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Boffo MoMA QNS
SRO for Madding Crowd

by Charlie Finch


Grinning like an orgasmic Cheshire cat, Museum of Modern Art director Glenn Lowry presided over the greatest auto-da-fe at MoMA since Jean Tinguely exploded his contraption in the museum's garden on Mar. 17, 1960 -- the grand opening of MoMA QNS on June 27, 2002.

Screaming masses queued through the thunderstorms of Queens, as guards deftly handed out umbrellas. Just as Tinguely's machine could be seen "shaking and quivering in all its members," in the words of Calvin Tomkins, so the white hospitality tents of Long Island City shook with the fury of a driving rain as thousands of patrons begged security musclemen to thrust them into the overflowing throng inside.

At one point, three shuttle buses of invited guests from 53rd Street disembarked and were immediately forced to turn back.

Forty years ago, Tomkins tells us, "Having waited an hour and a half to see the show, spectators now found themselves enveloped in a choking cloud that completely obscured their view of the machine."

Last night, art trippers giddily tanked by unlimited cocktails rushed to the street for a smoke, only to be told they had to rejoin the huge line of newcomers snaking down 33rd Street into 47th Street and all the other mixed up, screwed up, crisscrossed streets that Tinguely through Queens, before they could get back in.

By 8:45 40 years ago, "brilliant yellow smoke flashes now began going off all over the machine," Tomkins tells us.

By 8:45 last night in Queens, when yellow evening light met thunderheads in glorious climax, Whitney Museum chief Max Anderson, accompanied by wife Jacqueline in a black body-hugging jumpsuit slit down both sides, humbly offered his hand to the triumphant Lowry.

Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz, monarchs of Lilliput, surveyed their subjects with élan. A re-emerged, resplendent, newly empowered Kynaston McShine warmly embraced the Hammer Museum's Annie Philbin, saucily clad in gangster duds.

Radiant, superbuff Cecily Brown, in a demure silver and gray evening ensemble, patiently acknowledged her fans while waiting for the ladies room.

A plumb Donald Sultan paused to acknowledge the paparazzi, as uptown art dealer Tracy Williams glided by in a stunning new bleached-blonde monster do.

Forty years ago, after firemen axed and soaked Tinguely's out-of-control contraption, Phillip Johnson commented, "It was not a good joke."

To the contrary, the opening of MoMA QNS was light opera, musical comedy and Borscht Belt sideslappers rolled into one.

Few people managed, or even cared, to get close to the art, which was probably for the best. Where rain and booze and smoke and boxes and boxes of umbrellas meet under the rusted leviathan of the number 7, a man heretofore known for little more than fear and loathing, Glenn Lowry, laughs and laughs, Jean Tinguely piggybacking on his shoulders.

There's no reason to ever return to 53rd Street.


CHARLIE FINCH is coauthor of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).