The average Manhattan midsummer day is hot, rank and long. Some of us keep to the great air-conditioned indoors; others head for the country. Both options are available at the Museum of Modern Art, and the word must be out. The ticket lines lately have been long. The lobby of 11 West 53rd Street is an ocean of flip-flops and shorts.
Not that the museum itself is in a kick-back mood. It's taken some serious critical heat since its 2004 reopening. MoMA bashing is the art world sport that Whitney bashing was in the 1990s. People say the Yoshio Taniguchi building is leaden, space hogging, art-hostile. Tongues wag about the museum's cozying up to corporations. And then there's the US$20 entrance fee.
But a lot of people don't seem to care about any of this. Day after day the visitors arrive, armies of them, ready to take their expensive plunge into one of the coolest collections of modern Western art in the world. You go to museums to see art; MoMA owns fabulous art.
And a surprising amount of that art, which was once in the vanguard of culture, is about very old-fashioned things, like love and death, and landscapes and seasons, and one season in particular: summer.
In the hot months artists have traditionally fled Paris and New York, but only to take working vacations. They went to the country for refreshment - to wash the studio light from their eyes, as Georges Seurat put it - but also to capture an image of nature on the spot, and to store the memory of it for later use.
So why not follow them on their summer travels - to the Riviera and Long Island, Provence and Cape Cod - by which I mean up and down the Modern's escalators to different galleries on different floors? Let the artists give you a tour.
I took one recently. It was a workout, but it was great, and it ended with an anyone-can-join-in party: beach blanket bingo with Seurat (a real doll); Henri Matisse in a skimmer (let's have a smile, Henri); Liubov Popova, in from Russia (she designed her own bathing suit, and earrings, and shoes); and Pablo Picasso, who flexed nonstop. I worried that they'd have nothing to say to one another. They had everything to say to one another. The conversation was magical. And when it was over, they each went their separate ways.
I'd never thought of Matisse as an outdoor person, and he isn't really, despite all his early fiery Fauve landscapes, of which the museum has a slew. His is an indoor disposition. An environment of contained domestic order gives him the freedom to arrange and disarrange the world at will, take it apart, collapse its space, control its expressive temperatures, determine its confusions.
This is what he's up to in The Blue Window, painted in the bedroom of his home outside Paris in (according to the museum) the summer of 1913. Everything is blue: the walls, the window, the table holding vases and pots, the trees and garden outside. It's as if the sky had invaded the house, or interior shadows had leaked outside.
Giorgio de Chirico was most likely studio-bound the summer he finished Great Metaphysical Interior (1917), a dark, suffocated picture consisting mostly of a setup of easels coming to life in a sort of Sorcerer's Apprentice fantasy. Right in the center, though, like an open window, is a painting within the painting, a view of a lakeside house or hotel in a lush garden landscape. Picture-postcard perfect, the scene feels like a breath of fresh country air. It seems to have "Weather is beautiful - wish I were there" written all over it.