A Skeptic's Guide to Modern Art

I have a confession. No matter how many personality tests have labeled me as a creative, despite the number of art history classes I've patiently sat through, or the very fact that I hail from one of the world's major art capitals — I just don't really get Modern Art. New York is the backdrop and my challenge is the infamous Museum of Modern Art — that's MoMA to the cool kids. I've decided to share this conceptual give and take with The Public House of Art as I tried to come to terms with the contemporary art of appreciation.

After rising at 7:30am - because I'm literally that excited to be in NYC - I arrived at MoMA at a bright and early 9:30am. Turns out MoMA doesn't open it's doors until 10:30am, we were not off to a timely start. Disheartened, I cozied up to a family-size bag of peanut butter M&M's for breakfast – because ‘Murica!

Despite the minor setback to the start of my day, I allowed myself to tolerate the endless line of yellow school buses as they poured out masses of loud, excitable children. I turned my attention to the free Wi-Fi and finally got the Snapchats uploaded. So far so good.

My MoMA experience began with Edgar Degas' A Strange New Beauty, which eased me into modern art mode. His dream-like monotypes capture movement and modernity with a focus on the female form, similarly in the same vein as Henri Senders.

However, it was Marcel Broodthaers, who's disruptive works on the opposite end of the gallery, introduced a witty element of irony. This guy was a forging a path to deconstruct art and it's relationship with nationalism and commerce. A lot of his work referenced the French word for mold, moule, which also means mussels, giving his collages of empty mussel shells a playful, ‘punny' touch. This guy seemed like someone I could get behind. That is, until Broodthaers simply decided he wasn't going be an artist anymore and appointed himself as director of his own museum. As one does.

Onwards and downwards. The 5th floor greeted me with a mesmerising Basquiat, followed by a hearty introduction to all the ‘isms': Cubism, Dadaism, Post-Impressionism etc. each with its biggest superstar representing. And of course, the questionable pieces, which brought up that thought, ‘my 5-year old could have painted this!' On the same floor, I also overheard a distraught father correcting his 7-year old son after he incorrectly guessed the city that had inspired Mondrian's grid paintings.

A personal favourite was Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which pleasantly reminded me of Dove's ‘Real Beauty' ad campaign. However, to my dismay Roy Lichtenstein's Drowning Girl was shoved into a corner! “I don't care! I'd rather sink — than call Brad for Help!” Seems that the gallery took this metaphor to heart and passive aggressively tucked her away.

I descended to floor 4 and was received by an interesting installation by Neïl Beloufa called Projects 102, a critique on contemporary society and its surveillance culture. It was also in this vicinity that I witnessed a woman resting her coat and bag atop a sculpture in order to snap some photos. In her defence, the piece was of a very chair-like aesthetic. As I continued through the space, I encountered the seemingly obligatory room of ‘design chairs', something that stumps me every time I come across it in a contemporary art gallery - thankfully they had no jackets tossed across.

I finished on level 2 because the 1 equals ground floor in America, a lesson I learnt whilst desperately trying to exit the labyrinth of Saks earlier this week. I then wandered through to what came to be my favourite MoMA exhibition, Rachel Harrison's Perth Amboy. The whole collection was truly thought provoking, forcing the spectator to acknowledge their own presence in the gallery space by scattering the floor with inconveniently placed cardboard partitions and adding ironic layers of spectatorship into her photographs and prints.

The final exhibit,The Mapping Journey Project, presented videos of immigrants marking their paths across a world map whilst explaining their harrowing journeys to artist Bouchra Khalili. This collection felt particularly real and relevant, adding a humanist and storytelling element to the ongoing struggles of so many refugees. 

All in all, the MoMA pleasantly surprised me. Whether it was the wit and irony of so many pieces, or simply the bright NY sunshine that streamed through the windows - I left the museum with a smile on my face. And, although I wasn't able to fill this article with the skepticism I'd initially foreseen; I learnt to appreciate Modern Art in a whole new light, or maybe it was just the intense sugar rush from all those M&M's...


Written by Amsterdam based freelance writer Robyn Collinge for The Public House of Art.



Image Credits





5. Image courtesy of Robyn Collinge