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A delightful fifth-floor gallery devoted to the work of painter Florine Stettheimer and like-minded artists.

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Navigating the new MoMA

The expanded Museum of Modern Art is so big, you may need GPS, and you’ll definitely need a snack

“PACE YOURSELF,” I tweeted the first time I saw the new MoMA. Two and a half hours after I arrived, I was exhausted… and I hadn’t even had time to visit the store. As the nice young woman from marketing moonlighting at the Information desk said, the new MoMA is now on the order of the Met or the Louvre. You’d be foolish to try to do it all in a day. You need to think about visiting differently.

Typically when a new museum opens, the architecture critics cover the building and the art critics cover the exhibits. That works for buildings with boundaries. But the new MoMA isn’t a static object or a solid; it’s a hydra, wending its way behind the permanent parade of silver and black curtain walls on West 53rd Street, snaking upward in three strands, west, north, and south, behind surfaces that are grandly and blandly fine.

“Grandly and blandly fine” has been my mental description of MoMA ever since Yoshio Taniguchi’s 2004 expansion created many of the circulation and hierarchy problems that the latest set of architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler, were hired to fix, $450 million and 47,000 square feet ago. (The museum is now 165,000 square feet in total.) Taniguchi decided minimal detailing and maximal spaces were the way to add grandeur to the museum’s collection of buildings, taking his cue from the generosity of Philip Johnson’s 1953 sculpture garden. But his big gestures, especially the four-story white atrium, seemed flat after their initial impact. Even if space is the ultimate luxury in Manhattan, that volume managed to feel cheap.

MoMA has doubled down on details and dun-colored materials, but the museum wasn’t so foolish as to ask its new architects for more grand spaces. Instead, they were asked to solve a traffic problem: how to get 2.8 million visitors per year through the galleries without choke points and lines, confusion and disappointment. Hence the hydra, which springs from a lobby that appears power-washed and forks into gallery after gallery of greatest hits and new surprises. The power of the new MoMA—the flex—comes from the art, not the architecture.

The stone-floored lobby that reaches through the block from West 53rd to West 54th Street has been cleared of all possible clutter. No seating, no desks, no kiosks, no posters. It is stripped, but for a blinking chandelier (a commissioned, responsive artwork by Philippe Parreno). During the press preview the lobby felt like an airport after the apocalypse, or perhaps pre-zombie invasion, tense but ready for the horde. There is a sunflower-hued tote bag in the museum store that quotes painter Pierre Bonnard, reading “One cannot have too much yellow,” but the architects have not followed his advice.

The atrium of a building with white walls. Sculptural works are on the gray floors, while iridescent patterns cover some walls.
The museum’s second-floor atrium, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi, with a new commissioned installation by Haegue Yang.
A close-up view of black staircases.
A detail of the blade staircase designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Gensler.

Of the former Folk Art Museum, demolished at age 13, only the outline remains, memorialized in a set of galleries for temporary exhibitions and performances at the southwestern end of the new museum’s span. For the opening, the second-floor, double-height gallery that sits in the footprint of the demolished museum contains one work, Sheela Gowda’s architecturally madcap installation “Of All People” (2011). Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ Folk Art Museum was designed as a treasure box, with a solid, bronze alloy-paneled facade and a spiral of staircases and built-in display cases inside. Where once there was a complex and intricate space—exactly the kind of contrast in presentation that can break up a long museum visit—now there’s a glass-fronted box. The intricacy is provided by the art, which, in this case, is doing its job. The distance from wall to wall looks so much smaller now that it is just walls.

I could tell you in detail about beauty moments like the 95,000-pound, 37-foot-long steel canopy that marks the main entrance. I could tell you about the new “blade staircase” on the museum’s western edge, where a six-inch-thick steel blade, suspended from the roof structure, supports six stories of cantilevered steps. Or the heavily figured black-and-white marble that makes the first-floor seating area and second-floor coffee bar stand out. But the best-case scenario is for you not to notice these heroic gestures at all but rather for them to surprise you by being the welcome, the access, the place to rest your feet that you need in the moment.

At the midpoint of the first-floor lobby, a four-panel screen offers a floor-by-floor vertical directory arranged by elevator, north, south, and west. Rotating thumbnail photos offer a glimpse of the contents of the galleries on that floor and indicate which elevator is required to reach them. The grand atrium on the second floor is essentially rendered moot by this arrangement, which privileges circulation. At a neoclassical museum like the Met, the atrium is the engine of circulation. In the 1980s version of MoMA, Cesar Pelli tried to combine circulation and grandeur via a set of escalators under a conservatory-like roof. Now we have circulation with very little charm, and a grand space that is vestigial, purposeless. You could go around and around the museum and never need to go there. What you need is a map, an elevator, and a plan.

Or you could let me act as your critical concierge. Here are five itineraries for five different types of visitors, depending on your time and your mood.

A gallery with a black sculpture piece and white sculpture piece, with colorful artworks on the walls.
A fourth-floor gallery devoted to pop art, with Yayoi Kusama’s 1962 Accumulation No. 1 in front of Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe from the same year.

The Tourist

The tourist could stay at MoMA all day, but she wants to make sure she doesn’t miss anything important. For her, the key floors are five, which showcases the museum’s collection from the 1880s through the 1940s, and four, the 1940s through the 1970s. Starry Night, a forest of Brancusis, a solo gallery for Matisse, all the pop art. Both floors are arranged as a long, mostly chronological gallery loop, starting just off the north elevators, so if masterpieces are your goal, head directly there. MoMA’s graphic-design department has helpfully mounted large maps of the gallery sequence just outside the initial gallery. As a dedicated follower of all things midcentury, I like to start on four, cutting quickly to abstract expressionism.

If you were familiar with the old museum, there is a bit of an Alice in Wonderland feeling as you circle the floors. The galleries look much the same, but there is more room between the objects and just plain more rooms. You keep going, and going, and going even after your body thinks it must have to turn. Thick, steel-framed thresholds mark the transition between the Taniguchi galleries and the new spaces carved out of the base of Jean Nouvel’s 53 W 53 tower. If you peek behind the walls on the 54th Street side you can see bits of Nouvel’s non-rectilinear structure hidden behind MoMA-approved right angles.

The windows make for some lovely moments, like the way Isamu Noguchi’s unexpected Even the Centipede (1952), a stack of stoneware vessels strung on a vertical pole, lines up with the little windows visible in a building across the street.

A woman walks into a doorway with a view of an entrance into another gallery.
A threshold leading from the expansion into a gallery of conceptual art.

The Architect

Some architecture nerds are only interested in the building. But others will thrill to the quantity of architecture on display inside.

The 2016 announcement that the architecture and design department would lose its dedicated spaces on the museum’s third floor during and after the expansion sparked much digital gnashing of teeth. The curatorial mission, post-renovation, was to move the galleries toward multidisciplinary display, mixing painting, sculpture, photography, film, and design chronologically and thematically.

In the new MoMA, architecture and design are not fully mixed in with the other arts but instead interleaved, set apart in seven galleries that are part of the loosely historical path on floors 4 and 5. Martino Stierli, chief curator of architecture and design, as well as other curators including Sean Anderson, Paola Antonelli, Barry Bergdoll, and Juliet Kinchin, organized individual galleries. The bonus of this arrangement is that everyone has to look at design along the way; it isn’t sequestered in its own skippable space. The downside is that the spaces design occupies are quite generic—medium-sized windowless white galleries that require large-scale pieces, plus some wonderful film selections, to make people stop in their tracks.

But stop I did: in the 1920s for Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky’s “Frankfurt Kitchen” (1926-1927) on view in a fifth-floor gallery titled “Design for Modern Life”; in the 1970s for an excerpt from Chad Freidrichs’s “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” in a second-floor gallery titled “Building Citizens”; and in the 1950s for the brilliant combination of a fragment of the United Nations Secretariat blue-glass curtain wall combined with Jacques Tati’s fictional ode to the curtain-wall life, Playtime.

If these dispersed bits and pieces sound confusing, you would not be wrong. To find the UN facade—no small object—required 20 minutes of retracing steps, consulting with guards, and searching the internet. (Pro tip: MoMA’s collections website includes the room number for everything on display.) I had missed that gallery, “The Vertical City,” on my first visit, and when another architecture critic making the rounds mentioned it to me, I wanted to rectify my oversight. He thought he knew where it was in the museum (southwest) but couldn’t remember the floor because all the floors look the same. Our best clue was that the UN was completed in 1952, meaning it had to be somewhere on the fourth floor, but that wasn’t enough information to go on. Which indicates that the design galleries are arranged for non-specialists, to be discovered, but not sought… though architects should be good at reading the map.

A gallery space with black and red walls and a round sculptural piece.
In the museum’s free first-floor gallery, the design exhibition “Energy,” which includes work by Neri Oxman and Massoud Hassani.

The Feminist

The number of women artists and artists of color on display at MoMA has increased significantly. There are women artists in prime positions—when you step off the north elevator on the sixth floor, for example, you have to bow down to Sheila Hicks’s monumental fiber column, a rainbow of string swirling down from the ceiling—and women artists as accents, Faith Ringgold in the Picasso gallery, Alma Thomas in the Matisse gallery. In a moody fourth-floor gallery dedicated to art about Harlem, photographer Helen Levitt’s 1940s portraits of children at play face Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-41).

But there are also exhibitions that showcase fields in which women have historically been dominant—by choice and by necessity—and which have, until recently, been ignored by MoMA. “Taking a Thread for a Walk,” curated by Juliet Kinchin and Andrew Gardner, takes over the former design gallery on the third floor, now a somewhat out-of-the-way location. But the exhibit is better for it, focused and quiet, the better to allow the eyes to take in the sometimes subtle weave of 80 years of textile innovation. Anni Albers’s early experiments in metallic and plastic fibers shimmer with possibility, while Friedrich Froebel’s knitted, ball-shaped “Gifts”—the first toys the father of kindergarten believed children could handle—were designed to provoke future creativity.

The Sheila Hicks upstairs, as well as high-tech textiles by Neri Oxman and SMIT Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology in a first-floor exhibition called “Energy,” and a shell-like Lina Bo Bardi chair, displayed along with the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros gift of art from South America, feel like satellites orbiting “Taking a Thread for a Walk,” offering connections between far-flung parts of the museum.

A top view of a store with lots of tables and shelves filled with products.
The almost 6000-square-foot flagship Museum Store, visible from the sidewalk on West 53rd Street.

The Window Shopper

If you’ve got 45 minutes in Midtown, it is also possible to sample MoMA for free. The whole first floor, including the marble-clad lounge with a view of the garden, the “Energy” exhibition, the lobby chandelier, and the new nearly 6,000-square-foot Museum Store can be sampled without buying a ticket. You can even take a ride on the store’s circular glass elevator, which seems like an homage to the original underground design store, Prada Soho.

The new store is mostly visible through clear glass that runs all the way down to the sidewalk. Its perfectly styled rainbow wares serve as more of a design beacon (for magpies like me, at least) than the dramatic canopy. The colorlessness of almost everything else in the lobby makes those Hay canisters and Miffy stuffies glow like jewels. I considered buying a) a solar-powered bag b) a kawaii mechanical cat bank and c) new dishes with a pattern of concentric circles to symbolize my days spent wandering around and around the museum.

Shopping and curation have a long and happy history together at MoMA—early design exhibits even quoted prices—so you could do worse on limited time and limited budget than browsing their bookstore and actually getting to touch the Chemex coffee makers.

A gallery space with red walls featuring artworks on white surfaces.
“At the Border of Art and Life,” a fourth-floor gallery devoted to the work of Fluxus.

The Wanderer

I went to MoMA twice before writing this review because it felt important to me to walk through every single gallery. I went in the front door, I turned left, and I wandered. If you have hours, if you know you can come back another time, if you want to find a new favorite, this is the way to go. It should feel like floating on a river of art, letting yourself pause at old friends or cross the room toward something sparkly.

When you are wandering, it is easier to notice how pleasant the galleries are when painted some color other than white. These, dotted about, tend to have more specific themes. Room 502, painted deep plum, showcases early photography and film—exquisite architectural details, a sculptural tree. Room 407, velvety gray, honors poet Frank O’Hara, who worked at the museum and wrote verse on his lunch break. Amy Sillman’s artist’s choice gallery, Room 516, is painted white but installed radically differently, with an eclectic mix of little-seen paintings, photographs, sculpture, and graphics from the collection arranged on U-shaped risers. More such interruptions would make the museum as a whole more legible. The contrast in color or in density of display adds a little eddy to one’s mental map so the corridor of rooms doesn’t feel endless.

My favorite object in the new museum is one of the smallest. Room 409, “Abstract Lens,” is a small gallery showcasing postwar photography, including an untitled black-and-white photograph by Tosh Matsumoto—gift of Edward Steichen, a master. Most of the photograph is stripes, undulating like an op art painting, but eventually you see tent poles holding up striped canvas and a line of heads across the bottom. The image is intimate and graphic, mysterious and bold. If everyone can find a new treasure in new MoMA’s pile of gold, the museum is doing its job.

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