Ruth Boggs—MoMa Moments
New York City is hot, humid, and sticky when I arrive at Penn Station on the Acela Express from Washington, D.C. I’m here for a three-day job interpreting a deposition. I check into the Renaissance on 57th Street and in anticipation of three stressful workdays, I go to bed early, get up early, do some prepping, put on my suit, shoulder my briefcase, and walk the two blocks to Madison Avenue, where I enter a sleek steel, glass and black marble skyscraper and an elevator that carries me to the top floor.
Fifteen minutes, later, I leave the law firm’s Mad Men style decorated office suite on the elevator back down and arrive back on the street level, where masses of people emerge from subway stations, bus stops and coffee shops and rush to their offices.
Turns out that the case I’m working on settled earlier that morning in Europe, which is good and bad news for me. Good news, because I’m getting paid for the three days anyway; bad news because there will be no further work in this case.
The people who rush by me are on their way to work, to 9-5 jobs in the tall structures that make up the landscape of Manhattan.
I’m free as a bird, with nothing to do for the rest of the day. I can take the next train home and start working on another project, or I can take a late train home and spend the day in Manhattan.
After weighing my options, I decide that I will give myself this unexpected day to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I’ve never been to the very popular Museum of Modern Art, which is only a few streets away. I just finished reading a German novel that had some terrific scenes in the MoMA, and I’m curious. Instead of hurrying home to tackle more deadlines, I will gift this day to myself to explore the MoMa.
Back at the hotel, I drop off my bags with the concierge and head out. Up 57th to 5th Avenue, take a left and then a right on 53rd Street and voila – I’m looking at a line that stretches halfway around the building. But I have all day, and as soon as the doors open, the line moves very fast and I’m in.
The sign “German Expressionists” immediately catches my eye. I head up to the sixth floor. The exhibit features “Die Brücke” artists – Germans who started the expressionist movement in 1910 in Dresden and later continued it in Berlin. Works of Kirchner, Heckel, Kokoschka, Kollwitz, Dix, Beckmann and Nolde are prominently displayed. Like a good tourist, I listen obediently to the electronic museum guide that dangles from my neck to unravel the mysteries of German expressionism.
I’m especially intrigued by the works of Otto Dix, who did a number of gory paintings of slain prostitutes, using bold strokes and colors in is expressionist rendition of dismembered bodies and crime scenes. They would make a great story line for a crime novel where the perpetrator could use clues from the paintings to leave for the investigators to figure out. And then a clever investigator who happens to visit the MoMA has an “aha” moment and solves the case. My writer’s mind is in overdrive. I’ll have to explore this further.
After two hours of learning about German expressionism, I briefly skim the Skÿs collection on the 5th floor and then head to the rooftop terrace restaurant, where my streak of luck continues: Despite the busy lunch hour, the waitress seats me at an outside table on the railing, a prime spot with an unobstructed view of the courtyard.
The rectangular reflecting pools with cascading fountains, surrounded by aspen trees, lush shrubberies, and inviting benches grouped around them, create a green oasis of quiet and solitude.
The menu is also inviting and I settle on a smoked trout salad and iced tea, with mango sorbet and a cappuccino for dessert. While I wait for my food and revel in the exciting turn this day has suddenly taken, I observe the people in the courtyard below me and notice a couple in a very tight embrace.
I figure them as tourists. The middle-aged man has gray hair and wears khaki shorts and a polo shirt. The slightly younger woman has long brunette hair and is dressed in a strapless summer top and Capri pants. Her arms are slung around his neck. Her head is buried in his chest, and he holds her very tight. They remain motionless for a very long time. Every time she tries to leave, he tightens his embrace. They seem oblivious to their surroundings. I feel like an intruder witnessing a crucial moment in their lives. A goodbye? Making up after a lover’s spat? A milestone, perhaps a proposal or a bittersweet parting?
After the man finally lets go of her, he sits down on a nearby bench, and the woman heads for the exit. Aha. Goodbye. But then she turns around and walks right past him in the other direction as he snaps a photo with his camera, but doesn’t even look up as she crosses his field of vision. Then he puts the camera away, hunches over, drops his head into his hands, and stares at the ground for a very long time.
The woman now sits on another bench farther away and stares at the water in the reflecting pool. Because I can’t see their faces, it is difficult to gauge what is going on. But then the woman returns to the man’s bench, a small child appears seemingly from out of nowhere, and the three head off together, holding hands.
Their brief interlude leaves me as puzzled as the exhibit in the Francis Alÿs collection I just viewed and can’t get out of my mind.
Alÿs is a Belgian artist known for his use of poetic and allegorical methods to address political and social issues. He works primarily in Mexico, and this particular piece of art is a home movie projected onto a room-sized white wall. The grainy image suggests the work of an amateur. It shows a dusty hillside in rural Mexico. A dirt road leads straight up to the crest of the hill. Decrepit little shacks dot the hillside on either side of the steep road. At the bottom of the hill, a horizontal flat road runs around the mountain, perpendicular to the steep road.
A little red Volkswagen Beetle turns onto the steep road and tries to drive up the hill. The driver revs up the engine, but halfway up the hill it sputters and dies and the car rolls back down, crossing the flat perpendicular road backwards as it rolls back. Undeterred, the driver tries again. He revs up the engine and starts up the hill. This time, he gets just a little farther before the engine dies and the car slides backwards down the hill again. The driver tries again and again. Each time, as he gets a little farther up the hill the volume and crescendo of the mariachi music that underscores the movie rises in proportion to the VW’s progress. But once the car’s engine dies, so does the music, and the car rolls back down in silence, only to make yet another attempt.
There’s other movement on the hill: A couple of stray dogs cross the dusty road. A man leaves one of the shanty houses and walks over to another one. A large white Buick sedan enters the picture from the right on the flat road that intersects the steep road, and then disappears to the left. The scene itself never changes. There’s only one screen shot: The hill, and the little red VW Beetle that is desperately trying to mount the hill, to the bolstering sounds of the mariachi music, only to fail again and again and roll back down in silence.
During the fifteen minutes I watch this scene, people to the left and right of me get bored with it. They get up and leave. My mind is churning: Shouldn’t the VW’s engine have overheated and blown up by now? What’s going to happen next? Will the car accidentally run over one of the dogs or people as it rolls back down the hill? Maybe the driver should start from farther back so he can get a better momentum going? Is he EVER going to make it to the top?
Finally, I decide that I won’t wait for the end of the movie. I’ve already lasted much longer than some of the other visitors. On the way out, I ask one of the attendants,
“Please tell me – is he EVER going to make it to the top of the hill?”
Like most of the attendants, he’s a good-looking black man who wears a navy blue blazer and speaks with a Caribbean accent.
“I don’t want to spoil the ending for you,” he says in a hushed voice.
“Don’t worry, you won’t be spoiling anything. I’m about to leave anyway.”
He bends down a bit, cups his mouth with his hand, and whispers,
“Okay then. I’ll tell you. Eventually, he gives up and turns left on the flat road, like the other large sedans, and just goes around the mountain instead up and over it.”
As I contemplate the fate of the couple in the courtyard and the driver of the VW Beetle, my eyes fall on a young woman at a table across from me. She’s also by herself. We make eye contact and she nods and smiles at me, which catches me by surprise. I smile back and muster her inconspicuously. I figure her as a foreigner, probably from one of the eastern European countries. Black jacket, black skirt, dark top. No makeup, brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Shy demeanor. Then she reaches for her pocketbook, pulls out a spiral notebook and pencil, and starts scribbling. I should have known.
I pull out my own pen to write down a memorable quote I saw at the gift shop: “Art is art. Everything else is everything else.”