2002-07-03 / Front Page

Fireworks, Free Exhibits Mark MoMAQns Opening

by thomas cogan

Speaking of the many who have expended great effort in the project to finish and open the Museum of Modern Art, Queens (MoMAQns), the Modern’s Director, Glenn D. Lowry, said, "There are people who haven’t slept in the last 12 months."

His hyperbole was forgivable, even as he went on to say they’re still not sleeping. He was speaking of William Maloney and Richard Vikse, in charge of the construction project, who "got the job done on time and on budget;" and also the innumerable people who have in one way or another helped to move the museum from its West 53rd Street home in Manhattan to the former Swingline Staples factory on 33rd Street in Long Island City, where it will be in residence until the extensive redesign of the original site is completed in 2005. "They are the ones who have helped create MoMAQns, an important new phase in the museum’s history and, one expects, an important addition to life in Queens," he said.

Lowry spoke at a media preview three days before the museum’s official opening on Saturday, June 29, when the public was allowed in free that day and the next. He stood at a lectern near Moonbird, a large bronze sculptural work by Joan Miro, and his audience could see two paintings by Georges Seurat on the wall behind him. They alone indicated that the world’s leading repository of Modernistic artworks had arrived for a long stay just below the Number 7 train line’s 33rd/Rawson Street stop.

MoMAQns is housed in one of two large Swingline buildings left behind in Long Island City when the stapler manufacturer relocated in the late 1990s. The Museum of Modern Art purchased the building, colored robin’s egg blue at the time, that takes up most of the west side of the block on 33rd Street between Queens Boulevard and 47th Avenue. One of the project’s architects, Michael Maltzan, said he was drawn to the color but believed that there should be a deeper, "more noticeable" blue on the redesigned building, and so now there is. It was also Maltzan, of the Los Angeles firm, Michael Maltzan Architecture, who designed the white-painted sections on the roof that converge to the name ‘MoMA’ before the eyes of any rider looking at the roof from a Flushing-bound Number 7 train coming into the station. He designed the public entrance, the lobby, the mezzanine (including a cafe and a store) and the entrance to the exhibition galleries. The other architectural firm, Cooper, Robertson & Partners, did the behind-the-scenes designs–storage space, offices, imaging, framing facilities–and also the library and public reading room. The new museum has 160,000 square feet of room, 25,000 of it exhibition space.

Scott Newman, chief architect at Cooper, Robertson & Partners, recalled Alfred Barr, founder of the Museum of Modern Art, and his description of art as a torpedo moving through time. He said he has time on his mind when he considers MoMAQns. There is the present; 2005, when redesign of the Manhattan museum is completed and MoMA returns there; and 2025. He said he doesn’t consider MoMAQns anything temporary and sees further development, when MoMA goes back to Manhattan and well into the future. Maltzan said his sign on the roof and other designs were images of motion. Inside, he has attempted to "delaminate the wall between art and viewers, in a way that is always leading you to the next space."

Among the first exhibitions at MoMAQns , which could be viewed by the media on Wednesday and at a press party the following night, before the public got to see them on the weekend, are "To Be Looked At," paintings and sculpture from the permanent collection; "AUTObodies: speed, sport, transport," featuring the six vehicles in MoMA’s possession; and "A Walk Through Astoria and Other Places in Queens: Photographs by Rudy Burkhardt." The first, "To Be Looked At," features many works and artists, from Seurat to Andy Warhol, that should be familiar to those who have ever visited MoMA on West 53rd Street. Nevertheless, in speaking of his interior designs, Matzlan said that he hoped to put these works in a different perspective and either reacquaint the viewer with them or make the viewer notice what had previously gone unnoticed. For at least one viewer, the sight of Picasso’s 1906 painting, Woman Plaiting Her Hair, was revelatory. One of the "AUTObodies," vehicles is a 1963 Jaguar XKE, and Glenn Lowry couldn’t mention it without saying, "Perhaps you notice by the tightness in my voice how I react to it." An impressive sight indeed, as are the Cisitalia 202 GT, an Italian car of limited production from the early postwar years, and the Formula 1 Ferrari from the late 1980s. Also interesting, though, are the familiar Beetle and Jeep, being a 1959 Volkswagen and the U.S. Army vehicle as redesigned in 1953. Finally there is the Smart Car, 2002 model, a European compact bound to become better known in the United States.

The Burckhardt photographs are taken from albums he made of excursions in Queens in 1940 and 1943. It was a different Queens then, much of it still made up of the barren areas and dumping grounds such as those on which the 1939 World’s Fair was built. Burckhardt’s crystal-clear black-and-white pictures are poignant sights of empty places and populated ones, the latter often lacking people anyway, seemingly because the photographer wanted to leave them out. The 1940 photographs show Burckhardt’s interest in the signs that aid or attract people (a Mobilgas station lacking business in this late Depression year, or a poster for a movie with Alice Faye and Fred MacMurray) and apparent avoidance of the people themselves. People, especially children and their parents, are more prominent in the 1943 photos Some things don’t look much different: whatever changes have been made, that’s still the 39th Street bridge over the Sunnyside Yards; still the factory building standing at the point where Skillman and 43rd Avenues converge. Accompanying the photographs are some fine urban sonnets by Burckhardt’s friend, the poet and dance critic Edwin Denby.

These and other exhibitions were at last opened to the public on the weekend ending the month. Since there was no admission charge, what probably would have been an excellent turnout was instead enormous, with people constantly lined up on 33rd Street awaiting a moment when the guards at the door would let in a precious few more. On Saturday night, buses delivered many of them to Gantry Plaza State Park by the East River, where they stood in the dark, staring at the end of Roosevelt Island and awaiting an exhibition promised to begin (and nearly end) at 9:30 p.m. Transient Rainbow, a fireworks exhibition by the artist Cai Guo-Qiang, was supposed to conclude with a pyrotechnic rainbow that would span most of the breadth of the river, as a symbol of MoMA’s transfer of the museum from Manhattan to Queens. After perhaps a two-minute delay there was a flash from the place at which all eyes were concentrated and up went some rockets that exploded into letters saying ‘MoMA’ and ‘Qns,’ which persisted even when they’d turned to smoke. The next rockets produced a pastel swirl that climbed and revealed itself as the beam reaching from one shore to another. A few seconds later, true to its transient nature, the ‘rainbow’ faded and disappeared, viewer’s cheers bidding it goodbye. MoMA was in Queens, of which Lowry said: This is an interesting, rich cultural community and we’re proud to be a part of it.


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