“How is this art? Anybody could have done this!” In my first visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), I overheard this in the courtyard as a couple glanced upon Yoko Ono’s White Chess Set (1966). It was not the only time I heard someone ask this question during my visit, and I too occasionally wondered whether I could create something worthy of critical and public observation. Maybe someday!
One of the most engaging aspects of the modernist movement is the assurance that one does not need to be an outstanding painter, sculptor, musician or writer to produce a nuanced work of art, and Yoko Ono’s White Chess Set is an excellent example of this. Consider the way that Ono designed her version of the classic board game: every space on the board and each players’ pieces are silk white. When play begins, it is only a matter of minutes until the opponents cannot determine which pieces are theirs. That leaves the players with two choices. They can mutually forfeit the game, or they can establish new rules in order to extend their interaction with each other. In this way, Yoko Ono challenges us to reimagine a war game that has been played for almost 1800 years in a modern context. She asks us whether we ought to participate in war, if opportunities for cooperation are both available and feasible. I, for one, find this to be absolutely brilliant.
The White Chess Set is only one of the many works of art on display in MoMA that are provocative in all the right ways. The comments I could hear both lauded and chided the current state of artistic expression, most discernibly at Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm (1964). It is an art piece hanging from the ceiling by a steel cord, one that draws your eye as soon as you enter the room. As you walk in, you immediately question why MoMA chose to hang a snow shovel in their exhibit. Because that’s all In Advance of the Broken Arm is: a hanging snow shovel.
This art piece is like Yoko Ono’s White Chess Set in two major respects. For one, you immediately ponder whether these works can even be deemed artistic. But that is the point! How is art defined? Who defines it: the creators, the critics, or the public?
Additionally, both works aren’t aesthetically pleasing. They are rather bland in appearance: the chess set is merely one shade of the same color, and the snow shovel is unremarkable in its design. But by doing this, Ono and Duchamp emphasize that beauty is not the exclusive characteristic of the arts. Art can also evoke the intellect, broadening how we think and what we believe.
You can probably tell how much I enjoy contemporary art. What you may not expect, however, is that I decided to visit MoMA without first researching which works they had on display. I was hoping to be blown away by what I might come across. This visit was an experience I will not soon forget, so let me tell you about it!
My girlfriend, Shannon Kreiner, graduated from the Mount this past spring and moved to Dobbs Ferry, New York. It’s an inviting, bustling little town, much like Emmitsburg in this respect. I came up to visit her as I usually do, and we were itching to explore Manhattan together. Granted, I have been to the city numerous times in my life, and she has visited many of its landmarks in her own time, but we had never done so together.
There is an inexpressible joy in visiting New York City with someone that you love. So she and I boarded a train from the Dobbs Ferry station to Grand Central Station, and began our walk toward the museum.
Along the way we stopped outside the New York Public Library. It is a shame that it was closed, because they have a captivating variety of visual art with a range between the earliest and most recent periods of human history. Imagine the intricacies of art history’s timeline! One that spans the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt and the hanging snow shovel of modern-day New York City. So Shannon and I took a photo together outside the front of the library, and then left for MoMA.
Shannon had been to MoMA once before, and I had no previous experience with the institution. I have walked past it, but never entered it. If you were to search for images of MoMA, the building, you might be surprised by how little it stands out from the rest of the reflective skyscrapers of this great city. This was most likely intentional during MoMA’s architectural renovations in the early 2000s, so the museum could demonstrate the current state of contemporary urban architecture.
Upon entering the museum, I was surprised by the cleanliness of its appearance. I was not sure what I was anticipating, but I certainly was not expecting it to look so, for lack of a better word, corporate. The rope dividers were four-foot thin steel cylinders, interconnected by a long thin black cord that felt like a carbon nanofiber. The walls and the support beams were as white as Ono’s chess set, the floors mostly composed of dark beige wood. The museum spares no expense with the computers at their ticket register either: all Macs, with aluminum bodies to match the steel aesthetic. At first I was weary of this design. With such an eclectic collection of magnificent pieces of intentionally exuberant art, why ought they be housed in a place no more indistinct from the banking buildings less than a mile away?
Yet the longer I stayed in MoMA, the more I grew to love the minimalistic approach it took to its layout. What if it were more ostentatious? I would initially find it riveting that the museum itself was uniquely artistic in its own right. But is a museum meant to be a work of art? Or is it intended to simply showcase the art contained within it, without making a statement of its own? Opinions vary, but my experience at MoMA has convinced me (at least temporarily) that if I visit a museum, I would prefer to focus all of my attention on the artwork adorning its interior.
After a brief stint in line, Shannon and I rounded the corner from the register to the courtyard, where we spent a great deal of time sitting on stone benches discussing the significance of the sculptures we could see. One such bronze cast was Henry Moore’s Family Group (1949). At first glance it appears rather typical, depicting a father, a mother and their child. But the more attention you provide, the more details emerge that make it resonate more deeply.
If you stare at their faces, you notice that the child’s and father’s faces are remarkably similar, subtly implying that the child is a boy. They also share the same expression of vapidity and noninterest. They could not care less that they are posing for a statue of their family. In contrast, the mother’s face is somewhat more tense. It displays serious worry. I asked why, then noticed that she is the one hugging the child, whereas the father is holding him from the bottom, almost as if it is a sort of presentation. Perhaps, then, the mother is more tense because she is burdened with the realization that she must care for her child because her lover will elect to remain uninvolved in his upbringing.
I was not prepared to encounter four specific pieces of art at MoMA. Each one of these works first drew me into the art world, and they are among the most famous images in recent history. Four years ago, I too asked the nearly inevitable “How is this art?” to Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans (1962). I exited one part of the museum only to find an entire exhibition apportioned to the designs of Andy Warhol. I was excited. Too excited for words. I stood outside the exhibition for a good minute, praying that these cans were merely around the corner. I entered the exhibit, and smiled like an infant at the paintings on the walls.
Shannon and I made it to the fourth floor, which was more trafficked than any other part of the museum. We walked into the first exhibit on the floor and she told me to close my eyes. She wanted to make sure they were shut, so she put her hands over them and walked me to a painting on a standalone section of wall in the middle of the room. She moved her hands away, and I opened my eyes. Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh (1889).
This is, perhaps, one of the most personally influential paintings I have seen in my life. As many of you know, Starry Night was produced while Van Gogh was placed in an asylum after he attempted to remove his left ear in 1888. If you’ll remember what I mentioned in my last article (if you happened to read it, that is!), Nazi Germany opened the Degenerate Art Exhibition for all the artwork they disdained, and on one wall they spray-painted “Nature as seen by sick minds.” I find it beautifully ironic, then, that one of the most enrapturing paintings of the last few hundred years was composed by a psychologically ill man within the walls of an asylum.
Two other paintings that were thrilling to see in person on display at MoMA: Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), and Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931). Picasso’s painting is pictured at the top, next to that excited infant smile of mine. I cannot describe the feeling of being less than a foot from some of the most revolutionary works of art in recent history. I still can’t. But I can say that I was nearly overwhelmed, in the greatest possible way, by what I discovered on my visit.
The great joy in visiting an art museum is the way that the artwork moves you emotionally and intellectually. At MoMA, I was challenged in both ways, and could not have been happier.