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Which way to 'Starry Night'? A reimagined MoMA opens to the public
Guests attend The Museum of Modern Art's Reopening Celebration at Museum of Modern Art on October 18, 2019 in New York City. Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Museum Of Modern Art/AFP.

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Tania Thomas, one of the first visitors to see the renovated and expanded Museum of Modern Art, had the new floor map in hand and an audio guide. It wasn’t enough.

“We’re walking in the wrong direction,” Thomas, of Larchmont, New York, said to her daughter Eliana, 11, as they wandered the fifth floor. “Should we go to the beginning and start over?”

Jeff Madrick, a longtime museum member, said he was surprised by some of the artworks he hadn’t seen before. “I don’t remember the small Légers or the Stuart Davis,” he said, referring to work by French painter Fernand Léger and the American modernist painter.

His wife, Kim Baker, was pleased to see a roomful of pieces by Italian sculptor Constatin Brancusi as well as works by American painter Mary Cassatt, on view for the first time in 20 years. “We’re very happy to be back and to see such thoughtful presentations,” Baker said. “I’m eager to just keep looking.”

The museum reopened to the public Sunday after having been closed for four months to complete a $450 million expansion and reorganization. Drawn by a special offer — free admission — announced on social media and the museum’s website the day before, more than 6,000 visitors poured in Sunday to see where some of their favorite artworks had ended up — and what else the museum was able to fit into its 24 new galleries.

Given how much new space there is to navigate, it was no wonder visitors took a while to get their bearings.

As they entered the new expanded lobby, many gravitated toward the electronic information sign — with columns labeled “South,” “East” and “West” — to decide which way to go. Staff members wearing neck lanyards and carrying maps approached visitors with friendly “Welcome to MoMA” greetings and offered to help direct them.

But even employees seemed a little unsure of themselves. “Is there an elevator that way?” one visitor asked. “I think so,” answered a staff member, opening one of her maps, “Let me check.”

In the galleries — where overheard languages included French, German, Japanese and Spanish — many guests opted to wear audio guide headsets. The new maps helped, too. But for the most part, visitors began MoMA’s new era creating their own mental maps, figuring out where their favorite pieces now resided, and taking note of other artworks that the museum’s curators had positioned around them.

Perhaps most noticeable to MoMA regulars was the museum’s decision to upend its traditional organization, abandoning a linear narrative of modern art in favor of a more eclectic approach, with galleries organized by theme and new acquisitions by women and artists of color mixed in among war horses by white European men.

Liz Bejarano, who was given a yearlong membership by being the first person in line, wanted to see her favorite works, Monet’s water lilies and Matisse’s dancers.

When she found the Matisse, tears filled her eyes. “I feel peace,” she said. “I feel I need to dance and to try to repeat these movements.”

Monet’s three-paneled “Water Lilies” now has a room to itself. Bejarano sat on one of the black ottomans in front of the triptych and contemplated the colors. “It feels more intimate,” she said of the space.

Her only complaint: She wished she could enjoy the paintings in silence. An excerpt from Dziga Vertov’s 1931 Soviet film “Entuziazm (Enthusiasm)” — which features factory and industrial sounds — was playing in the neighboring gallery.

“This noise — this mix of classical art with I-don’t-know-what art — disturbs me a little,” she said.

Rachel Heller, a blogger visiting from the Netherlands with her sister, Nina, 55, and nephew, Sean Murray, 22, who live in Connecticut, pronounced the new MoMA “beautiful.”

“It’s big and roomy and airy,” said Heller, 57.

She particularly liked Faith Ringgold’s 1967 work “American People Series #20: Die," a striking 12-foot-long double canvas depicting a race riot, and its placement near Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” “It certainly references ‘Guernica,’” she said of the Ringgold, referring to Picasso’s epic 1937 painting.

Heller made sure to seek out “Starry Night” by her countryman Vincent van Gogh, arguably the museum’s most famous possession.

Her only critical note was the placement of the van Gogh, which she said was likely to create traffic problems when the museum is more crowded. “It’s probably not great to put it in the corner,” Heller said. “That should be in the middle of the wall.”

Her sister Nina Heller objected to the fourth-floor location of Matisse’s largest cutout. “They buried ‘The Swimming Pool,’” she said.

There are new areas altogether, like the street-level Projects Gallery, free to the public; the second-floor “Creativity Lab,” where the museum’s education department will explore ideas and art processes; and a fourth-floor double-height studio for performance, dance, music and sound works.

There are also new amenities, like a sixth-floor cafe, couches connecting the existing eastern portion to the new western addition and an expanded store that has been moved below ground.

Michael and Susan Lanford, repeat MoMA visitors from San Antonio, Texas, both commended the museum’s renovations. “It seems more generous,” Michael Lanford said.

They were also happy to find a couple of upholstered chairs on the fifth floor where they could comfortably plot out their journey through the newly unfamiliar museum.

“We’re just getting readjusted,” Susan Lanford added. “I said to Mike, ‘Where do we start?’”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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