Wednesday, December 01, 2004

The Museum of Modern Art in Bits and Bites 

I walked over to the MoMA during my lunch break this afternoon. Because it’s only a few blocks away from the Manhattan Transfer midtown offices and has three different restaurants, I’ve signed up for a membership with hopes to eat lunch and take in some art at least once a week. Membership eliminates the need to stand on the tickets line or pay the twenty-dollar fee with each visit, which makes the MoMA much more inviting.

It was my second to the newly re-opened space. The first was during one of the many opening parties. I ran into Felix Salmon that night and he walked our small party around the second floor of the museum, making what sounded to my untutored ear very informed comments about the art. I was overserved scotch that night, however, so I cannot recall much of what we saw or what Felix told us.

I didn’t really have a plan for this visit. Or rather my plan was just to go and see what happens. I ate lunch in the Barr Room, sitting at long marble bar. The food is served in very small, tapas style portions at not so small prices. Since I think the typical New York lunch involves too much food, even from my local salad place, the portions were a relief. More importantly, they serve wine by the half glass, which is ideal if you are pressed for time and need to show up at a client meeting with your wits about you. (I know, I know: what happened to the three pinot grigio lunches? There’s a time and place for everything, even sobriety; sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to turn your blood into wine too early in the day.)

After lunch I went up to the fifth floor gallery labeled Painting and Sculpture I, which holds the earliest works in the MoMA’s collection. Immediately to your left as you enter there are three oil on canvas paintings by Cezanne. The first, against the backwall and so behind you as you enter, is “Still Life with Ginger Jar, Sugar Bowl and Oranges”

Actually this picture of the painting makes it look much brighter than it is. The oranges are muted, almost blending with the browns of the background the way they do in his paintings of card players. The table-cloth or rug looks about right in this picture, though. If you’ve seen the “Basket of Apples” in Chicago or “Still Life” in Cambridge, you might have the wrong impression of this painting. It lacks the powerful color those of those paintings. It is a more subdued, stiller still life.

“Chateau Noir”--a painting of an oranged, perhaps stucco Mediterranean house with foliage in the foreground--is more dynamic and surprisingly full. The colors of this landscape are actually very similar to the Still Life, with the blues of the sky replacing the background browns. The painting is off-center—all of the action is on the left--and its deep sky space is a bit unbalancing. The brush-strokes leave thick globs of paint that protrude from the surface, a stark contrast from the smooth texture of the painting that follows, “Pines and Rocks.”

The last Cezanne in this sequence is vertically oriented, the trunks of the pine trees slicing the painting lengthwise. Like “Chateau Noir” greens, blues and browns dominate. There is an effect of movement created by the unsteady edges where the greens of the pines meet the blues of the sky, as if there were wind in the trees. Oddly, I find now that I cannot recall anything at all about the rocks, as if the tall trees and sky had distracted my attention away from the other half of the painting.

After the three Cezannes I decided I had seen enough. And I realized I had formulated a plan for visiting the MoMA in bits. It’s wonderful to know that there’s no need to rush through an exhibit. A few paintings at a time, a tapas-sized portion of art, taken either before or after a few bites to eat, please.