Tuesday, August 3, 2010

MOMA, how you've missed me

Some years ago, the Museum of Modern Art reopened after expanding and remodeling, and raised the entrance fee to $20. I was so pissed off I can't tell you--well, I can tell you, I was so pissed off that I actually wrote them a letter about how disgusting it was of this Rockefeller entity to close off access to its unparalleled collection to the working class of New York City. And vowed to never go again.

Flash forward to summer vacation 2010. One of the artsy happenings I wanted to check out during my time off was P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, which is here in Queens, not too terribly far from my house, and where I hadn't been in several years. When I got online to check its hours, etc., I found that admission costs $10, but is free if you've visited MOMA within the last month. Hmm, I says to myself, this means I could go to MOMA and P.S. 1 both for the price of a MOMA admission. Two for one, or half-price entry to MOMA. OK, this was something I could get behind. Vows be damned, on one of the hottest days in July I headed to MOMA for the first time in years and spent a cool afternoon reacquainting myself with its treasures; a few days later, I made it to the Greater New York show at P.S. 1. to get a look at what the art world powers that be consider the current cutting edge.

I confess not only that I went to MOMA, but that I loved it. I'd forgotten or suppressed the memory of what wonders it holds. Here are a few shots I took.

First, as soon as I stepped off the escalator onto one of the main painting and sculpture floors, I was greeted by this painting by Alice Neel, "Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews."
I was so happy and excited to see it, given that last year I'd screwed up and managed to miss a major Neel exhibition that passed through New York.

These two pictures by artists who were contemporaries and friends were very close to each other, which afforded what seemed to me an interesting contrast in their attitudes toward women. Does it matter that one was a woman represented here by a rubicund goddess painting and one a man whose painting fairly thrums with misogyny? Uh, yeah, think so. First: "Gaea" by Lee Krasner. Then: "Woman, 1" by Willem de Kooning.
Ah, but now comes an explicitly political piece that I found quite moving. Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 54."
The moment that it really hit home that I'd missed MOMA, that its having banished me and everyone else who can't afford the $20 admission fee not only angered me politically but hurt, was when I found myself in front of Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night."
Much as I hate to align myself with any opinion of the arts establishment, this is one knock-your-socks-off work of art. This photo doesn't come close to conveying the power, the bold crazy vibrant energy with which it reaches out and grabs you. I stood in front of it for an embarrassingly long time, I think. Couldn't tear myself away. For this alone, the chance to experience again this work of manic genius, let it wash over me, shake me up, I'm so glad I made it back to MOMA.

For many other reasons, too. In truth, I've always been in thrall to the period of the great explosion of modernism to which MOMA is devoted, so it was with great joy that I strolled among and reacquainted myself with the art of the pointillists, impressionists, Fauvists, walked among the cubists, dadaists, surrealists. There are tons of Picassos, and though I'm not a huge Picasso fan his work remains of interest. Especially "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," after my late-arrived-at realization last year that his work and that of many of his contemporaries arose from colonialism's larceny of the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific. As I walked on, I also enjoyed seeing some of Jackson Pollock's massive drip paintings and many works of the abstract expressionists, although I find them much less compelling than much of their predecessors' work, which seems to me to be filled with a rebellious spirit, even in some cases an explicitly politically informed one, that is missing from a lot of the efforts of those 50s folks.

I assume it's a given, but I don't want it to go without saying: MOMA's collection, like the Met's and those of most other major NYC museums, is extremely culturally biased. This is in fact a museum of art by white men to the near exclusion of everyone else--that is, of most of the world! The Neel and the Krasner are two of the very few works by women, and the paintings I'm going to close by mentioning below are some of the very few by anyone other than a white European or North American. So, as, sadly, is pretty much always the case, it's impossible to walk through the galleries and simply enjoy, because the eurocentrism, the sexism, the stench of cultural elitism--the rot, that is, of capitalist-imperialist culture--is a taint over the whole enterprise.

Let's end our visit, then, with some cleansing breaths. First, three paintings by the three giants of the Mexican revolutionary muralist movement.

"Zapatistas" by Jose Clemente Orozco.
Next, a closeup of a section of "Zapata" by Diego Rivera.
And last, a closeup of a section of "Collective Suicide" by David Alfaro Siqueiros.The painting's subject is the invasion of Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores and the response of vast numbers of indigenous Chichimec people: leaping from cliffs rather than be subjected to colonization.
Finally, placed in a sort of anteroom between two large galleries, guaranteed to be ignored by most people, which is exactly what I saw happening, is an extraordinary series of paintings by the African American artist Jacob Lawrence. "The Migration Series," created in 1940-1941, depicts the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the industrial North during the period between the two world wars. The entire series comprises 60 paintings, of which 30 are on display at MOMA. They are stunning. They show the South, the poverty, the lynchings, but also the rich family and community life; they show household and community and church meetings where the decision to leave is hashed out; and, as exemplified by the painting below, they show the journey itself.