The Museum of Modern Art has installed "Monet's Water Lilies" in a nondescript, brightly lit second floor gallery. It is a long way from the waiting room sofa outside the old MoMA restaurant, where the lilies were as comfortable as a Mediterranean cabana, but nevertheless the flowers of autumn romance still shine through.
The opening on Tuesday consisted of a calm older crowd of boulevardiers: collector Wyn Kramarsky in a cream-colored suit, a man in a black bowler, Don Marron greeting the show's arranger Ann Temkin with a passionate kiss on the mouth, two bored little boys in blazers wondering why they were there before the creaky masterpieces.
MoMA's misspent glare gives the lilies the patina of Jackson Pollocks, yet the long triptych frieze, though vulnerable, remains proud. Its masterly surface still beckons time very softly, the turquoise flowers on the left turning to flesh, the pink blossoms borrowed from Cleopatra moving rightward into blood muddy waters, with the dark, absorbing glow of a war zone, the battle of the artist's mortality.
In the smaller works, purple blossoms drown us in their essence. The latest work in the show, painted through his fingers by a blind Monet at the dawn of the Jazz Age, The Japanese Footbridge, lingers like a fine brown muscatel, with aromas of Vuillard, Ryder, Diebenkorn and Mitchell. It is a melancholy mess of the first rank. On the opposite wall, the languid pinks of Monet's great diptych linger and wait for the guards to dim the overhead lights and lock the doors. Then they will glow.
Every river beckons, every tree shall bough, every lily permanently bloom. Two thousand years from now, when even the lilies disappear, somehow these somber, wishful paintings shall remain and Monet shall float upon them like a magic raft.
"Monet’s Water Lilies," Sept. 13, 2009-Apr. 12, 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).