Museum of Modern Art photo czar Peter Galassi and I were standing in front of Street Scene, a snapshot by Edgar Degas, the other night, at MoMA’s beautifully reconfigured Steichen Galleries.
"No one knows anything about this picture," Galassi told me. The photo is one of two by the great Impressionist in MoMA's collection, the other being a portrait snap of Stéphane Mallarmé. Street Scene is a mesmerizing shot of a bearded man in plus fours. A small girl in a dark dress looks back at him in assumed wonderment, while a group of well-dressed women and a solitary male gather around a billboard posting of notices, on what could be a church or perhaps a theater.
"Degas only took photos for about a year," Galassi continued. "After dinner, he would drive his friend Daniel Halévy crazy by ordering him to place the dinner candles in various positions, while Degas took photo after photo." The mysterious Street Scene is one of several Degas photographs originally owned by Julie Manet (daughter of Berthe Morisot and Eugène Manet) and Ernest Rouart (son of Degas’ good friend, the great collector Henri Rouart).
You will not want to abandon viewing these ancient riches, but the rest of the Steichen arrangement is heavy on celebrities, with special attention to Marilyn Monroe, by Philippe Halsman and Richard Avedon. I preferred a tantalizing wide-assed backwards nude of a zaftig woman by Auguste Belloc, but you will have your favorites.
I told Galassi that a few sofas, à la the ones at the Brooklyn Museum, would be welcome. "But they're expensive, Charlie!," Galassi ejaculated. Can anyone spare a chaise longue or two?
The new installation of the Edward Steichen Photography Galleries on MoMA’s third floor opened in May 2009; it was overseen by MoMA photo curator Sarah Meister.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).