What do museumgoers want? Can our data-obsessed era explain what turns the average citizen into an occasional or even an ardent visitor? We all know that attendance figures are closely followed by museum officials, but attendance figures and other performance metrics miss the magic that occurs in particular galleries on particular mornings or afternoons. Going through some of New York’s museums in the early days of summer, I’ve seen visitors slowing down and looking hard, rising to all kinds of occasions, sometimes to works of art or kinds of exhibitions that the bean counters might predict would be of limited appeal. Here are a few impressions of three such exhibits, from recent hours at the Museum of Modern Art, the Neue Galerie, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Ellsworth Kelly: Chatham Series,” at MoMA, is far too austere to be anybody’s idea of a surefire summer hit. And yet this gathering of fourteen paintings that Kelly completed in 1971 makes severity feel so sneakily hedonistic that it is hard to resist lingering and trying to figure out what the artist is up to. Of the group of events staged around New York to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of this veteran abstract painter—the Matthew Marks Gallery has exhibitions in three separate Chelsea spaces—the MoMA show is the most exciting, an opportunity to engage with a minimalist who is also a bit of a trickster as he generates more and more variations on a single elementary theme. Each painting in the series consists of two separate rectangular canvases, each painted a single color and then joined to create an upside-down “L.” By varying not only the colors but also the sizes of the rectangles, Kelly creates a play of possibilities that turns what might at first seem a mathematical game into a subtly poetic performance. Arranged in four interlocking galleries, the installation has a nifty geometric exactitude that sets in high relief Kelly’s playful violations of geometric predictability. Of course there are museumgoers who see nothing here but logos, brightly-colored semaphores in front of which to stop and take photographs of their significant others. But for others the Kelly show has some of the fascination of a Zen retreat, an opportunity to step away from MoMA’s surging crowds and consider how wonderfully complicated the simplest operations can become, at least in the hands of this formidable artist.
While MoMA offers visitors a nearly endless variety of experiences, the Neue Galerie is one of those intimate museums that invites visitors to focus on a singular, intense experience, which this summer is a terrific decorative arts exhibition, “Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907.” Beginning when Moser, who had studied both painting and the applied arts, was designing graphics and furnishings in a sensuous art nouveau style, the show traces his evolution toward the luxuriant asceticism that sometimes characterized the work of the design group known as the Wiener Werkstätte, of which Moser was a founder along with Josef Hoffmann.
Moser created everything from postage stamps to book covers to silver jewelry to china service to chairs with rustic seats to elaborately inlaid cabinetry. The Neue Galerie show underscores a powerful unifying graphic imagination that runs through all Moser’s work, a linear impulse that masters materials, from the humblest to the most luxurious. For museumgoers, a show with so many objects designed for the home cannot help but have a kind of fantasy dimension—you pick out the things you’d like to take with you. I was particularly held by the pared-down eloquence of a bookcase in blackened oak, originally designed for a woman by the name of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein. The Neue Galerie, whatever the occasion, is that rare cultural institution that knows exactly what it’s about. Visitors bond with the unembarrassed singularity of this museum that is nearly as beloved for its Viennese-style café as for its scholarly celebrations of Austrian and German modernism.
And what of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? What of the museum that is the very opposite of singular, that is encyclopedic not only in its collections but in its ambition to be all things to all people? The answer, at least at the moment, is that the Met is looking very good indeed. For only a few weeks the Met is hosting one of the great Hellenistic bronze sculptures—the Boxer at Rest, from the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome—and it is an experience not to be missed. Set in the main concourse of the Greek and Roman Galleries, amid a hurly-burly perhaps not entirely unlike that of the great athletic events of the ancient world, this seated figure exudes a concentrated power that stops people in their tracks. The boxer is resting in the immediate wake of a fight, a man hardened by life. The sculptural style is startlingly naturalistic, but with the language of naturalism marshaled for a boldly rhetorical impact. I imagine the power of this statue, which dates from sometime between the late fourth century and the second century BC, has everything to do with the fundamental contrast between the boxer’s powerfully built torso and long, muscular legs. To move around this bronze masterwork is to constantly find the artist’s representational imagination disclosing fresh formal amazements, a fluidity or liquidity of shifting shapes that confounds the boxer’s settled pose. The Boxer at Rest is disquietingly dynamic, a statue that establishes its own force field, simultaneously tragic and heroic. Museumgoers recognize that this is something out of the ordinary, whether the recognition is registered by a quick photograph on an iPhone or by the quite natural impulse to circle around the statue again and again, testing this angle and then that angle, trying to see how the multiplying impressions fit together.
“The Boxer: An Ancient Masterpiece” is the kind of sharply focused, small-scaled temporary event that has become an interest of museum officials in recent years, as the blockbuster fever of the past generation runs its course, a victim mostly of tightening budgets but also, perhaps, of a gradual realization that bigger is not always better. Although people will pay lip service to the idea that quality trumps quantity, our society tends to focus on the things that can be quantified. Then again, nobody will ever find themselves at a loss for things of quality amid the riches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum’s collection of Renaissance and Baroque paintings has never looked better than it does now, with the recent reopening of the galleries after an extensive expansion and rehanging. The Rembrandts, the Vermeers, the Van Eyck, the Bruegel, the Patinir, the Poussins, the El Grecos are presented with a fresh pace and emphasis that delights both the foreign tourists who haven’t seen them before and the New Yorkers who cannot remember a time when they didn’t regard them as old friends. What do museumgoers want? Surely they want this.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.