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The Museum of Modern Art Reopens in New York

Lobby extends through the block and also opens onto garden and has view of second-floor atrium

Museum now has lobby that extends through the block from 53rd to 54th Street and that opens onto the west end of its famous garden. Bruce Newman's "Broken Obelisk" dominates second-floor atrium that is visible from the north end of the ground-floor lobby. This view shows lobby looking to 53rd Street entrance, lower right, the garden, left, and atrium, upper right

By Carter B. Horsley

The reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City November 20, 2004, after the completion of a major expansion designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, is a welcome sign that all is not chaos in the aesthetic firmament.

Revisiting the museum's famous treasures such as "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by Picasso, or "Starry Night" by Vincent van Gogh, or "The Dancers" by Henri Matisse, is not only a distinct pleasure but also a sober reminder that some art is greater than other art.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is not only about great paintings, but also great sculpture, great photography, great design objects, great movies, and great architecture. Its own architecture may not always have been great, but its commitment to studying and reflecting upon "modern architecture" has always been important and influential.

Given its formidable reputation as an arbiter of taste, one would thought that its choice of Taniguchi was extremely conservative when he was selected over five other finalists in 1997, most of whom were much better known by the public. (See The City Review article.) Taniguchi has designed eight other museums and one of the new shows at the museum is about them and their elegant but restrained architecture.

It was fairly clear from the models and renderings of his winning design that the "new" MoMA would be clean-cut, straight-forward and not terribly exciting, especially given the extremely fertile architectural field that has blossomed internationally in the last few years.

The verdict, however, is not so gloomy. Taniguchi's main achievements, and they are not insubstantial, is to tie a new "block-through" lobby both to the museum's famous garden and to a new multi-story atrium on the second floor, and to frame the east and west ends of the garden with very impressive indented porticos with large glass walls.

As a result, the garden is significantly enhanced by the new "framing." More importantly, however, the west end of the garden now becomes a very grand interior space off the lobby with a multi-story glass wall opening onto it. Though much smaller, it is about as dramatic and impressive as the great WinterGarden at the World Financial Center at Battery Park City, and the view from the top of the stairs at the east end of the huge concourse at Grand Central Terminal.

View of garden from its west end Cityscape view from garden

View of garden from its west end looking toward Fifth Avenue, left, and view of cityscape from western end of the garden, right

Since its creation by Philip Johnson in 1960, the garden has always been most New Yorker's favorite midtown oasis, beloved for its small bridges over reflecting pools set amid clusters of white-barked trees, wire-frame black metal chairs and world-famous sculptures. To some New Yorkers the garden is perhaps the museum's greatest treasure.

Views to the east in garden

The garden also provided nice vistas of the Art-Deco-style Rockefeller Apartment enclave with its curved windows directly across 54th Street, the Italian-Renaissance-palazzo-style grandiosity of the University Club at Fifth Avenue and 54th Street, the Gothic spires of St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue at 53nd Street, Philip Johnson's amusing Post-Modern top to the former A. T. & T. Building at Madison Avenue and 56th Street, and his superb Post-Modern treatement of the fine Takashimaya Building on Fifth Avenue between 54th and 55th Street, Der Scutt's bronze-glass corners at Trump Tower and Warren & Wetmore's curved corner and lantern-bedecked elegant office building on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue at 54th Street. A quite spectacular pot-pouri of architecture for anyone to savor, and arguably the museum's architecture department's most spectacular "exhibit"!

Views in garden looking west showing that the base of the Cesar Pelli-designed Museum Tower condominium apartment building is now more exposed

The new garden's south façade has been dramatically changed. The great black-metal and dark-glass façade of Philip Johnson's 1964 addition has been reclad with light-colored glass. Fortunately, the Johnson façade on 53rd Street has been preserved, but it is a shame that it was replaced on the garden side. Furthermore, the new light-colored glass façade has now replaced Cesar Pelli's stepped clear-glass façade that housed his escalator banks and covered up the base of his condominium apartment tower. The stepped clear-glass façade was a sedate, mini-version of the great escalator tubes at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and Taniguchi's "fritted" glass facades here are demure and not very exciting.

North Walls of east and west porticoes of the garden wings have openings

Strangely, the garden's north façade, which used to be a solid gray-brick wall, has been replaced with a not very handsome white wall that seems quite out-of-place with the garden's more textural materials such as the travertine marble flooring and bridges. Taniguchi has also employed a lot of light-green-tinted slate flooring inside the renovated structures especially near the garden and one might have preferred a darker gray or black slate.

The architectural commission posed a dilemma for the museum. Should it be assertive or recessive? The "cool" notion of letting the art "speak for itself" and not permit architectural distractions clearly held sway in the new designs, most likely an over-reaction to the very dramatic success of Frank Gehry's shiny and twisting design for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, that radicalized architecture at the end of the last millennium.

There is rarely one right solution to any architectural problem. Certainly, this commission was extremely important and prestigious. One could argue that the museum's original 53rd Street façade was a fine expression by Edward Durell Stone and Philip Goodwin of Bauhaus design and that Philip Johnson's black-metal addition of 1964 was a stunning and very elegant example of Modernism. Cesar Pelli's expansion in the 1980's promised more than it delivered. Original announcements of his design for the condominium tower section of that project heralded its intended use of 14 different colored glasses, but the final result is very muted, albeit neat. Pelli's expansion added space, but unfortunately too much of it had low ceilings and too much Danish-Modern blond flooring (which is alright, but a bit dated).

"Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" by Picasso

Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" at right hangs in gallery with other Picassos

Taniguchi's new spaces offer high ceilings and bigger rooms by and large, but in the process some of the coziness of the old museum has been lost. Picasso's famous "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon," for example, used to be confronted by itself in a relatively small room where it was overpowering and intense. Now it is one of several paintings on the wall in a very large room filled with other works by Picasso and it seems to lose some of its "authority."

"Dance" by Matisse

"Dance" by Henri Matisse is in stairwell

Similarly, Matisse's great "Dance" used to grace a large wall near the museum's entrance but is now relegated to a stairwell on an upper floor. It needed the larger space to stir the spirit and now is hemmed in somewhat.

"F-111" by Rosenquist

Ronald Lauder, chairman of MoMA's board of trustees, talking to the press November 15, 2004 in front of James Rosenquist's huge "F-111" painting

Part of the rationale for the expansion is that the museum needed larger facilities to showcase some of its contemporary art such as James Rosenquist's gigantic "F-111" painting, which provided the backdrop for the museum's extremely crowded/well-attended press preview November 15, 2004 on the sixth floor.

"Sculpture for a Large Wall" by Ellsworth Kelly

Aptly titled "Sculpture for a Large Wall," by Ellsworth Kelly was created in 1957

Another major gigantic work that can now be accommodated on the same floor in another skylit gallery is the much handsomer, multi-colored screen, aptly titled "Sculpture for a Large Wall," a 1957 work by Ellsworth Kelly.

View of atrium from top Staircases have windows overlooking atrium

Second-floor atrium is 110-feet high and is anchored by Barnet Newman's "Broken Obelisk"

The most prominent work of art in the new installation is Barnet Newman's "Broken Obelisk," which occupies the center of the second-floor atrium. The Nauman work is impressive, although some observers might question that it deserves such prominence apart from the fact of its size.

View of Newman's "Broken Obelisk" and Monet's "Water Lilies" Atrium is several stories tall

Newman's "Broken Obelisk" in atrium flanked by large "Water Lilies" by Monet

A strong and handsome work, it is quite dramatic and effective for the space, but it presents quite a strange contrast for the museum's large, 42-foot-long, three-panel "Waterlilies" by Claude Monet that flanks it alongside one large wall. Surprisingly, most of the large wall space in the atrium is left empty. Some observers might think that the Monet is a bit overpowered in this space and that it is not as impressive as it had been when it was formerly hung in a smaller gallery.

By and large, the new gallery spaces are larger than the old ones and they also tend to have more than one entrance, which permits viewers to glimpse some works in adjacent galleries as well as to not be forced to follow a specific route. This "opening" of the galleries is often quite effective, but it also creates some confusion in overall navigation. On the first two visits, this observer quite often got "lost."

The expanded museum offers about 50 percent more exhibition space, but surprisingly one does not feel that there is substantially more paintings on view than before, perhaps because of the significant expansion of the Drawings, Design and Architecture galleries.

Brancusi gets his own platform in gallery

The new enclave has received wide, but tempered praise.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal December 8, 2004, critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that it is "a suavely sophisticated, exquisitely executed, elegantly understated building that doubles the museum's size," adding that "Mr. Taniguchi's style - where less is so much more than trendy minimalism, with every carefully reasoned detailed honed as close to perfection as possible - is the right architecture for the Modern....The design is driven by the rationality of its plan and its response to its surroundings, essential factors that have taken a back seat to today's obsession with drop-dead forms. It makes sense of the museum's ad hoc development by unifying old and new elements into a harmonious, smoothly functioning whole. The reconfigured complex enjoys an uncompromisingly contemporary vocabulary, a lesson to those who confuse nostalgia with compatibility. This is genuine contextualism."

Recently acquired masterpiece, "Opus 217, Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Tints, Portrait of M. Félix Fénélon," by Paul Signac, oil on canvas, 29 by 36 1/2 inches 1890, MOMA, fractional gift of Mr .and Mrs. David Rockefeller

She did, however, note that in the atrium "paintings are flattened to postage stamps or posters, barely relevant to the passing activity." Furthermore, she observed that "circulation displaces contemplation" and that "With openings cut in three walls out of four in almost every room for a relentlessly revolving path, Rothkos and Matisses are cornered beside doorways: there is always something else insistently entering your peripheral vision."

Works by Still, Rothko, Kline and Matisse

Works by Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline in one gallery with view of Matisse in another gallery, center

In the November 15, 2004 issue of The New Yorker magazine, critic Paul Goldberger wrote that "The choice of Taniguchi wasn't so much a failure of nerve as a moment of institutional self-knowledge," adding that "The Modern has supported, collected and celebrated architectural design more than any other museum in America, but it has never allowed its identity to be defined by any architecture of its own."

Some Cézannes

Cézanne is well represented

In a longer article in the same issue of The New Yorker John Updike wrote that on a tour a few days before the official opening the museum was "immaculate, rectilinear, capacious, and chaste," adding that "nothing in the new building is obstrusive, nothing is cheap. It feels breathless with unspared expense. It has the enchantment of a bank after house, of a honeycomb emptied of honey and flooded with a soft glow."

"Designed by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi with Kohn Pedersen Fox," wrote Nicolai Ouroussoff, the new architecture critic of The New York Times in its November 15, 2004 edition, "the expanded museum is a serene composition that weaves art, architecture and the city into a transcendent aesthetic experience." "...the building's clean lines and delicately floating planes are shaped by the assumption that Modernity remains our central cultural experience," he continued, adding that the museum "is one of the most exquisite works of architecture to rise in this city in at least a generation."

Contemporary art gallery

Ceilings in Contemporary Art Galleries are quite high. A major work by Gordon Matta-Clark in on the left and a large Cy Twombly painting is on the right.

Robert Campbell, the architecture critic of The Boston Globe, was not so gushingly ecstatic: "The a letdown. It isn't bad, its just uninteresting....Here are the same-old white walls and ceiling track lights, and then more white walls and more ceiling track lights. You feel like a lab rat in a snow maze....The hope is that the atrium will keep you oriented, because you'll always know where you are in relation to it. It doesn't work. I guarantee that every visitor will wander lost at one point or another....My final problem with the MoMA is the exterior....The 53d Street frontage is unmemorable but pleasant, thanks largely to the fact that it includes the restored facade of the 1939-era MoMA, by Philip Goodwin and Edward Durrell Stone. The older facade provides variety and a sense of time. The 54th Street frontage, on the other hand, is hideous. MoMA now occupies most of a city block, and this frontage is one huge blank wall....Nothing a about it responds to the fact that's it on a lively midtown Manhattan street. It's deader than the back of a big-box retailer in Omaha."

Several Matisses

Visitors mull Matisses

Visitors will find the museum's most famous paintings from the1880s through the 1930's on the fifth floor and its Post-World War II paintings on the fourth floor. The third floor contains the architecture, design and photography galleries and Contemporary works are on the second floor.

Helicopter is one of most popular objects in design collection   View of helicopter from lobby

Museum's Bell-47D1 helicopter hovers near west garden facade

The star of the museum's design collection is probably its green Bell-47D1 helicopter, which is now displayed above the grand staircase from the first to the second floor in the lobby facing the garden.

Glenn Lowry, museum's director

Glenn Lowry, museum's director, speaking at the press preview

Ronald Lauder, Jerry Speyer, Yoshio Taniguchi and Robert Menschel

Roland Lauder, chairman of the board of trustees, Jerry Speyer, trustee, architect Yoshio Taniguchi, and Robert Menschel, trustee, all who spoke at the press preview of the museum's reopening

Plan of museum as seen from 54th Street
Plan of museum as seen from 54th Street, drawing by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates

Toddler ignores garden vistas

South wall of garden has several floors that directly overlook it. Here, toddler on the second floor near entrance to one of the museum's new cafés, ignores the garden

The renovation of the museum, which also includes a 13-story structure for offices on the northwest corner of the side and a low-rise educational building on the northeast corner, cost about $425 million and is part of a $848 million capital campaign of which about $700 million has already been raised, about $500 million just from the museum's board of trustees.

To help offset such costs, the museum has raised its admission fee to $12 for students, $16 for seniors and $20 for the general public, the highest of any museum in the city, if not the country. Many visitors may quickly realize that an individual membership of $75 a year may be a bargain. Target is sponsoring free admission for the public from 4 to 8 PM every Friday for four years.

Like many Italian villas that are relatively unimposing on the outside but have very lavish interiors, the "new" MoMA is architecturally bland on the outside but full of treasures on the inside. While the emphasis is properly on the art, Taniguchi has created an impressive interior centered around the through-block lobby that is open to the second-floor atrium and the multi-story glass portico at the west end of the garden that faces a similar handsome portico at the east end. The large galleries on the second and sixth floors can accommodate works of art that could not be shown before because of their size. The new cafés offer visitors a variety of fare and prices.

See The City Review article on the first show that was called "Modernstarts: People Places Things"

See The City Review article on "Making Choices," the second part of this three-part exhibition

See The City Review article on "Open Ends," the third part of this three-part exhibition

See The City Review article on MOMA's planned expansion


Before it closed for its expansion, the Museum of Modern Art staged three major exhibitions starting in 1999 that highlighted major works from its collections thematically.


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