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Moma and Me

ISSUE:  Spring 1986

We concentrate as a nation, more than ever these days, on our formal education, in school, college, and university. Yet in a lifetime we probably learn more on our own, outside the system, large and little things, from matters of taste, in our recreation, home furnishings, and clothes, to matters of technology, in home computers, plumbing, or the way our cars and cameras work. I have been relishing lately how much museums have taught me, scarcely overlapping what went on in the classroom, and I’ve also been brooding over how little the new museums may be able to teach new generations.

The first time I visited New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it was housed in several rundown brownstones with walk-up stoops, on 53rd Street just east of the still-running Sixth Avenue elevated train. The rooms were the original ones used by the families that had lived there. The lighting also was ordinary, dim by museum standards, yellow and homey. The work I seem to remember most specifically was, I think, by Marcel Duchamp, a small cagelike construction of thin wood pegs with cubes of sugar inside. I keep recalling it was named something like “Why Not Sneeze?” (although when I saw it years later, I realized it had another title altogether). It was typical of others I saw that afternoon when I was still in high school. One room had drawings and paintings by known artists side by side with those by asylum inmates. I was struck by the Museum’s flaunting the parallels. It would be several years before I learned formally about Dada, surrealism, and abstract and action painting.

I’ve been back to the Museum dozens, perhaps hundreds of times, over the decades. I was an habitue long before it became fashionable to call it MOMA. Most recently, I went through on a Thanksgiving afternoon, when the new, now vast building was nearly empty of visitors, and still, in two hours, I could do only one floor of the Museum’s permanent collection. The last time I remember it so nearly empty was on a cold, rainy, winter day, when I was teaching at CCNY. By then the building had become the nucleus onto which and over which the present exhibition areas and towering condominium apartments were built. Among the handful of other visitors were Orson Welles and Dolores Del Rio, and we happened to gather for a few moments, silent, to look at Diego Rivera’s portrait of her. I did every floor that afternoon and even took in a movie in the basement theater.

When I passed the doctoral orals at Columbia, Marjorie Nicolson, my mentor, dryly told me to take the rest of the day off and go to a ball game. I went to the Museum. It seemed more appropriate. As I was growing up, going to museums had been a more normal family recreation, Early intellectual education in New York, inevitably, takes place a good deal outside the classroom. On weekends, my father took me to the Bronx Zoo, the Museum of Natural History, matinees of Yiddish plays on Second Avenue, and lectures by Morris Hillquit, Norman Thomas, and other Socialist Party leaders. At home, we had a hand-cranked Victrola console and listened to Caruso, Galli-Curci, Chaliapin, Heifetz, and Elman, mostly on holidays, when we would have relatives over. These were talismanic names. (“What do you want from him?” my father would shout at my mother when I did poorly in school. “So he’s not Heifetz or Einstein.”)

Much of this exposure to music, theater, and lecture was obligatory, imperatives emanating from the Socialist-oriented Jewish Daily Forward, the major Yiddish newspaper in New York, which, under Abraham Cahan’s editorship, laid down rules of conduct and a system of values for its readers. Art museums were not on my parents’ agenda, perhaps in part because not many Jewish painters or sculptors were represented at the Metropolitan Museum, and Chagall, Modigliani, and Soutine were not yet hanging in the new MOMA, and the Forward, in any case, I suspect, didn’t altogether know what to make of modern high art. Although my father as a bachelor had bought standing room admission to the Metropolitan Opera, he never took me to the opera or, I believe, went himself after he had a family.

I began going to art museums on my own in high school, during the Depression. I used to go alone, as much I think for the ambience as for the content. The downtown, middle-class neighborhoods, the buildings, the settings, the rooms, perhaps even the frames pleased me as much as the art itself. The Frick Gallery, on Fifth Avenue, had marble floors, Oriental carpeting, brocaded chairs and draperies. You reached it, as you did the Metropolitan, by walking past the solid, tall town houses of the seventies, cutting across opulent Madison and Park Avenues. The Frick entry hall was lined, I recall, with delicately colored, dainty paintings of Boucher, Watteau, and Fragonard. In a corner hung a dark, dramatic, small El Greco, of Christ driving the money lenders out of the temple.

Certainly, this earliest museum going provided relief from the parochialism of a Jewish working-class home in the Bronx of that time, however emancipated and “enlightened” the Forward might have made it. I don’t think my museum-going was simply a gesture of defiance of my mother’s simple anti-Gentile bigotry, but I know I felt liberated in the museums, both from my parents’ world and that of my high school. I had a similar sense at foreign films, like Grand Illusion, La Maternelle, and M, and when reading, say, the plays of Shaw and the poetry of Eliot. I was not quite the refugee from reality that the boy was in Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” who escaped to the glamour of opera and the Waldorf Astoria from the drabness of urban Pittsburgh, but I quickly understood his case, with a rueful recognition, when I first read the story.

The Cloisters, in Fort Tryon Park, in the heights of the city, were an elaborate replica, in atmosphere and architecture, of medieval monasteries. It was a marvelous place to go with a girl on a good spring or summer afternoon, whether or not she shared your sense of that particular place or of museums. Fort Tryon Park took you away physically, almost by air, from the immediacy of the Bronx and Manhattan, which lay stretched out to the east, a dense panorama beginning at the foot of the hill on which Fort Washington once stood.

The park and the museum overlooked the broad, shining Hudson to the west. Across the river stretched the New Jersey palisade of rock and forest that the Rockefellers had bought to preserve the view. The Cloisters itself hovered behind you like a castle. To your left was the looping, towering George Washington Memorial Bridge.

Inside the museum, you walked through brick-and-stone floored rooms. You could see manuscript pages, old benches and chairs, and small painted statues of the crowned and draped Virgin holding her naked babe, patches of the bare, old wood alternating with the bright flakes of the original paint. Unaccompanied male chanting from hidden loudspeakers echoed through the stone halls. In the cloistered gardens, the herbs monks had once cultivated grew in squares alongside seasonal flowers. Many of the columns had incorporated original pieces from ruins in Europe.

Through the Metropolitan Museum one roamed as through an enormous, arching railroad terminal, pausing, browsing, losing oneself, sometimes quite literally, in the labyrinthine rooms and corridors, and on balconies and marble staircases. I spent hours walking around armored knights and horses in a dim and dusty chamber that must have been as large as the cobbled courtyard of a castle; studying miniature Persian objects encrusted with jewels and bluish enameling in a small corner I once found and regularly returned to; standing in reconstructed Egyptian tombs and alongside Assyrian sphinxes. One time, I found a cramped collection of Rodin sculptures in a remote back room off a balcony bordered by backlit, emerald-colored Chinese vases. I remember I became absorbed making out the entwined, barely discernible, nearly translucent bodies of young lovers emerging from a block of white marble. Once I think I wandered into a room with a window overlooking a Venetian square with a fountain, but I may have dreamed that. I know I walked up and down aisles of tall glass cabinets lined with great Grecian urns on which figures were frozen in attitudes Keats described in his ode. One high-ceilinged chamber had huge Chinese Buddhas.

I also made trips to the old and new Whitney, to the Guggenheim, and to the Brooklyn Museum. I toured the Philadelphia Museum spottily, concentrating on the Duchamp section, and spent time at Chicago’s Art Institute. I’ve been to one-room museums in small cities and on campuses, where reproductions of famous paintings and original ones by local artists were interspersed with one or two small treasures. In London, I’ve spent hours at the Hayward and the Tate; in Paris, at the Pompidou, the Louvre, and the Orangerie; and in Munich, at the Haus der Kunst. And, of course, now that I live in the Washington, D.C., area, I have got to know well the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, and the Phillips. I have been to small private galleries, and once madly toyed with the idea of somehow buying an $800,000 Sisley that enchanted me.

But I never settled into any other museum the way I did into MOMA. No other seemed as rich, as daring in its exhibits, as attuned to what artisans and fabricators, engineers and architects, movie makers and photographers, as well as traditional high artists were about.(The Hayward and the Tate have come close.) MOMA seemed almost to know its clientele’s needs and tastes. I saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari there, films with Jean Gabin and Danielle Darrieux, The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings, Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Potemkin, and early Chaplin and Keaton. I recall, with tactile immediacy, the tightly woven blue carpeting on the theater’s floor rising up the wall. Movies were not yet academically, or esthetically, fully respectable when MOMA began its showings. The museum’s running them in repertory was comparable to its displaying dishes, cutlery, furniture, typewriters, and industrial objects.

By the time I graduated from college, I had a number of friends who joined me in going to museums. What MOMA offered to my generation was a rhetoric, a vocabulary, a perspective for virtually every sumptuary aspect of our lives, not even excluding wining and dining. Where but from MOMA did those early generations of upwardly mobile New Yorkers—and the rest of the nation which keeps a wary eye on them—develop their sense of what furniture to buy for a first apartment, what displays to put on their walls? The Van Gogh, Cézanne, Picasso, Klee, Rousseau reproductions came first from MOMA’s shop long before they were sold all over the city. Our furniture—the Barcelona and Knoll chairs and variations thereof—bore MOMA’s cachet. Russell Wright’s dishes, displayed in MOMA as objects of good design, served our meals, and his blonde maple chests held our underclothing. From MOMA’s little refreshment spaces, we refined our instincts for the right small sandwich, dessert, or wine. I think I first learned of quiche at MOMA.

Also under MOMA’s tutelage, we quickly became sophisticated enough to realize when our reproductions turned into clichés, and, again under MOMA, we developed the new cliché of framing and hanging posters announcing exhibitions. MOMA pointed us toward architecture and engineering and taught us how to look at bridges, roads, and buildings. The Museum put up a full-size two-story house on its grounds, complete with furniture designed by the architect, Marcel Breuer, and appliances it approved, like an early General Electric refrigerator, as though to ensure in a climax of emphasis that we had the best sense of what our total environment should be like. It showed Raymond Loewy’s Studebaker, influencing our taste in automobile design, further anticipating our move to the suburbs.

Nor did I neglect my political education at MOMA. I suppose I got as much sense of the Spanish Civil War from studying Picasso’s Guernica as from reading Orwell, Hemingway, the New York Times dispatches from Spain, the New Republic, the New Masses, and arguing with schoolmates. The Rockefellers may have barred Rivera’s murals from the lobby of their office center down the street, but Rivera’s paintings hung in MOMA, which everyone understood to be a largely Rockefeller enterprise as well. Orozco’s painting of the Zapatistas, Mexican revolutionaries, also hung in MOMA. We smacked our lips over the irony, but I’m afraid few of us went beyond this smug, automatic response. We were too simple then to confront the paradox and learn something from it. Capitalism is not, in its nature, inevitably, ideologically constricting. It has no index of forbidden works by the enemy. I did not connect, in those early years, the openness of MOMA’s receptivity of artifacts and art with a sophisticated, undoctrinaire politics. Is it too farfetched to wonder whether MOMA’s all-embracing sense of the civilized in daily living included matters of thought and action as well? When the Committee for Cultural Freedom after the war arranged a symposium in the movie theater, I remember I felt that the setting was right.

In the old days, museum going was free, or the costs so nominal that most persons could afford them with little second thought. My last MOMA visit cost $4.50 per person to enter the general, permanent exhibits, and another $4.50 to go through the special one on primitivism in modern art. The more important change, however, is the incredibly enlarged museum audience today. In 1983 alone, I learn, the Metropolitan Museum had four and a half million visitors. On the Friday following my Thanksgiving visit, MOMA had a line four abreast stretching up to Fifth Avenue and around the corner just to enter the general exhibit. Inside, the huge lobby was as thickly crowded as that of a tiny theater just before the doors open.

Some years before this most recent visit I remember waiting for more than an hour on a similar line to see the Cézanne exhibit at MOMA and then having to go through the rooms in a subwaylike crush catching glimpses, between heads and over shoulders, of his endless studies of Mont St. Victoire. Museums in New York and Washington now issue passes for popular showings admitting one at half-hour intervals, and, even so, you often have to line up in a tight crowd to shuffle through as on an assembly line. Over the country, museums, in sometimes unseemly competition, strive to get larger, both in holdings and visitors. Large institutional advertisers, like Exxon, Xerox, Mobil, IBM, and Philip Morris, now sponsor major exhibits or even whole museums, testifying to the ascension of museums to the level of public television at least. The packaging and merchandising of high fine art today all but cancel out some of the reasons for the existence of museums in the first place.

You should be able to linger in a museum and to ruminate before a work if you wish, within reasonable limits. Museums should locate benches or sofas strategically, as the National Gallery does in Washington and many museums do on the continent. I remember going through an exhibit once of self-portraits by Rembrandt, done over his lifetime. I was one of a handful of visitors and was able to pause freely before each painting. The dates of Rembrandt and Milton happen to be nearly identical, and I remember I sat and thought about the parallels in the development of their self-consciousness: Milton, like Rembrandt, early and defiantly assessing his youthful ambition and talent; the old Milton, like the old Rembrandt, reviewing his life’s experience in his patient, fierce, and ambiguous late works. I wondered whether Milton after the Restoration may have looked something like Rembrandt in his late years: his face reflecting, at last, a subdued if not soured, sense of self, fully confident if not triumphant, as, blind and removed from public affairs, he dictated Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes. I brooded about the autobiographical notes in the last works of the two contemporary old artists. You can’t ordinarily give yourself to such idle rumination, for whatever it may be worth, in many museums today. Indeed, they arrange themselves to get you in and out as quickly as possible.

One reason for the new popularity of museums, and perhaps for the new nature of that popularity, may be what Arthur Koestler once discussed as the fetishistic impulse to be in the presence of an original object of importance.(He was trying to determine the intrinsic, esthetic difference between Picasso’s original pen-and-ink drawing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and a flawless reproduction of it.) Such a need, whatever else it may derive from, has little to do with teaching oneself or being taught. Many who go to indifferent or meretricious Broadway productions simply want to see film and television stars in the flesh, whether or not talent was ever an ingredient of their celebrity. The play is rarely the thing. The changed character of Broadway, including the rocketing ticket costs, reflects in good measure this surging popular wish to share space with fame. Short story writers who appear in The New Yorker or are reviewed by the New York Times read snippets from their work in cabarets for a cover charge.

Tourists to Washington’s museums go to look at locks of Lincoln’s hair and the inaugural-ball gowns the first ladies wore. They crowd into the mint to be in the presence of rag-content paper being turned into money, into the Tower of London to be in the proximity of the crown jewels, into Mount Vernon and Monticello to stare at the actual walls, windows, and floors Washington and Jefferson routinely used. Few ruminate about Jefferson’s near-eccentric obsessiveness with gimmickry; few relate Washington’s restrained elegance to the kitsch myth he has become.

In museums, many of us wish to stand simply before the original piece of canvas onto which a certifiedly great artist applied his paints. For some, I daresay, looking at the blank backside of a Matisse might serve as well as looking at the front. We just want to be within touching distance of the fetish, perhaps even to get some shiver out of the illicit opportunity actually to touch the sacred object, or even to do harm to it, which is why the Mona Lisa is now encased in bullet proof glass which all but obscures it with glare and reflection.(A New Yorker cartoon showed two evidently rich older men in a basement vault lined with crates variously labeled Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse, Pollock. “I didn’t know,” one is saying, “that you were interested in art.”) What purpose is served, except perhaps that of establishing new Guinness book records, in displaying the lady with the enigmatic smile or the acres of canvas showing Cézanne’s favorite promontory in such ways that no one at all can possibly look at them comfortably?

One might argue that making art available to greater and greater numbers is its own justification, that some exposure for many, however scanty, is better than a more intensive exposure for a few, but the spectacular museum buildings now going up all over the world have to be different in purpose, say, from enormous all-season sports arenas and performing arts centers. Museums, after all, do not need whole communities assembled during certain periods for presentation of concerts, plays, operas, ballets, athletic contests. The new museums are simply encouraging a new mass spectator sport. They are generating a new demand when there was nothing seriously wrong with the old one. The justification for the massive MOMA condominium, that it would help support the enlarged new museum, applies equally to the older MOMA, of more human and humane proportions.

New Yorkers, with their sharp instinct for exploiting any marketing opportunity, seem to have sniffed out something of the new impulse that brings so many to museums today. On my last visit, hawkers lined 53rd Street on each side of MOMA’s entrances to offer small paintings and drawings they had done themselves. “Own your own originals,” they shouted.

If MOMA had the ultimate courage of its convictions, it might perhaps have moved, like the self-consuming artifacts it has on occasion exhibited, in the direction of fragmenting itself, exploding into the total world out there, from which it had for so many years so carefully been gathering samples to display. The Renaissance masters had their sculptures and murals all over the place, outside and inside public buildings; they went to the people, rather than simply beckoning the people to themselves. The Whitney, while planning to double its size, in the manner of other expansionist museums, has also been opening branches in Manhattan and the suburbs. Like the logic of minimalist art, of Mies van der Rohe, one of MOMA’s patron saints, who introduced into our consciousness the bromide that less could be more, MOMA might have moved toward a purposeful shrinking, dispersing small versions of itself into the community. Instead it has become, like the city which is its shell, densely imploded, difficult to cope with, impossible to ignore.


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