The letterhead of Columbia University, where I taught for four decades, reads in full “Columbia University in the City of New York,” not because there is much likelihood that anyone will wonder which Columbia University the letter comes from but because its location is part of its identity. I have always felt the same thing should be true of the Museum of Modern Art and the City of New York, since they together embody the spirit of modernity. “The Modern,” as those of my generation referred to the museum, exemplified modernity through the late Art Deco style of the original 1939 Goodwin and Stone building. As a piece of architecture, it mirrored those parts of the collection that were moderne in the strictest aesthetic sense: as heady, clear and swanky as a gin martini. Its emblematic work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, with its jazzy art nègre figures–like African fetishes in the salon of a Parisian couturier–had found the museum and the metropolis to which it really belonged. Nothing like this could be said for the 1984 reconstruction by Cesar Pelli, which was modern not in terms of style but only in being of its moment, and which expressed MoMA’s uncertainty about its artistic direction. It was, moreover, a defensive piece of architecture, which closed itself off from the city, drawing walls around its collection, as if to preserve Modernism’s embattled purity. Only its bookstore windows opened onto the city. When Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik installed their vilified exhibition “High & Low” in 1990, it was barely noticed that they had uncovered one of the windows that had been walled up, enabling passers-by to see the art that Claes Oldenberg had shown in the display window of his “Store” on East 2nd Street in 1962. Those inside the exhibit could see the street life of the city–taxis, trucks, dog-walkers, people pushing strollers–and for a brief moment the barrier between the art and the city all but vanished.
What immediately strikes a visitor to the 2004 museum, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi to coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of MoMA, is the way in which the museum is now literally open to the city. The lobby is, in a qualified sense, a pedestrian passage, which one can freely enter and exit; and the upper galleries allow views of New York to enter through generously proportioned windows, as well as the glass-curtain wall facing east. It is as if New York were, as the engine of modernity, acknowledged as an integral part of what the museum exists to show. But one is made conscious of art even if one merely traverses the lobby from one cross street to the other. Upon entering the walkway from 54th Street, one sees Barnett Newman’s great sculpture Broken Obelisk, designed as a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr., standing on the second floor of the immense atrium and rising to a skylight four floors up. Ordinarily, one encounters this deeply moving work standing on the same level. Seen from below, the inverted shaft of the obelisk seems to descend to earth like a stalactite–or to point downward like a stylized index finger–rather than rising upward from the point on which it is balanced. The shaft thus acquires an astounding weightlessness, as if it were floating in air.
The people standing around Broken Obelisk are dwarfed both by it and by the engulfing space. The disproportion between the sculpture and the human throng reminded me of a device employed by Piranesi in his engravings of ancient Rome. Seeking to bestow the ruins with even more grandeur than they possessed, he reduced the scale of the human figures that stood about them. This is the effect of seeing Broken Obelisk together with its viewers. And yet, paradoxically, one does not feel diminished but rather exalted by the space when one ascends into the atrium and becomes a part of it. When Jean-Paul Sartre visited New York City in the mid-1940s, he was overwhelmed by the feeling of great space, which reminded him of the American West. Taniguchi has somehow brought that spatial feeling into the museum, as part of the project of integrating the building with the city.
Thanks to its location in Taniguchi’s design, Newman’s sculpture stands poised to become one of MoMA’s emblematic works–a bit ironic in view of his well-known put-down of sculpture as something you bump into when backing up to get a better look at a painting. Another emblematic sculpture is Rodin’s looming figure of Balzac, familiar to most of those who have seen it as an outdoor sculpture, either in the Sculpture Garden of MoMA or in the center of Boulevard Raspail, just before it intersects Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris. Balzac has been brought indoors, where it faces the entryway to the collections, with its back to the Sculpture Garden, seen through the glass wall behind it. One of The Nation‘s critics, Elizabeth Robin Pennell, reviewed this work for the magazine in 1898, when it was, as she archly put it, “a standing joke in Paris.” Today we are blind to Modernism’s scandalousness, and I admire Pennell for not writing it off, though she was uncertain how it could be considered a finished work. A talisman of Modernism’s struggle for acceptance, Balzac is just the right work to mark the beginning of one’s visit. Aesthetically, the burnished bronze looks radiant in the natural light of day and luminous at night. Posted at the base of the grand staircase to the collection whose spirit it encapsulates, Balzac is to the new MoMA what the Nike of Samothrace is to the Louvre: a symbol of the triumphant history the museum itself enshrines.