Experiencing Museums as They Ought to Be: Gloriously Empty
The next morning, Vincent van Gogh and I were chatting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I asked him about the straw hat and blue tie he was wearing: did he want an urban bohemian look or was it just about dismounting as an outsider? We had an open exchange about his mental state. He looked a little coiled – I’d heard rumors of strange behavior – but his eyes seemed bright and undisturbed. Of course, we mainly dealt with his art. Where did his work fit into the modern painting of his time? Was there a next step towards abstraction in mind?
I admit it was a long time ago that I tried to tie this deeply to van Gogh’s 1887 “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat”, one of the treasures of the Met. For years it made the crowd of admirers every time I went He – him – paid my respects, impossible to get close enough long enough to gain any real understanding. In the past few months the world’s most famous museums have given their art a new opportunity to speak to us as the Covid restrictions severely limited the number of visitors.
This is the moment to revisit the holdings of our major art museums: even as their temporary exhibitions fill up, it will be a while before the masses get to their permanent collections. As museums everywhere ponder their future after Covid, their Covid-plagued present takes us back to a glorious, more art-friendly past.
On my very first visit to New York’s major museums nearly four decades ago, you could see almost any work without much distraction or obstruction. My parents, the die-hard modernists, raised their children through abstraction alone, so I needed the calm I needed to deal with images of people like van Gogh’s self-portrait or the famous Rembrandts in the background Halle, could even be considered art.
My teenage self didn’t stick to the Met. I remember being amazed by the landmarks of modernism in the Museum of Modern Art: Picasso’s shocking “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, Matisse’s magical “piano lesson”, Pollock’s hectic “Eins: Number 31 “. When I visited her again on a Thursday afternoon in an almost empty museum, I had the feeling that I had hardly been separated. While on many visits over the past decade I felt like I was hanging out with high school friends who had become so famous that they could hardly be reached through their entourage.
The other afternoon at MoMA it felt almost bizarre to stand in front of the “Demoiselles” for as long as I wanted without worrying about blocking everyone behind me. (There weren’t any.) I had to do that kind of long, thoughtful look that it takes to really bring a painting to life – to go beyond the prejudices and clichés we all come up with, and actually look fresh consider what the picture might be about. “From 1907, who was credited with pushing Picasso to his Cubist revolution, I have had the leisure to wonder why at the last minute he made some women’s faces look like African masks. This move gives us that.” a lot of trouble today as we grapple with the west’s brutal history of colonialism and racism – and as I realized the other afternoon, Picasso didn’t have to go there. The painting would have looked good without these Africanisms, Cubism could have happened without them.
Even on this Thursday, under ideal, uncrowded conditions, it was not easy for me to clear my head to take in the “Demoiselles”. So imagine all the young people who came to MoMA for the first time in the midst of a crowd in front of Covid. What chance did they have of thinking of anything when they leaned into the presence of this supposed “great art”.
For some time now I’ve been speaking of art objects as “machines to think”: our job as viewers is to turn them on, and that’s almost impossible if you just look through the gaps in a crowd.
All of this is doubly important in work that is so new to you that you can’t even fall back on clichés. That was my situation one morning when I first visited the great old Frick collection in its new dig in the modernist Breuer building on Madison Avenue. (The old masters of Frick will live there for a few years as the collection’s Beaux Arts mansion is being renovated.)
Like the Met and MoMA, the Frick has become a victim of its own success over the past few decades. When tourism to New York exploded, old Frick’s living quarters seemed almost always at full capacity, making it almost impossible to start a new conversation with his glorious Vermeers and Titians. The crowd might even make it difficult to notice the less famous works hidden in distant corners that you passed by. As almost every critic has said, Breuer gave Frick’s masterpieces new space to breathe; The “smaller” objects now have the opportunity to attract your attention.
Due to Covid restrictions, I was almost alone when I came across Renaissance bronzes that I had barely known in their old homeland. A small bronze of Hercules, known by the sculptor Antico, was all shiny surfaces; The hair was a delicious pile of gilded curls. A nearby bronze by Giovanfrancesco Rustici on the same subject had a rough surface that appeared almost corroded. As I looked and thought, an explanation occurred to me: Both were trying to conjure up images of bronzes from their artistic ancestors in ancient Greece and Rome. Antico imagined how wonderful these bronzes must have looked when new; Rustici made his new works look like they had been buried for 1,500 years.
I am not going to say that I am grateful to Covid for anything; A few wondrous hours of art cannot make up for what we have endured. But when I think of everything we’ve learned from our exams – how to wash our hands; How to value absent family members – I wonder if our most popular museums will take their own Covid lessons to heart.
Will they try to return to the 2019 attendance and ticket receipts, or will they think back in time to the close encounters people once had in peace with art? If going back to this state means we visitors have to reserve a limited supply of timed tickets, as we do under Covid – if that means museums have to rethink or reverse decades of growth in buildings, budgets and programs – the works of art will thank you myself for that. They got tired of socializing all the time; You longed for an intensive one-on-one interview.