Over the past few months, we’ve asked artists represented in the exhibition The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World to share their thoughts on certain works in MoMA’s collection. I have been lucky enough to tour the Museum’s galleries with three different artists to find out which pieces they found most thought-provoking, and why. (Be sure to read about the previous gallery tours.)
The third and final artist to lead us through the galleries was Dianna Molzan, a painter based in Los Angeles who visited MoMA last month to participate in a talk for the Close Conversation series. Molzan alluded to her passion for art history in this talk, but it wasn’t until the following morning that she treated me to her insights on masterpieces by Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, and Georges Seurat:
Claude Monet. Water Lilies. 1914–26
“It just occurred to me now that this painting is experienced almost like cinema. It’s something that you have to see over time; you can’t take it in all at once. One has to walk back and forth across it, not just forward and back. One side of the painting is unknown to the other it’s so big. It’s very sequential, the way the directions of paint lead you through—Monet has practically created arrows for the eyes to follow and pause in the way he mapped the paint.
It goes edge to edge…it’s kind of overwhelming standing so close to it. Whenever I look at it I wonder how long it took to get to this caked surface, and was it always his plan or the result of much trial and error? The messy whitish marks on the dark, and all those different families of blue together. [This blue] reminds me of Colgate gel toothpaste; it’s such a weird color. The color choices are really outlandishly garish in places, but it’s beautiful. It’s a completely mesmerizing painting, but if you get to any one spot in isolation it can be kind of magically terrible, you know?
The canvas surface is full like a pond, to all edges water. Layers of floating and hanging plants and total water surface with reflections of everything showing in and out of composition. There are many visual ‘ins’ to the painting, but not so much to project your body into the painting. The surface is too magnified and crowded and close.
It brings awareness to the viewer’s body and the room. The scale pushes it to installation—it seems that it’s really meant to activate time and space, the viewer has to stroll around and travel to different vantage points of looking. That’s what I responded to with these larger Monets—that they’re such an experience in that you can’t be static and passive to engage with them. They’re amazing for how they include the viewer and reward dynamic looking.”
Paul Cézanne. Still Life with Apples. 1895–98
“This still life painting depicts ‘real’ fruit, but then Cézanne is also painting a pitcher that has plant designs on it, and then there’s the vertical draping that also has this grape leaf pattern on it. So here is a depiction of several kinds of source objects that show fruit, and we easily understand how to separate them all as being different and in a hierarchy…. Though it does look like the robust apples on the table are trying to absorb into the cloth, and there is a suggestion that they succeed, on the way up the wall, to become flattened and assimilated into the curtain pattern. But they are all flat here in the end, because it’s a painting, which could be a sly comment on art versus life.
The highlights here are not painted—it’s like watercolor technique. There is no attempt to disguise for the viewer how the painting is made. There’s no showy blending or glazing. It’s a really honest, plain way of painting. That’s what all of the artists that I love have in common, and what I respond to is that even in creating artifice, it’s not artificial. You can really see the materials and how they were put there, but Cézanne and Monet and Matisse are among those who could do it at that incredible level of intelligence and skill and yet it plays very straightforward.”
Georges-Pierre Seurat. Evening, Honfleur. 1886
“I wrote about Seurat’s paintings in graduate school because of his activation of the frame. The frame for him became increasingly important. Seurat extended what was thought to be the true painted artwork on to the frame, which was typically considered separate and interchangeable. With this painting it becomes inseparable, but it is clearly a different part than the stretched canvas.
This is the only painting in the room that is roped off with stanchions—maybe the frame was inviting a tactile interaction. Possibly it’s a confusing zone despite the fact that it’s clearly painted. Probably most people would know not to touch a painting, but might think the frame is okay. That extra security measure is then saying a lot about how confusing the boundaries still are.
Seurat’s work had a big impact on my ideas about what is ‘essential’ in any given artwork.”