MoMa is Dead, Long Live the New MoMA

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Christmas time in Manhattan turned out to be everything I hoped for, minus the snow. Fifth Avenue was so jammed with eager shoppers it all looked like one huge party. But I came to New York for shopping of a different kind. I wanted to see the brand new glamorous quarters of the Museum of Modern Art built, or rather, rebuilt, by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. He preserved and even restored most of the Museum's original facades on 53rd Street while doing away with Cesar Pelli's addition, which was only 20 years old.

Now visitors can enter not only through the familiar glass doors on 53rd, but also through a new entrance on 54th Street. As a result, the new gigantic lobby is a whole city block long, so some people use it as a shortcut in navigating through the city traffic. With a spacious gift shop, a large caf- and a high-end restaurant that will remain open until late, MoMA has created a smart street level space for the public to enjoy.

There are only a few artworks in this lobby, among them large paintings by Kelly, Lichtenstein and one gorgeous mural-sized canvas by Mir-. But their presence is not enough to conceal the primarily utilitarian purpose of the lobby, which is to efficiently handle large crowds of visitors. And large crowds they were: a half-hour wait to buy tickets, an equally long line to the checkroom. It was friendly pandemonium both days I was there.

The first thing that strikes you upon climbing one flight of stairs is an enormous atrium with a ceiling that soars almost a hundred feet high. In the center there is a colossal sculpture by Barnett Newman, and sparsely spread on the walls are a few large paintings by Jasper Johns, de Kooning, Monet and a few others. Even with a many people around, this ceremonial space felt surprisingly bare. I was told that the most important purpose for the atrium is to accommodate large fundraising and corporate after-hours events. I feel that the spectacular "Water Lilies" by Claude Monet, one of MOMA's beloved treasures, deserves better than being diminished to the role of a diamond brooch dressing up the bosom of an elegant hostess.

As one might expect, the most crowded with tourists were the spacious, well-proportioned galleries on the fifth floor, where the whole history of Modern Art is gloriously laid out. It starts with Cezanne and Van Gogh, then marches on with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, and the list goes on and on. As we all know, the collection is incomparable. And in the new building, which almost doubles the exhibition space, there are more artworks on display than ever before.

However, I think it will take time for the curators to find the best possible way to present MoMA's collections. The galleries themselves look much better than before, and navigating through the museum is much easier, but I ultimately care most whether great works of art look their absolute best. The combination of snow-white walls and too-strong light made me squint. Some of the masterpieces looked as if they were shivering in the exceedingly cool and tasteful, some might say corporate, atmosphere of the new museum. Even the prostitutes of Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" seemed a touch less sure of themselves.

One floor below, the presentation of post-World War II Contemporary Art is much more successful. The large bold paintings and sculptures look as if they own the space. The biggest surprise - one more floor down - is the way the curators decided to show the large collection of small drawings in a series of intimately scaled galleries with the walls painted light gray and the drawings hanging in a playful irregular pattern. If only the rest of the collections were presented with the same spirit of playfulness. But nevertheless, long live the new MoMA!
Holiday Gift Ideas:
Edward Goldman offers the following books as excellent holiday gifts. You can purchase them online by clicking on the links above; at Hennessey + Ingalls and Bergamot Books at 2525 Michigan Avenue in Santa Monica (310-453-5768), which are two favorites of Edward's; or at these Southland bookstores that honor KCRW's Fringe Benefits cards: