Commentary: Inside MoMA, art within art
Taniguchi's design focuses on contrasts of space and scale
By Porter Anderson
NEW YORK (CNN) -- Of course the art is the draw. But visitors to the redesigned Museum of Modern Art in New York this week can be forgiven for looking between the frames, reading between the lines, to glimpse the subtle effects that architect Yoshio Taniguchi's work may have on their experience.
Granted, there are some stunning trees blocking your view of the new forest. MoMA's public reopening rolls out a landmark array from the permanent collection, icons of our era.
Like finding yourself in a room swarming with celebrities, there's a sensation of bumping into superstars -- Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night," Paul Cezanne's "The Bather," Alberto Giacometti's "The Chariot," Andrew Wyeth's "Christina's World," Pininfarina's 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT Car, Ray and Charles Eames' 1948 Chaise Longue, scenes of Saint-Cloud by photographer Eugene Atget, Robert Rauschenberg's "Bed," Andy Warhol's 1962 "Gold Marilyn Monroe," Jackson Pollack's huge "One: Number 31, 1950," Pablo Picasso's "Guitar" construction.
But the occasion is the arrival of the space. More than two years after the museum moved its activities to Queens and gave over its Manhattan site to Taniguchi and the construction crews, two new buildings now stand between West 53rd and West 54th streets, the Cullman Education and Research Center and the main event: the new gallery building with its 125,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Having preserved and expanded MoMA's Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at the heart of his new site, Taniguchi ushers you into the new building by way of a long, low artificial plain -- something that bridges the sidewalk you've left and the high road you're stepping onto. The wide entry plaza's slate-gray delta of a floor pools with light from the garden.
Look up as you take the first gentle stone steps of the grand staircase: The green 1945 glass-bubble Bell-47D1 helicopter hanging over your head is your cue that the walls are about to give way.
And as you step out into the new museum's central Marron Atrium, the design's real scale lifts off.
That space, with Barnett Newman's "Broken Obelisk" at its center and the watery expanse of Claude Monet's "Water Lilies" on its west wall, rises 110 feet -- a height you may not appreciate until you've reached the sixth-floor galleries, with only glassed rails between you and a sheer drop.
At floor level in the atrium, you're not inclined to linger. The room is stone-cool, its surfaces hard, its angles unforgiving.
Intentional or not, the effect is the right one: You're prompted to move out and up into an exploration of the work to be seen, the art hung in galleries layered above you.
What MoMA's visitors are discovering is that they've entered a kind of dissolving space, a nautilus made of glass and air, a spiral bound by cool escalators and warm wood-and-steel staircases.
The hundreds of people who inspected the facility on November 17, before Saturday's public opening, roamed the facility with a gathering sense of awe as they took in the charming signatures that Taniguchi has allowed himself.
If you start, for example, by noting the square cutout in the West 54th Street wall of the structure -- which you can enter from either 54th or 53rd -- you will appreciate the keyhole glimpses you catch of other spaces, and of your fellow MoMA-goers, in the walls of the new museum's atrium.
From some of those nooks, your art-viewing cohorts peer down at you. Through one rectangular break, you see visitors quietly treading stairs that Marcel Duchamp would have loved.
Those descending and ascending the rich wood treads inlaid with stainless steel are busy inspecting Henri Matisse's famed 1909 "Dance," its nudes frozen in the circle of their romp.
Moving through the levels
Six floors of galleries use blond wood floors and wide seats to lure you into contemplation of the art.
On the second level, you find prints, illustrated books, a media gallery, one of the structure's cafes. On the third level are photography, drawings, architectural and design displays. Paintings and sculpture are on the fourth and fifth levels.
The sixth level's preparation for special exhibitions is in its vast size. It's a great hall for monumental works, including the aptly named color panels of the 1957 "Sculpture for a Large Wall" of Ellsworth Kelly, currently on silent, eloquent display.
It's in moving from floor to floor and gallery to gallery that you encounter the most interesting effect of Taniguchi's vision, the changing scale.
Step off an escalator on the fifth floor, for example, walk past a dizzying overlook into the atrium and step into a gallery of paintings.
Not only are you suddenly hugged by doorways and walls that meet your gaze with comforting, familiar proportions, but the works themselves seem nestled here, at home in these high-perched rooms, human and inviting in texture, color, size.
The sound changes. Those stone-echoed voices from the atrium floor so far below disappear, the business of gift shops is silenced, and you are alone with your conversation -- with the art, with your companion, amid the footfalls of others looking and thinking.
MoMA's curators have the chance in these galleries to show you the comparisons and contrasts they've studied.
Van Gogh's "The Starry Night," for example, is coupled with the artist's daytime evocation of olive trees. Photography, the younger art, makes its agile leaps from early 20th century landscapes to the photo-journalistic trends of more recent years.
Taniguchi needs only a few steps to get you from his building's core of festival-space grandeur into the softer, gentler presence of the collection's creations.
And as you change venues, floor to floor, switching media and emphasis, he refreshes you with a few minutes "outside" among your colleagues in the wide-open range overlooking the atrium, before you duck into the next level's rooms and their quiet.
Taniguchi is doing just what each artist represented at MoMA has done, in one way or another: He is setting up tensions and resolving them, or not, from space to space and material to material. Form is matching content here.
And so, several years after going dark in Manhattan for its $858 million renovation, MoMA has its new lease on the art of our lives.
The reopening of the Museum of Modern Art in New York includes among its inaugural exhibitions a survey of "Nine Museums by Yoshio Taniguchi," a study of the architect's career, through January 31, 2005.