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Saturday, March 23, 2013


Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond, c. 1920, Claude Monet
Few, if any, art lovers would have any problem with the acronym above. Often I find myself writing about ideas, entities, and works of art so familiar to me I fail to elaborate for the benefit of those not so intimately predisposed to all things arty. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMA) is one such entity. It's one of the city's "big three" in my mind, along side the Guggenheim and the Met. There I go again. The "Met" refers to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while the "Guggenheim" is simply the Guggenheim Museum (also primarily modern art) founded by the mining family of Solomon R. Guggenheim. If that name doesn't ring a bell, one look at Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic, tornado-shaped building will. Unfortunately, the MoMA, while architecturally impressive, is not so iconic.
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, 1941,
Robert Brackman
The MoMA is what we might call the "middle child," not so old as the staid Met and not so young as the rambunctious Guggenheim. The museum was born in 1929 in rented quarters at the corner of  Fifth Avenue and 57th Street just nine days after the stock market crashed. MoMA's mother was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, the wife of John D. Jr., who was quite opposed to the museum and, indeed, modern art itself. She enlisted the support of a couple of her rich society friends who, together, came to be known as "the daring ladies." The museum's initial holdings consisted of eight prints and one drawing, though by the end of 1929 they were hosting loaned works by van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Seurat. At the time, the museum was virtually the only such public venue for modern art in the U.S. First housed in six rooms on the twelfth floor of a Manhattan office building, the MoMA was to move to three more locations during the course of the next ten years. Despite the primary founder's last name, her husband's fortune was not part of the deal, though he was to later donate the land for the museum's present site and eventually become a major benefactor.
MoMA and its sculpture garden
The MoMA finally came to rest some four blocks down Fifth Avenue from its birth (Fifth Ave. and 53rd Street). It was housed in Phillip Goodwin's and Edward Stone's appropriately modern International Style landmark. Stretching out before it is the Phillip Johnson designed sculpture garden named for Mrs. Rockefeller by her two sons, Nelson and David. They later became the driving force behind the museum and its aggressive acquisition of works by virtually every big name in the world of modern art. As early as 1935 the museum organized an unprecedented show of sixty-six works by Vincent van Gogh at a time when the artist was anything but a household name. In 1939-40, the museum held a retrospective of Picasso's work which was highly influential in cementing that artist's name into the annuls of art history.
MoMA is the home of van Gogh's The Starry Night.
In 1958, a fire on the second floor, during the installation of air conditioning, destroyed Monet's 18-foot-long Water Lillies (since replaced). Fortunately, a number of other works were saved, including Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, which was on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago at the time. The museum was closed again in 2002 for renovation and redesign (reopened in 2004). Today it holds 150,000 works plus an additional 22,000 films and some four million still photos. The MoMA is where you'd go to see van Gogh's famous The Starry Night (above), Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Dali's The Persistence of Memory, Wyeth's Christina's World, as well as instantly recognizable works by Rousseau, Chagall, Mondrian, Matisse, Warhol, Pollock, Kahlo, and dozens of other modern artists from the past century. Today, the spectacular glass and granite citadel at 11 West 53rd Street is the premier showcase of Modern Art in America.
A sampler of MoMA's vast holdings of Modern Art.

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