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JOEL Joel's Blog

MOMA Inspired


Freda Kahlo - self-portrait
Freda Kahlo - self-portrait

Last weekend I visited the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and overall I was underwhelmed. But to be fair, the reason I was underwhelmed was because it was mobbed. I don't blame other people for visiting the museum in droves on weekends and crowding around the Frida Kahlo self-portrait taking selfies. I blame myself for going when it's crowded. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), is also typically crowded on weekends with tourists, but if you stay away from the super popular and trendy exhibits, you can usually find some peace and quiet around other stuff I enjoy, like the furniture exhibits.

But getting back to MoMA. The highlight of this visit was sculpture and prints by Elizabeth Catlett an artist who was entirely new to me. The sculpture below is wonderful, as were her prints, which shared a room with selections from Jacob Lawrence's Migration series. MoMA used to have on display a superb collection of 20th century design objects. It was a really comprehensive look at modern furniture. They also featured exhibits about various designers that I enjoyed. The museum, which is now 10 times bigger than it was when I was a kid, got rid of that. What they have instead is bits of design stuff spread throughout the museum. It's quite annoying, and it's really sad they lock their collection away.
Mother and Child. Elizabeth Catlett
Mother and Child. Elizabeth Catlett, 1956

Chaise Longue Marcel Breuer
Chaise Longue Marcel Breuer, 1938

The crowd reminded me it was worth thinking about why museums exist in the first place. Certainly, for most visitors the impetus to visit is not about stealing design inspiration for a project, or in my case, ideas for a blog entry. I think most visits stem from a desire to see what all the fuss is about, along with curiosity about famous and very expensive works of art. Fortunately there are also many people who will be inspired by their visit -- and that to my mind makes it all worthwhile.
While the current incarnation of MOMA is certainly not one of my favorite museums, it was where I saw the show that probably had the greatest impact on my life.

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It was 1968, I was a child and MOMA was in its new modern building. Young Joel was taken to the museum (which was free if I recall at the time) by his father and saw an exhibit that was much better than the normal displays of art. I think my father took me specifically because most of the time I didn't like looking at paintings and this was far more up my alley. The exhibit was called "The Machine as seen at the end of the mechanical age" and it was an overview of artists like Jean Tinguely, who built gadgets like a machine that would you throw a ball at it and it would throw it back at you. The were the remains of a machine and a video of a machine that was designed to build itself up and then destroy itself, which it did. The entire exhibit was a celebration of the way art has looked at mechanical devices over the centuries.

The show had a profound effect on me. It was a popular exhibit, and to celebrate it, like all exhibits, the museum published a book memorializing the exhibit which we couldn't buy because it was too expensive. But I really wanted it. Several months after the show, my father who was a social worker for the city, came home with a copy. He said that somebody in his office was given a copy and they didn't want it and they knew my dad liked art so they gave it to him. I'm actually believed this story for my entire life up until writing the draft of this blog. I now wonder if my dad actually bought the book on the side and he didn't want to appear profligate. The book itself is bound in a riveted, hinged, enameled and embossed cover, and which the cover is tres cool - the book won't open flat and sit properly, which is why my pictures are pretty crappy.

The reason I mention this, is that while I cannot tell you that my career and interest in life came about because of the show, I can tell you, and we all have to remember this when we're trying to encourage the next generation to learn something and to become the person they dream to be, is that the show was like watering a plant. I was always interested in gadgetry and making things, this show helped me grow.

I do remember also, when visiting MoMA many times while growing up, long after the show closed, wondering why when I visited the museum again it didn't have such interesting stuff again. Even on this past weekend's visit part of me is wondering "what happened to the stuff I like" bring back the machines!

I've written previously about interesting stuff at the museum of Modern art, including their crafts program here.

Next Saturday this coming Saturday on July 15th I will be the question answerer on Lost Art Presses open wire blog. You can join us here.

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Join the conversation
07/12/2023 Paul Starita
Agree totally.Fortunately I am married to an artist with a masters in art.Before we visit she lays out a plan with the dedication of a military commander.While it often it is fir special exhibits,it also includes underappreciated artists.We will be in London and Florence,where my family are art and antique dealers,and I will fill my boots.
07/12/2023 Bruce Mack
Thanks for the memory of the old MoMA. It was small enough to be my place when we lived there in the 60s and 70s. When we moved to PA in the late 80s it had grown. When I last visited from MN in the mid-teens it was Speer size and was no longer cogenial.
07/13/2023 Will
Visited when 10 bus loads of kids taking selfies with Stary Night. It was a "free" day. Still a great place.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.