Recent visits to MOMA and the MET over a relative short period of time makes me rethink museums as spaces with characteristics that cater to the objects they contain. Both architectural and exhibition spaces have different values in classical and modern museums. Here’s my adventure stories.
This is a gloomy grey Friday afternoon that I’m off work. Clean, crisp, white walls stand on 53rd Street. If one weather pattern has to be assigned to modernism, it should be this – looming unpredictable future just like the economy, precise and ambiguous meanings, objects that speak for themselves. MOMA is cool – in the sense of the materials being used: steel, huge glass panels, orthodox constructivisim. A few corners of the exhibitions simply extend as balconies that look over the streetscape outside – the busy, quiet, slender, mixed, hippy mid-town. Another long balcony against a blank wall look into the outdoor sculptural garden. The garden in the winter is a bleek, austere place that you can step back and enjoy. The level of indoor-outdoor communication is quite noticeable, if not significant, and this goes along with the overall atmosphere.
Early afternoon MOMA is still quite museum-typical, considering adult admission is $25 now. Although instantly there’s something eye-catching. It is the viewers. A lot of them are very self-conscious fashion dressers. A lot of French. A lot of art-student-looking ones. A lot of young energy bouncing around. Girls constantly pose and take their own portrait photographs with art works using IPhone, and I won’t be surprised if they immediatly upload them to Facebook. Museum art works have become a way to express the viewers’ lives, to give new meanings, albeit they might not quite understand what those are.
Architecture is a statement here. The vertical stairs core is off to one side in a long, slender strip of space that is painted white of course. In fact the entire museum is white. It seems like modernism should not have anything other than black and white and in-between to spoil it; sometimes not even in-between. It is Adolf Loos-y. The off-center vertical core makes it possible to visit any gallery you want without having to meander through a million others. The experience is quick, efficient, and user-friendly.
However, modernism in fine art is entirely different from modernism in architecture. Fine art is ambiguous, inviting, multi-layered; architecture is straight, black and white, laser-pointed. It is the ambiguity that makes modern art so close to us, and it is again the ambiguity that makes the classical critique world on fire. Modern art works echo with viewers by employing and defining everyday objects, materials, and even artistic approaches. Marcel Duchamp invented the vocabulary of “readymades” and shook the art world. Thus we as viewers are tricked into believing that modern art is something among us, something that intertwines with our real lives, while most of the time the art works strive to detach from reality at best and purposefully search for otherworldliness within the confines of this world.
A documentary on Renaissance art that I watched a while ago calls Renaissance the “modern” art of that time. Reversely, modernism is the renaissance of art in recent decades. Classical art has interpretations that fall into several pre-established categories – religious, mythology, historical scenes representations, etc. If you know annunciation, crucifixion, resurrection, you essentially can read a large sect of the classical paintings. By reading I mean understand the theme of the art work and why certain objects and figures are included and composed in the ways they are. These form a set of rules that speak for themselves. Brush is a tool to visualize the existing. We know it’s a Raphael because of its brush strokes, the composition, and the bright radiant perfect figures. Not because it’s Madonna, Jesus and John. In other words, meanings are universal and expected.
Things started to shatter from the turn of the century. Objects being depicted are still obvious, but broke from traditions entirely. They could simply be some hay piles, a group of prostitutes, some dancing girls. Meanings are solid, yet unclear. Why them? People wondered. To rethink our lives and rediscover this world. Until Kandinsky – who some deem the first modernism artist. Meanings are lost. Representation becomes the theme. Personal signatures are stronger and stronger, shouting out. This is not only about brush strokes any more, but about what lie beneath the brush strokes. Art has become an internal announcement of the artist, rather than external depiction. It is from this point that ambiguity took hold. No one really understands your work until you explain it. Unlike classical fine art works, meanings are now left to the viewer and the critique. The public loves it, because it engages us intellectually. We also hate some of it, because they frustrate us as we can read nothing from the art works despite their curatorial explanations. And the critiques don’t buy them either. After all, now that this is personal, no standards can be applied any more. New interpretations have been assigned to previously mundane themes, some not assigned by artist but left to us. Therefore modernism is like an open-ended story that viewers can be a part of. And this poses thrilling examples for young emerging artists. But it is also this open-endedness that makes modernism so dangerous. You could fall at any moment, when the art world is no longer satisfied with the meanings you assign to objects. Modernism is a coaster ride, for both artists and viewers.
[Part 2 on the MET to be expected – on a sunny bright day.]