Gotham Diary: The Museum of Modern Art, with an absurdist detour to Bergdorf Goodman

April 19, 2008 at 2:13 am (Art, New York City)

So I had returned to my hotel in the late afternoon, after an intense several hours spent at the Metropolitan Museum Art. It had been one epiphany after another: the fabulous Courbet exhibit, followed by the equally fabulous Poussin exhibit – I went through both of them twice – lunch with Helene, one of my dearest and closest friends – a quick walk through the mysteries and beauties of the Asian wing, and finally, a taxi ride back, through the noisy, pungent chaos of the streets of New York. (Please, please institute congestion pricing, Mayor Bloomberg – sooner rather than later. Whence comes the perverse sense of entitlement that impels people to bring their vehicles into a city with such a comprehensive system of mass transit?)

Anyway – as I said, I’m back at my hotel. It’s about five o’clock and my head aches, as do my feet, and I feel grimy and exhausted…ah, New York, playground of my youth, do I need any better proof that I have left that youth far behind me? But wait..WAIT!! The headache abates, the energy flows back, the spring returns to my step.. and lo! I am getting a second wind!

Out I go again, bending my steps toward the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. But before I get there, I hear the siren song, and I am seduced, utterly vanquished…by Bergdorf Goodman’s justly famous display windows!

Bergdorf’s has had a presence on Fifth Ave. and 58th for as long as I can remember. But somehow, it seems to have grown exponentially.

Well, I couldn’t resist: I went inside. And Lo! I was greeted with blazing light, and bags and jewelry and more bags and more jewelry. And so, seeking to establish my bona fides as a smart, sophisticated shopper whose resources, while not exactly unlimited, are not paltry, either, I saunter over to one of the jewelry counters and announce: “I need gold earrings to wear to my son’s wedding in June.” (Aha! I finally found the ideal placement for that incredibly important nugget of info!)

“Oh, here’s a very nice pair, and they’re nicely priced, too,” says the saleswoman – oops, sorry, the sales associate – as she pulls out a nice, decidedly unremarkable pair of gold earrings. “How much?” I ask. The response: “Two thousand -” Please pardon the dash. I never heard the rest. And speaking of dashes, I performed one then and there, right out of that department! I fared no better with the bags, repeatedly encountering four numbers to the left of the decimal point.

Here, for instance, is one of the famous, fabulous Leiber bags. I do love it, but for $3,695.00 ?? Alas, I think not… And so I passed dolefully from the premises. So much for the Sophisticated Shopper!

Farewell, O Temple of High End Consumerism! Now we’re off to MOMA!!

I was eight years old when my mother first took me to this museum. It was then, like me, ever so much smaller. I recall walking up a winding staircasee and finding myself in a room with two paintings by Henri Rousseau, “Le Douanier”: The Dream and The Sleeping Gypsy. For almost my whole life I have carried their images with me in my mind’s eye. So…I wonder..Where are they now?

MoMa has become HUGE!! The lobby alone is a vast, echoing space. Lucky, too, because it was wall to wall people – noisy, crowded, and very festive. This was probably at least partly due to the fact that it was a “Target Free Friday Night,” meaning that admission is free on Friday evenings from four until closing at eight. (As a rule, I’m no fan of big box stores, but I really admire Target’s numerous philanthropic initiatives.)

I go up the main staircase – walking over a delightfully colorful installation – and no, it was not a mistake; it’s on the floor! – and instead of Rousseau’s two dreamy paintings, I see an object that resembles a table fan swinging crazily from the ceiling some six floors above. I would say it was a pendulum, except that it kept changing direction. At its lowest point, it was about ten feet from the floor; when it came toward you, you ducked instinctively, even though there was no danger. There was something inexplicably exhilarating about this installation; I laughed out loud and so did many others around me. Is it art? Well, you could debate that question. Is it fun? Definitely! (Something else that’s fun, and very cleverly executed, is the online exhibition “Color Chart.”)

For whatever reason, I was not able to find the swinging fan on the MoMa site; neither could I find its name in the atrium where it swung so merrily. I believe it’s called Ventilator and that it is by Olafur Eliasson, who is described in Wikipedia as a Danish/Icelandic artist. Eliasson recently had an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art called “Take Your Time.” Here’s the Ventilator as it was seen there, where they apparently had it installed in the lobby of the museum.

There were many other objects of interest in the second floor. (Notice my reluctance to term them “art works.”) Some were intriguing; others seemed simply bizarre. But in this temple to the modern and the postmodern, I found one work with roots that go back thousands of years. I stood before it dumbstruck, with a very strong sensation that I was destined to be standing there in front of it. It is called “Crowhurst;” the image, created by artist Tacita Dean , depicts a yew tree in Surry, in South East England, that is thought to be four thousand years old.

Dean has said that she was fascinated by this ancient tree and also drawn to its name because of the story of Donald Crowhurst. Crowhurst participated in a round-the-world yacht race in 1968. His craft, a trimaran, was found adrift; he himself was nowhere to be found. The mystery of his disappearance has never been solved, although current thinking apparently holds that he committed suicide.

I read The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst when it was first published in 1970, and I have never forgotten this strange, disturbing story. (Neither apparently have many others; see the section on “Literary and dramatic treatment” in the Wickipedia entry.)


After standing for some time before Tacita Dean’s stunning work, I roused myself and headed up to the fifth floor. There, I had been assured, is where I would find my old friends. And, sure enough, there they were…

The Bather, by Paul Cezanne

The Bather, by Paul Cezanne


Bird in Space, by Constantin Brancusi


Picasso’s revolutionary Demoiselles D’Avignon


The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali


Van Gogh’s Starry Night


Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), by Giorgio De Chirico


Broadway Boogie Woogie, by Piet Mondrian (Years ago I owned a dress whose print pattern looked alot like this painting!)


I and the Village, by Marc Chagall

There are many, many more. But I must reserve a place apart for the paintings by Henri Rousseau, as they are so dear to me:

The Sleeping Gypsy; and below, The Dream

I have to say that I’m somewhat disappointed as to the current placement of these works. The Sleeping Gypsy was hung rather unimaginatively on a plain white wall in the middle of numerous other works, some interesting, some not. And The Dream, inexplicably placed alone on a wall near the cafeteria, is now behind glass. While this insures that catsup won’t be inadvertently sprayed on it, the resulting glare makes for difficult viewing.

Possibly due to my (mild) annoyance concerning the above situation, I was especially delighted, when I later got around to reading that day’s New York Times, to find a delicious tale of irreverence entitled, “At the Modern, Art in a New York Minute.”


  1. Weekend Miscellany « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] is about the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, whose work I recently saw at MoMa in New York. And there’s a fascinating piece by Rebecca Mead on The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in […]

  2. Deep Water « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Crowhurst. I had encountered an explicit allusion to him in the most unlikely of places, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.  I first read The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin […]

  3. PH Paper said,

    you just have to get used to modern art to appreciate the beauty of it *~;

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