger isn’t always betterOf the dozens of art museums I’ve visited around the world, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City is my first love.
The magic began during a high-school field trip. No moment could have been more breathtaking than standing in front of Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” for the first time. As I walked the length of this enormous painting, everything else faded away.
In its original Manhattan building, the Museum of Modern Art was a jewel box. For me, it was a sanctuary. Whenever I had the opportunity, I went back to see Van Gogh’s famous “Starry Night.” I was amazed by how small Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” is. I was thrilled to face the power and energy of Henri Matisse’s “Dance.” Every time I returned, I found new love with new pieces of art.
My infatuation with MoMA continued even when it moved to a building in Queens in June 2002 while its normal venue underwent a makeover. I remember taking the No. 7 local train from Manhattan on a cloudy November day in 2003, and wandering around the new quarters, renewing my acquaintance with my favorite pieces of modern art ― displayed in a cramped, but somehow experimental setting. The MoMA Queens building felt like a giant container box stuffed with celebrated paintings and sculpture. It wasn’t exactly an enjoyable experience, but it was refreshing, different and somewhat cool.
In a way, it was charming to see these renowned pieces in a more down-to-earth environment. After all, museums almost always give you a subtly pretentious, snobbish feeling while you are in them, because they are spaces so drastically distinct from the outside world.
Last November, MoMA moved back to its original site in Midtown Manhattan after a $425 million overhaul and expansion under the guidance of the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. At 630,000 square feet, it is now nearly twice the size it used to be.
I visited the new MoMA last month, on a rainy Valentine’s Day. I’d heard there were long lines to get in, but the wait was surprisingly short that day. As I entered the lobby, which stretches from 53rd to 54th Street, the new spaciousness was evident. Everything about the museum reminds you that it is taller, grander and bigger.
But as I walked through the galleries, I was surprised to find myself disappointed. I had waited to see this for a long time; where was my excitement?
“If you raise a lot of money, I will give you great, great architecture,” MoMA officials had quoted Mr. Taniguchi as telling them, “but if you really raise a lot of money, I will make the architecture disappear.”
I guess they raised an awful lot of money. I was not seeing architecture at the new MoMA, and I was not sure whether that was a good thing or not.
I hadn’t expected anything too extraordinary, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. The architecture at the new MoMA was simply uneventful, and that was painful.
Walking around, I was puzzled by the placement of some of the art works. Barnett Newman’s 25-foot-high “Bronze Obelisk” sits in the center of the second-floor atrium, and I found Claude Monet’s 42-foot-wide triptych “Water Lilies” hung on a white wall alongside the monumental sculpture.
The contrast was obvious, but that didn’t explain why they should be put together. Each piece was great on its own, but I couldn’t see a connection. At the old MoMA, there were benches in front of “Water Lilies” where you could sit and spend time gazing. The painting’s serenity used to pervade the space. Next to “Bronze Obelisk,” it seemed overpowered.
Then there was Matisse’s “Dance,” which had its own room in the old MoMA. In the new museum, it was hung in an upper-floor stairwell. A stairwell, of all places! The painting is enormous, and viewers need room to examine the whole thing and feel the energy. It deserves far more than a stairwell, I thought. The longer I stayed there, trying to understand, the more uncomfortable I felt. It was sad to see one of my favorite pieces of art in such a position.
On the third floor are the architecture and design galleries. The display in the design gallery was also disappointing. The collection ranged from Art Nouveau furniture to Apple’s iPod. Viewing the collection of furniture, from Art Nouveau to the Vienna Secession, Bauhaus, postwar Italian design and American Modernism, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d been far more impressed by “Good Chair,” a recent design exhibition at the Seoul Arts Center’s Hangaram Design Museum.
I was disappointed with MoMA because I’d been expecting something else. I was expecting more exciting architecture, but this was white walls, tall empty spaces and natural light. I have seen plenty of monotonous, minimalist museums before, and I wanted something more stimulating.
But I am sure I will go back to the new MoMA. I will pay the $20 admission fee again and again to see Roy Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl,” Edward Hopper’s “Gas” and Paul Signac’s “Portrait of Felix Feneon, Opus 217.”
I will have to get used to the new museum. It will take time, but there is nothing I can do about it. After all, it’s the MoMA, and it’s irreplaceable.
The museum’s architectural chronology
In 1929, the Museum of Modern Art opened in the Hechscher Building, located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street. Six rooms were rented for gallery and office space, according to the museum.
The museum then moved to a townhouse at 11 West 53rd Street, part of the present site, in 1932.
Seven years later, Philip L. Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone designed the museum’s first permanent home there. A series of expansions were made between 1951 and 1964, including a sculpture garden designed by Philip Johnson.
In 1980, the museum began construction of a museum tower and west wing. The new wing, designed by Cesar Pelli & Associates, was completed in 1984. It doubled the exhibition space, and added a new film theater and office space.
The museum purchased adjacent real estate for further expansion at the present site in 1996. One year later, Yoshio Taniguchi was selected for the project, which will allow the museum to house and showcase its rapidly growing collection. He has been quoted as saying that his design aims “to transform MoMA into a bold new museum while maintaining its historical, cultural and social context.”
In 2002, the museum moved to MoMA QNS, a temporary home in Long Island City. The building, formerly a Swingline staple factory, was redesigned by Cooper, Robertson & Partners of New York.
In November 2004, Taniguchi’s new MoMA reopened in Manhattan. The new six-story David and Peggy Rockefeller Building is the new home of MoMA’s main collection and temporary exhibitions.
MoMA facts for visitors
Where is it?
The museum is located at 11 West 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenue.
Telephone: (212) 708-9400
What are the new museum hours and admission prices?
Seniors (65 and over with ID): $16
Students (full-time with current ID): $12
Children (16 and under accompanied by an adult): free.
Admission is free for all visitors on Friday evenings, 4 to 8 p.m.
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Friday: 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.
How to get there
Subway: E or V lines to Fifth Avenue/53 Street station; B, D, or F lines to 47-50 Streets/Rockefeller Center station.
Bus: M1, 2, 3, 4, 5 to 53rd Street
by Ser Myo-ja