Finding MoMA

by Susan Lago

On a winter afternoon, soon after rounding the corner of the new year, I did something I had wanted to do for a long time. I went to a museum alone: The Museum of Modern Art. MoMA. Since moving to Queens, I had hemmed and hawed over the cost, rationalizing that it was too much money to spend on just myself. Then I broke up with the man I had been seeing for two years and so had an unclaimed Saturday ahead of me. On weekends, I remembered, a CityPass on the LIRR cost only nine dollars round trip. That brought the total cost of a day in Manhattan down considerably. Plus, I knew I would have to keep myself busy or else I would drown in my own post-breakup thoughts.

Going to a museum alone means that you don’t have to match your pace to anyone else’s. You don’t have to rush through an exhibit that your companion finds boring or sit and rest because he’s tired. Once I was on a date at the Whitney and my male companion kept politely chuckling over the exhibits, asking me to explain what it was, exactly, that we were seeing. Another date wouldn’t go to a museum at all, saying they were a waste of time. My recently ex-ed boyfriend and I had gone once to the Museum of Natural History. He fell asleep and snored during the planetarium show and then spent the rest of the time in the bathroom with stomach issues while I photo-bombed tourists’ selfies to keep myself entertained.

Selfie in Natural History
American Museum of Natural History. June 8, 2019. Photo courtesy of the author.

At MoMA, I started on Floor 2, wandering around Haegue Yang’s installation, Handles, multicolored sculptures of bells mounted on castors. In another room, there were four pairs of giant metal blocks, stacked one on top of the other as if by a giant child: Richard Serra’s Equal 2015. Then, the MoMA store! I bought a tote because it reminded me of the one that quintessential New Yorker, Nora Ephron, buys in her book about her neck:

…it’s not a purse exactly; it’s a bag. It’s definitely the best bag I have ever owned. On it is the image of a New York City MetroCard—it’s yellow (taxicab yellow, to be exact) and blue—so it matches nothing at all and therefore, on a deep level, matches everything. It’s made of plastic and is therefore completely waterproof. It’s equally unattractive in all seasons. It cost next to nothing ($26), and I will never have to replace it, because it seems to be completely indestructible. What’s more, never having been in style, it can never go out of style.

Like Ephron’s bag, my new tote is a bright obnoxious yellow and was the cheapest thing in the store at ten dollars. New tote in hand, I stopped to take a break and charge my phone, while enjoying the view overlooking the sculpture garden.

Yellow tote
The Museum Store, The Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd St, New York, NY 10019. Photo courtesy of the author.

Then, because I was by myself and didn’t have to do things in any sort of order, I went up to Floor 5. There, I wandered among my old favorites: Frida Kahlo sitting in a chair, Oppenheim’s very cool and weird furry bowl and spoon, the beautiful and the strange. I stood in front of a canvas painted in shades of white, the appropriately named Suprematist Composition: White on White by Kazimir Malevich, and wandered into the expanse of Monet’s waterlilies.

The Florine Stettheimer room made me the happiest though. Maybe it’s the pinks and sherbet-y oranges or the ladies with their long strands of pearls who remind me of Jay Gatsby’s observation of his true love, Daisy, that “her voice is full of money…” and Nick’s recognition that money “was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl.” The women in Stettheimer’s paintings are these golden girls and if they could speak, their voices would echo Daisy’s richly monied “contralto.” I, on the other hand, am a resident of a borough where vowels are drawn out through the speaker’s nose, more the sound of Fitzgerald’s “Valley of Ashes” than The Plaza. I live among the descendants of the George and Myrtle Wilsons for whom, like me, a slight savings on roundtrip train fare means the difference between an afternoon browsing at the Queens Center Mall or MoMA.

The room Stettheimer’s women grace in Family Portrait, II features a view of old Manhattan that is reminiscent of Nick’s description of New York City from “Gatsby’s gorgeous car”:

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

Stettheimer’s paintings capture the sweetness and purity of those sugar-lump buildings and the living light show that is New York City, the one I experienced walking through Times Square on a Saturday afternoon nearly a century later. Gazing at the cotton candy luxury evinced by Stettheimer’s work, I am struck by how the Gatsbian landscape is now tarnished with twenty-first century grime; yet even so, Manhattan has lost none of its enchantment, at least not for me.

Family Portrait II
Family Portrait, II by Florine Stettheimer. 1933, oil on canvas. MoMA.

My afternoon at MoMA made me think of how artists turn experience and pain into something lasting. Most of the Floor 4 and 5 artists are gone now and thus I was reminded of how short life is. I thought, too, about how Jay Gatsby lived his life in singular pursuit of his ephemeral dream girl, how Nora Ephron, she of the garish yellow tote, is gone now, leaving behind a body of work in film and literature, and I realized that although I was sad to end a relationship with someone I had grown to care for dearly, neither can I be in the world in a way that is not life-affirming. They had found their way and so would I.



Susan Lago teaches composition and literature at CUNY / Queensborough Community College. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications such as Noctua Review, Adelaide Magazine, Pank Magazine, The Smart Set, Monkeybicycle and Prime Number. Visit her website at or follow her on Twitter: @SusanLago.




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