Experiencing Museums as They Should Be: Gloriously Empty

The other morning, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vincent van Gogh and I had a chat. I asked him about the straw hat and blue cravat he had on: Was he going for an urban bohemian look, or was it all about coming off as an outsider? We had a frank exchange about his mental state. He was looking a bit wound-up — I’d heard rumors about some strange behavior — but his eyes seemed bright and untroubled. Of course we mostly went on about his art. Where did his work fit into his era’s modern painting? Was a next step toward abstraction in the back of his mind?

I admit that it had been a long time since I’d tried to commune this deeply with van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait With a Straw Hat,” from 1887, one of the Met’s treasures. For years, every time I’d gone to pay it — him — my respects, the crowd of admirers made it impossible to get near enough, for long enough, for us to achieve any real understanding. But over the last few months, with Covid restrictions severely limiting attendance, the world’s most famous museums have given their art a new opportunity to speak to us.

This is the moment to revisit the holdings of our great art museums: Even if their special exhibitions start to fill up again, it will be a while before crowds come to their permanent collections. As museums everywhere contemplate their post-Covid future, their Covid-troubled present carries us back to a glorious, more art-friendly past.

On my very first visit to New York’s great museums, almost four decades ago, you could look at just about any work without much in the way of distraction or obstruction. My parents, the most die-hard of modernists, had raised their kids on abstraction alone, so I needed all the calm I could get to come to grips with how people-pictures like van Gogh’s self-portrait, or the celebrated Rembrandts down the hall, could even count as art.

My teenage self didn’t stick to the Met. At the Museum of Modern Art, I remember being thrilled by its modernist landmarks: Picasso’s shocking “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Matisse’s magical “Piano Lesson,” Pollock’s frantic “One: Number 31.” Visiting them again on a recent Thursday afternoon, in an almost empty museum, I felt like we’d barely been apart. Whereas on many a visit over the past decade, I’d felt as if I was trying to hang out with high-school friends grown so famous they could barely be approached through their entourage.

The other afternoon at MoMA, it felt almost bizarre to plant myself in front of the “Demoiselles” for as long as I wanted, without worrying about blocking all the people behind me. (There weren’t any.) I got to do the kind of prolonged, thoughtful looking it takes to really make a painting come alive — to move beyond the preconceptions and clichés that all of us arrive with and actually look, with fresh eyes, at what the picture might be about. Contemplating the “Demoiselles,” from 1907, which was credited with pushing Picasso toward his Cubist revolution, I had the leisure to ask myself why, at the last minute, he’d made the faces of some of the women look like African masks. That move gives us so much trouble today, as we come to grips with the West’s brutal history of colonialism and racism — and, as I realized the other afternoon, Picasso didn’t have to go there. The painting would have looked fine without those Africanisms; Cubism could have happened without them, as well.

Even that Thursday, in ideally uncrowded conditions, it wasn’t easy for me to clear my head enough to take in the “Demoiselles,” so imagine all the young people who have come to MoMA for the first time amid pre-Covid throngs. What chance did they have to think much of anything as they elbowed their way into the presence of this supposed “great art.”

For a while now, I’ve been talking about art objects as “machines for thinking”: Our job as viewers is to switch them on, and it’s almost impossible to do that when all you’re getting is a glimpse through the gaps in a crowd.

All this is doubly important with work that’s so new to you that you don’t even have clichés to fall back on. That was my situation one recent morning, when I paid my first visit to the great old Frick Collection in its new digs in the modernist Breuer building on Madison Avenue. (The Frick’s old masters are due to live there for a couple of years as the collection’s Beaux-Arts mansion is renovated.)

Like the Met and MoMA, over recent decades the Frick has become a victim of its own success. As tourism to New York exploded, the domestic spaces of the old Frick almost always seemed packed to full capacity, making it nearly impossible to start any kind of fresh conversation with its glorious Vermeers and Titians. The crowding could make it hard even to notice the less famous works, tucked into far corners that you sped by. As most every critic has said, the Breuer has given the Frick’s masterpieces new room to breathe; its “lesser” objects now have the chance to draw your attention.

Because of Covid restrictions, I was almost alone when I came upon Renaissance bronzes that I’d barely known in their old home. A little bronze of Hercules, by the sculptor known as Antico, was all gleaming surfaces; the hair was a delicious pile of gilt curls. A nearby bronze by Giovanfrancesco Rustici, on the same subject, had a rough surface that seemed almost corroded. As I looked and thought, an explanation came to mind: Both were trying to conjure up images of bronzes by their artistic ancestors in ancient Greece and Rome. Antico was imagining how glorious those bronzes must have looked when new; Rustici made his new works look like they’d been buried for 1,500 years.

I won’t say I’m thankful to Covid for anything; a few wondrous hours with art can’t make up for what we’ve suffered. But as I think of all we’ve learned from our trials — how to wash our hands; how to treasure absent loved ones — I wonder if our most popular museums will take their own Covid lessons to heart.

Will they try to return to 2019 attendance and ticket receipts, or will they think back even further in time, to the close encounters that people once managed to have, in peace, with the art? If getting back to that state means that we visitors must reserve a limited supply of timed tickets, as we do under Covid — if it means that museums have to rethink or reverse decades of growth in buildings, budgets and programing — the art works themselves will thank us for it. They were growing tired of constant socializing; they’ve been dying for some deep, one-on-one conversation.

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