I don't go to the Museum of Modern Art for the shows anymore. I go for the atmosphere.
Arriving at the opening for Henri Cartier-Bresson's photo retro on Tuesday, I greeted MoMA czar Glenn Lowry, who was getting in a taxi with a load of luggage, headed for the airport, and then ventured out to the garden bar and a jolly encounter with MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach. "Klaus," I said, "all the art world has been emailing a request that you made for a 'go-go boy' these last 48 hours." Klaus laughed uproariously, "A boyfriend of mine forwarded my email, with pictures, all over the world." "I hope that you get 100 go-go boys, Klaus!" We yucked it up and embraced.
Time for my favorite MoMA sport: what's new near the escalators. Newly hung in the fourth floor lobby is an extraordinary 1964 piece by West Coast visionary Jess. Titled Ex. 4 - Trinity’s Trine, the painting is a Guston- ike depiction of a mad scientist's laboratory, full of flasks, tubes and beakers, in an array of psychedelic colors. It is wonderful! And, off the sixth-floor escalator, newly installed next to Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World is the seminal black artist Horace Pippin's 1942 painting Abraham Lincoln: The Great Emancipator, in which a white woman representing Liberty prostrates herself on Abe's knees.
I finally made it into the Cartier-Bresson show, curated by MoMA photo prince Peter Galassi. The prints, per Cartier-Bresson's taste, are small, there are about 300 of them, lazily arranged by very generic theme, and, since they are hung on large walls in the huge MoMA sixth-floor emporium, impossible to really look at from any distance. So, rather conveniently, I sat down at a table, smack dab in the middle of the show, and started to leaf through the catalogue. Who should immediately look over my shoulder but PBS talk show host Charlie Rose, tan, rested and ready. "Charlie," I remarked, "do you remember what Mike Wallace (of CBS) used to say about your show?" "No," Rose replied. "Shut up, Charlie!!" I answered, for Wallace famously disliked the way interviewer Rose stepped on his guest's responses. Rose turned a deep Rothko red. See what I mean about atmosphere?
The Cartier-Bresson retro is a curious case. Some of the most famous images of the 20th century are his: the iconic snaps of Albert Camus and the wall-eyed Sartre; the 1932 shot of a Belgian man in a bowler hat staring through a peephole; the 1945 drama of a French female Gestapo agent being slapped; the man who is puddle jumpin' in Behind the Gare St. Lazare (1932) and another man, haunted by spare, dark trees at the Prado Marseille, also from 1932.
Most perversely, Peter Galassi has installed these masterpieces amid copious snaps of crowds from all over the world, lazily organized under generic topics such as "New Worlds: USA," which misguidedly attempt to transform Cartier-Bresson into Stephen Shore. But, in his cunning way, Galassi is onto something: the ubiquity of cell phones and the easiness of photography means that, for future generations, the whole notion of iconic shots, the bread-and-butter of Cartier-Bresson, will disappear. Even he will be reduced to one long digital contact sheet, as photography itself sacrifices itself to a universal practice. In the meantime, at MoMA, I recommend the atmosphere.
"Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century," Apr. 11-June 28, 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).