I spent January in the US, and managed, during my relentless pursuit of Tex-Mex and Whataburger, to visit the McNay Art Museum, a place that will always be special to me.
The McNay opened in 1954, with the home, collection, and an endowment of Marion Koogler McNay, as established in her will. It was the first modern art museum in Texas, although the holdings expanded outside of that frame.
When I was a regular visitor, as a teenager, it was already a super cool place. There was an auditorium and workshop space, the grounds were beautiful, and the museum was free. I went often, and I got pretty familiar with the collection.
In 2008, the museum underwent a heckin big expansion, adding 45,000 square feet of space plus a sculpture garden. It isn’t free anymore, but it does have a cool gift shop and also lots of exhibitions. I do feel a bit wistful for the smaller oasis the McNay was for me back in the day, but it has grown and it is thriving and one must be satisfied with that.
I took a metric ton of photos, but I won’t subject you to them all. Mainly, I was just very happy to visit some old friends.
And meet some new ones.
The McNay also has a big-time theatre arts collection, some of which formed part of this exceptionally fun show:
Just a couple more pictures of the courtyard and grounds, I promise:
Should you wish to explore the collection and temporary exhibits more, the museum has a robust online presence. But do go visit if you’re ever in the area; you’ll be so glad you did. The McNay is treasure of San Antonio.
The McNay Art Museum is closed Monday and Tuesday, and general admission is relatively steep, at least to me (as I’m used to the inexpensive entry fees of Argentina), but they have a pretty extensive free and discount list. See the website for all the where, when, and how much nitty gritty.
Having been elbow-deep in various other obligations and pursuits, I have been a terrible blogger. But I’m actively scheduling some upcoming visits, so I had better work through my backlog here. I’m not going to say too much about the MALBA, as it is widely called, because…it’s really famous. If you’re an art-interested traveler touring Buenos Aires, it’s already on your agenda. As it should be.
There’s an impressive permanent collection, with all the usual suspects and more.
There’s also these amazing benches, probably my favorite museum seating in the world so far. It’s actually very comfortable.
I am very fond of birds.
What’s that? Fun, interactive pieces? Duh.
(Seven Unexpected Movements, Julio Le Parc)
The permanent collection is a real treat, but the MALBA also moves some pretty extensive temporary exhibitions through. When I visited, there was an exhibition of Pablo Suárez, an Argentine painter and sculptor with a pretty broad stylistic range.
You’ll burn a few hours in the MALBA, which is pretty much a can’t-miss stop in Buenos Aires if you’re at all into Latin American art and culture. Signage is in Spanish and English. There’s a nice restaurant with a solid menu, and a pricey gift shop. The museum is open from 12 to 8 (and an hour later on Wednesdays) except Tuesdays, when it is closed. General admission is, at the time of this post but haha Argentina inflation so do double check, $170 pesos (reduced admission for students, teachers, and local retirees is $85), except on Wednesdays when it’s $85 (and reduced admission patrons are free). Under 5 and disabled visitors are always free. Private group guided visits in English can be arranged by email.
The MALBA is located in Palermo, kind of between the Japanese Gardens and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, close to many other major museums and attractions. Fewer places in the city are easier to get to via bus, taxi, subway (D line), or on foot.
I am hardly a scholar of art history, but I can tell you that modern and contemporary art is hard. It often doesn’t adhere to a traditional notion of artistic skill, it often doesn’t portray recognizable subjects, it often offends traditional sensibilities. This art doesn’t lead you to its point; it asks that you meet it there. Modern art requires the consumer to work.
And that’s not a super easy thing to accept.
And it isn’t hard to see why many people are suspicious of modern art; they look at simple, geometric paintings or found-object sculpture and get the sense that they’re being conned. I have some opinions about certain artists myself, certainly. Who would want to look at or experience something, ascribe to it a meaning, and then find out it didn’t mean anything? That would suck.
So modern art requires some faith on the part of the consumer. It requires some work to understand the artist’s intent. And it requires considering what art is and what it should do.
But that isn’t all there is to it. The consumer experience matters. When you look at something, your feelings are your feelings, and it’s useful to examine them. You don’t have to like what you see, you don’t even have to see what the artist sees. The artist doesn’t get to dictate your reaction or interpretation. How it makes you as an individual feel is important. Modern art places importance on innovation and that emotional evocation.
Regarding innovation, I will tell you of the two times I met Jackson Pollock’s work in educational settings. The first time I was a young child on a school trip to an art museum. The woman leading the tour showed us a large Pollock canvas, and told us maybe we thought we could do that, but that it was deceptively simple–it was the way that he dripped the paint, his method, that made it unique and valuable. She was an Adult Authority Figure in her Field, so I tried to see the skill in his splatters, despite my reservations. When I was in college, my art history professor gave an explanation that seemed much clearer to me. “Maybe you think you could do that,” he said. “But you didn’t.” Pollock had innovated, and created something that no one else can now create.
So maybe you see something in a piece like this, motion and depth and shape:
I think it’s perfectly fair to look at something that is abstract and decide what you see in it and if you like it. But I do encourage you to at least take that look.
Now, modern art of course involves more than just painting and sculpture. There are often multimedia components and even tactile ones. The exhibition Pulso by Nicolás Mastracchio∼ incorporates photography, found objects, video, and your bare feet.
After removing your shoes, you walk around in very close proximity to the photos and what are described as “fragile mobiles,” such as that dry leave you see there. You may sit for several minutes for the video portion.
Mastracchio∼ was influenced by meditation and Zen principles, and “exploring the spontaneous and ephemeral configurations of a small cosmos of objects, which is ordered in a few minutes and then photographed, together with the installation of mobiles in movement.”
I might not have come to that conclusion on my own, but I do see it. The room was smaller and the carpet was soft and dampened the sound, making the exhibition room feel more intimate and quiet than the cavernous galleries. Walking among things like photos and the small mobile objects gave me a sharp sense of my physical being within the space. And, although it isn’t mentioned in the exhibition material, I was also disturbed by the non-natural objects floating in the air and the water in the video. It felt like pollution that I could not remove, and that’s a feeling worth examining, too.
There are lots of Argentine modern artists represented in the Moderno’s collection. This is Integralismo Bio-cosmos N°1, by Emilio Renart, and all I can tell you I am super glad it does not move.
Also in the sculpture realm is this Crucifixión by Norberto Gómez, which is certainly not the most comforting thing I’ve ever seen.
But I wanted to talk about this one for a second. It is clearly a crucifixion; you can see that from any angle, without reading the title plaque. Think, or look here if you like, about traditional crucifixion scenes. At least in my opinion, there is usually a serenity to Jesus, even if his pain is evident. There’s a sense of structure in the composition. They are, in a way, comforting. To my eye, Gómez has reduced the crucifixion to its barest agony. With a minimal human aspect, it twists and contorts without relief.
And then there’s this guy.
This is Lengua. You might recall Alberto Heredia from the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Not everything he did involved terrifying disembodied mouths, but “terrifying” does seem to be a recurring feature, as seen here with the most alarming San Martin I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Last in the 3D arts that I’m going to note is Claudia Fontes’s Ofelia, which to me recalls Philippe Curtius’s waxwork Sleeping Beauty modeled on Madame du Berry (Curtius is now best known for teaching Madame Tussaud her craft; the Sleeping Beauty is in the London Tussaud location, and there are better images of it out there than the official video). I won’t go too deep into my thoughts on Ofelia, except to say that while the Sleeping Beauty waxworks (there were several) were created by and for the male gaze, Fontes has removed the female figure entirely, leaving only the gown (a garment that, incidentally, sunk Ophelia to her death). It does still breathe lightly, however.
Now, you could, for example, tell me that it’s just a dress with a little motor and a total sham, a cynical ploy to profit off being called “art.” Let’s say for a moment that you’re right. So what? Humans ascribe meaning in non-literal ways all the time; it’s a feature, not a bug. And people find personal meaning in things that were set up to make a profit, like Nicolas Sparks novels, CrossFit, or (let’s face it) any number of religious organizations, all the time. You, personally, might feel like it’s all bullshit–but the meaning they, personally, find in it is real. The main difference here is that the Moderno is free on Tuesdays.
I have less to say about these paintings, mainly because I didn’t photograph many abstract paintings, so I think these are easier to connect with.
I took this photo because the title is Cat and Flowers, which I thought was odd because there’s clearly two cats in the painting.
I liked this one because as a frequent bus rider, it feels very familiar, even though it’s more than 50 years old. All of the driver’s personal touches, from the Virgin of Luján to the scrolly letters, the crowds all the way up the full aisle–all still very true to life. I also liked it because there’s a cat.
So that’s a small sample of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Buenos Aires, well worth a visit. Much, if not all, of the labeling and signage is in English. It’s located in San Telmo and easy to get to by subway and bus. The building was recently overhauled, and there’s a cafe and a small bookstore, where you can afford to indulge in a coffee considering the museum’s entry price is 30 pesos (less than US $1, currently). The museum is closed on Mondays and free on Tuesdays; check the website for current ticket prices and hours.