Today American Nomad is traveling to New York’s renowned Museum of Modern Art (Manhattan) (There is a satellite location in Queens – MOMA PS1)
As an art history buff, I’m often asked ‘what is modern art?’
It is a simple question, with a complex and varied answer depending on who you ask.
The ‘Google’ definition: Modern art includes artistic work produced during the period extending from the 1860s to the 1970s and the styles and philosophies of the art produced in that era. The term is usually associated with art in which the traditions of the past have been thrown aside in a spirit of experimentation.
While that is a decent answer, Modern Art goes a bit deeper and has blurred lines.
For example: In 2023, many art lovers associate art museums with works by Monet and Van Gogh…they would NEVER think of them as ‘modern art,’ because 1) they were painted over 100 years ago and 2) are so popular and part of the art landscape that it doesn’t seem ‘modern’ but normal.
However, in art history Modern ART begins with the crossroads of Impressionism to a movement loosely called Post-Impressionism.
The Impressionists like Manet, Monet, Morisot were in a sense the first ‘modern’ artist because they rejected the artistic rules and moved beyond traditional styles. When Manet first emerged his art was extremely controversial. Manet and the other Impressionists, while all influenced by great historic master artists like Titian, sought to change the art landscape – that was a modern approach to art.
While Impressionism is the forefront of the modern art movement, many art historians now move Impressionism out of Modern Art and instead start the Modern ART era with Post-Impressionism…
Search the ‘Founder of Modern Art’ and the consensus is Paul Cezanne.
We’ve talked about Cezanne in previous posts. Cezanne is hands down one of my favorite painters, given his unique use of color, light, space and perspective. Cezanne took the movement and color of Impressionism but went a step further…seeking to immerse the viewer into the painting and natural landscape. Cezanne wasn’t seeking to capture exact realism, but rather the emotion and truth of the space that in many ways is more realistic to life experience than an exact still life.
Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso were all influenced by Cezanne.
I could debate about the true ‘founder’ of Modern Art – as there are many cases and artists whose innovative led to ‘the modern’ style, but no doubt Cezanne’s use of color and shapes laid the foundation for Picasso, Braque and more…
When we speak of Modern Art – and periods of art in general it is easy to just group painters into a style of niche based on parameters like decade, or medium, but if you look at the range of dates that encompass ‘Modern ART’ by definition – Modern ART is a world of vastly different styles and movements.
I challenge you to think about what Modern ART means to you and how does your perspective change with a museum like The MOMA.
Also ask yourself – how does the artist see their own painting style? Were they trying to fit into a specific movement – or where they open to numerous styles and not as concerned with the ‘philosophy of their art.’
I start my post with this challenge because it helps to understand and access all art, but especially modern art.
For me, Modern ART is often about thinking outside of the box (or inside the box in new ways). Much of the modern art in the 20th-century is a reflection of the tumultuous shifts in response to war and industrialization. Which also challenges you to reflect on art, by understanding the history, but also how is that art relevant now? How does it speak across time.
Let’s start our tour…
History of The MOMA:
Abby was a force to be reckoned with – in addition to her work with The MOMA she also was instrumental in preserving Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. She founded what is now the Art Museums of Williamsburg, which features one of the nation’s top folk and decorative art collections (plus masterworks by American portraitists).
Abby and her husband shared a love of culture, but John D. Rockefeller detested modern art. So when his wife, a lover of modern works and emerging masters, suggested a museum specifically for modern art he was less than convinced. That didn’t stop Abby and her friends. These ladies were not simply society women – they were smart and determined.
In 1929, only several weeks after the disastrous Wall Street Stock Market Crash, ‘The Ladies,’ opened a modest MOMA in rented quarters in the Heckscher Building on Fifth Avenue. The first collection was only about eight pieces of art (including prints).
Buzz around the museum grew when they hosted an exhibit of loaned works by the likes of Cezanne and Van Gogh, which at that time were not widely visible in New York.
With the market crashing it seemed impossible that this dream of a modern art museum would emerge triumphant, but with the help of A. Conger Goodyear and others – the museum became a success. They moved into their permanent location in 1939.
According to their website, The MOMA now has over 200,000 pieces of scupture, painting, prints, video and other media in their collection. Their library is a premier art research institution. The museum has one of the finest collections of art in the world with famed pieces by Cezanne, Derain, Bernard, Matisse, Monet and of course
Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
My visit to The MOMA:
Prior to my visit I watched a documentary about The MOMA and researched the collection. I mention this because it can be helpful to ‘prep’ for a large museum like The MOMA so you can figure out which exhibits you want to see and open yourself up to other artists/current exhibitions.
While it can be helpful to go into an art museum cold and allow the art to start speaking with you, I’m definitely glad I took time to brush up on a bit of MOMA art history before I arrived at the museum. Understanding about the important collection pieces (especially ones that are meant to challenge you) helped me to see a deeper value when looking at the work.
The good news is even if you don’t have time to research the museum and artists in detail before your visit, The MOMA has a fantastic audio tour you can listen to directly from your phone (or take a virtual tour online).
Ex: Picasso’s Charnel House is a haunting painting that cuts at your bones. Reading about Picasso in World War II and an exhibit of anti-war art that The MOMA showed in 1939 (the onset of the war in Europe) shows just how powerful art is in rallying people towards action.
About: The Charnel House (1944-45): Inspired by newspaper photographs showing the death toll from Nazi concentration camps
This painting is meant to challenge you…Picasso often used art to showcase the horrors of war.
While there is no perfect way to tour The MOMA, we decided to tour the galleries in chronological order, starting on the Fifth Floor and working our way down to the main level exhibitions. (The Sixth Floor was closed the day we were there – it features special exhibits)
- You can spend hours at The MOMA – so if you have a specific painting you want to see, don’t be afraid to ask a staff member for help. They’ll point you in the right direction
If you only have an hour or two at The MOMA (heaven forbid!) I recommend focusing on The Fifth Floor where you’ll find the ‘crown jewels’ of modern art masters.
The galleries flow naturally and the space is inviting. We started off in an exhibit that melds old films of New York and photography with cityscapes by several artists including Bernard and a new favorite – Maurice Utrillo (La Rue des Abbesse)
In the next room, you’ll be catapulted into another universe as arguably the most famous painting in the world (after Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa) – Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night comes into full spectacular view.
Dealing with such a well-known painting that is printed on everything from lunch boxes to LEGO to magnets and notebooks can be difficult. It is often hard to approach a painting we’ve seen millions of times in print, albeit not in person, with a fresh perspective.
Starry Night is a painting though that still mesmerizes in person and invites you into the scene. If anything it felt surreal to actually stand in front of the real Starry Night. I’ve seen dozens of Van Gogh paintings in person, but there is something about this painting that unites us. The idea of light and dark and light overcoming the darkness – the dream of stars…
I could have looked at it all day, taking in the thick rich brushstrokes, but alas you have a Starry Night viewing limit…so you take your pic and move on.
One thing that did strike me is that is much smaller in person than I imagined…although that does not take away from the wonder.
Challenge and Pro-Tip: It is easy when going to a museum like The MOMA to rush in and see Starry Night then leave, but DON’T. Starry Night may be the most famous painting at the museum, but it is surrounded by equally prominent masterpieces that just want to have a silent conversation with you.
Starry Night is surrounded by masterpieces by Cezanne, Seurat and Picasso…The next room features one of Picasso’s most famous (and controversial pieces) Les Demoiselles of Avignon.
The Matisse room was one of my favorites. As an artist myself I’m heavily inspired by Matisse and his friend Bonnard’s sense of color and space. It is modern and yet seems familar.
The Fifth Floor continues to take you on an artistic journey showcasing works by Modigliani, Braque, Magritte…and several of my favorite Austrian-German painters like Oskar Kokoschka and Gabrielle Munter…
You will not want to miss the Monet room, which featues huges panels of his waterlilies series that make you feel as though you are in the middle of the water surrounded by the lilies (similar to Paris’s L’Orangerie Museum)
For a detailed tour of The Fifth Floor click here.
We continued to take our time traveling through the collection on each descending floor discovering Warhol and O’Keefe, Rothko and more.
Before hitting one of several of their amazing museum gift shops, we grabbed a bite to eat at the second floor cafe (they have a Garden Cafe as well)
The food was affordable (for NYC) – we split a grilled chicken salad with a glass of wine and gluten free treat.
No matter what your artistic sensibilities (love MODERN, think you hate it…) The MOMA is a must see in NYC. Starry Night alone, as well as the handful of Cezanne and Picassos are sure to please.
Plan your own MOMA trip here…