April 23rd, 2016  |  Published in April 2016

Here and now mercilessly morphs into there and then, but sometimes a news release Now brings up a Then.  The Museum of Modern Art reports a new hanging of some of its permanent collection, bringing to mind a visit I made to New York in late winter, 2005, to see what the Modern was showing in then newly renovated and extended galleries, and also to experience Christo’s fabric “Gates,” installed throughout Central Park. Along with certainly some of the inclusive view I saw then, the Modern now has 1960s work front and center, thrashing out new ideas that bonk old ideas on their heads, in an installation put together by a total of seventeen curators (seventeen!) and scheduled to be seen through March 12, 2017. My notes from the earlier visit survive and suggest the thrust of that initial hanging, a matter of interest for a museum of record as the Modern surely is. “The Gates” and the general response to Christo and Jeanne Claude’s grand use of Central Park as background has traction today as art moves ever more insistently into public consciousness and public places. Cincinnati’s continuing and expanding ArtWorks Murals program is a prime if sometimes tiring example.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Thoughts on visiting spiffed-up MOMA:

1)     Background information here uses “Modern” in the same way we use “Victorian;” it’s a time, and the time is not now.

2)     It was a good time. Cezannes and Matisses frequent as roses in June.

3)     Picasso, who turns up everywhere in this gathering, could be a remarkably jokey artist.  Did he sometimes whistle while he worked?

4)     Fourth floor, where Painting and Sculpture continue from Fifth (how sensible to show painting and sculpture together, not stripped away from each other) is for me like going back to a class reunion, remembering the faces but not always able to bring up the names. Fourth floor is populated heavily by mid-20th century artists I learned once, cut my teeth on, hadn’t thought of recently.  Enjoyed renewing acquaintance.

5)     Diebenkorn, Ocean Park Series, can always stop me in my tracks.

6)     The new atrium hanging has been spoken ill of in some critical circles, but I like its composition, the way relationships of works to each other produce shifts and changes from every viewpoint.

7)     Arshile Gorky could have my heart.

Left MOMA and came out into snow on 53rd Street.  Snow! Have never been in New York for snow! Unreasonably exhilarated, set off in white-flecked dusk for Central Park and my first look at The Gates.  Exhilaration tempered as snow is small-bore, stinging against eyes and face. And, sorry, enthusiasm for The Gates tempered, too.  Their box pleats entirely too department store “drapes” in appearance. I agree with the Montreal architect I talked with at lunch, in the MOMA cafe.  He thinks their placement in relation to each other lacks rhythm and the frames too sturdy. He also nixes the box pleats.  He does think Christo a genius “of some sort.”

But as the dusk deepened, the snow quickened, and the wind blew through, The Gates looked more and more mysterious and so of course better.

I would not want to not have seen them.

(Note: for pictures of The Gates see

Friday, February 25:

Four to six inches of snow in the night, a bright morning, sidewalks being shoveled as I walk across to Madison for the bus uptown to see The Gates again and go to a program about them at The Guggenheim. Arrive early, see orange in full swag on the other side of Fifth Avenue, then spend a fine twenty minutes or so in Central Park looking at Gates in the morning sun.  There’s a certain cheezy-ness in the box pleats, true, but over all pleasure is high.  A cross-country skier skims past.

Going into the Guggenheim’s lower level auditorium is like being within the body of some large organism. I feel like a medical probe, moving past the lungs, skirting the heart, into the stomach (auditorium) where a gently raked floor gives good sight lines from most seats. Many people know one another and are in full conversational canter. Wide age range, not everyone is wearing New York black, cold in the auditorium despite warm bubble of talk.

The first set of panelists is already at the long, green-swathed table on stage. Critic Michael Kimmelman, one of them, has a thin, sharply cut, aloof face. He had more hair and more engagement in his expression when my friend Barbara introduced me to him and we all had lunch fifteen years ago. Today’s first impression softened when he spoke, however.

None of the men on the panel wears a tie.  I’ve noted, this trip, that New York men wearing ties have generous ones, luxuriantly knotted, but art professionals – judging by those on stage – don’t buy the look.

On screen: a series of photos and drawings of the project.  Early drawings suggest more translucence and no pleats. Grommets instead.  (Superior to final execution?)  The documentary photographer who worked on the project with Christo and his wife, Jeanne Claude, speaks about the experience and calls the artist “Chreesto,” but later Jeanne Claude herself does not.

Afternoon session starts with panel of artists responding to The Gates.  Two of the four male artists wear ties, one of them Jeff Koons.  Koons looks like a second tier businessman – and indeed was once a Wall Street commodities broker. He finds The Gates “too imposing,” but professes high admiration for the attention and response to the project. Thinks it’s all about power and who has it.

Jeanne Claude, an artist herself and active participant in her husband’s career and work, has been reported as saying “The Gates” has no meaning, “only joy and beauty.” A Bulgarian art historian/critic on the panel objects to this: “An artist can say anything. It doesn’t mean you need to believe it,” he observed rather crossly.

Before long, they arrive. Christo and Jeanne Claude.  She removes gray sweater to reveal pink shirt; he is dressed forgettably, as I’ve forgotten.  Questions are posed; she says she does not understand a question about “spin.” He says that he does, but answers obliquely. Actually, I think he doesn’t but that she did, and preferred to avoid.

Asked about the pleats, C. says shape reflects the regularity of the edges of Central Park and pleats were needed to encompass width. Wanted width.  She says, repeatedly, that they can take only a few questions.  A line of people out the front door is waiting for their appearance upstairs to sign books.

How they look: Her hair is a flashy construct and her manner attempts charm but achieves arrogance.  He is lanky, bends around her protectively as she takes questions, takes her hand as they leave the stage.  Their son, we’ve learned, is a poet. Of course he’s a poet, his parents have the visual arts covered. Either that, I suppose, or become a CEO, a role his mother fills.

Summing up – many of the speakers overcame initial negative reactions. Some were on & off. M. Kimmelman especially detailed such experience but was in the end favorable. The loudest NO came from Lebbens Woods, identified as “visionary artist,” who thought the pot had simmered entirely too long for the project (twenty-six years).

Both morning and afternoon panels spoke often about “The Gates” eliciting attention and discussion by the many people who normally never think about art. That a fair portion of the discussion is negative not much touched on. A woman in the audience said the people she hears talking about it on the bus think it’s a waste, no real response to this from her hearers. (Later, in California, at a meeting of art critics, I talked with a woman who also attended the New York symposium.  She too remembered the woman who spoke about bus conversation on The Gates, but heard it as affirmative reaction. How peculiar. Which of us is right? Is this an example of hearing what you expect to hear?)

We all spill out into the late afternoon and many of us gravitate across the street to Central Park, where orange flashes in the western sun. Does look splendid. Jeanne Claude told us that joy and beauty are the purpose here. Surely that’s enough.

–Jane Durrell


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