Making Sense of Contemporary Art at MoMA PS1

MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art’s Contemporary Art center in Long Island City, is a converted school where classrooms serve as gallery space. The center has largely kept the school’s interior structure, and I felt a bit nostalgic for my elementary days walking through the halls. Even the restaurant inside has a classroom theme, complete with cafeteria-style dining tables and chalkboards.

PS1 has been around as an exhibition and performance space since the 1970s, but became affiliated with MoMA in 2000. Since its founding, PS1 has become one of the most respected contemporary institutions in the US, and remains one of the largest and oldest non-profit organizations dedicated to contemporary art. It does not have a ‘permanent collection’ or collecting mission like most major museums. Instead, it serves as a temporary exhibition space for experimental art and is dedicated to supporting emerging artists and innovative techniques being explored in the world of contemporary art.

If you’re like me, some examples of contemporary art maybe not be very intuitive to you. As I walked through the halls and wove in and out of converted classrooms, I saw a room with a single green laser flashing back and forth across the wall, an installation of TVs and their wires hanging from the ceiling, and a collection of household objects arranged in a room. “How is this art?” and “I could do this!” I heard a fellow visitor commenting to his friend. Indeed, I thought to myself, how DO we intuit installations like this?

Luckily for us, MoMA PS1 is dedicated to making their exhibitions and installations 100% accessible to any and all visitors. In almost every room, there is a PS1 employee available to answer questions about the artist’s background, the artwork itself, larger themes of the artist’s work, and why it was chosen for display at PS1. With their help, I began to understand the artist’s intentions and see themes and subjects emerging from unexpected places. I found myself darting in and out of rooms and up and down stairs to revisit certain spaces and determine if I saw them differently with my newfound knowledge. I did. This was a breakthrough for me on a personal level, as avant-garde work is usually more difficult for me to follow. I not only began to understand, but to appreciate and be inspired by the work.

I began by looking at the Carolee Schneemann retrospective “Kinetic Painting.” What I liked most about the retrospective was the clear evolution of Schneemann’s work over six decades. Paintings of hers from the 1950s and 1960s show an artist beginning to experiment, ultimately bringing us to her wacky and entertaining multimedia projects of the 1990s and 2000s.

In one room called More Wrong Things, televisions and wires hang from the ceiling and sprawl across the floor. They all play the same video on a different time interval of grotesque imagery punctuated by the mundane: cats playing with a dead mouse, figure skaters gliding across a rink, a girl being dragged off the ground by policemen, what I think was a close-up of raw meat. The piece was created in 2000 and is comprised of excerpts from the artist’s earlier works. The longer I stood in the room, the more I began to take in. I liked being able to interact with the screens and wires and voices, unlike most ‘no-touch’ exhibits in other museums. With sound erupting from the monitors all around me and my eyes flicking between the twenty-two different screens, I felt like I was in a living rendition of the way we consume information today; our attention always moving from phones to tablets to computer screens to the TV, from one tragedy to the next with the nonsensical interspersed here and there. It was eerie, but very thought provoking. 

Carolee Schneemann, More Wrong Things, 2000

The exhibition continues in many different rooms, and eventually I wandered into a display of her “Lecture-Performances.” Five of Schneemann’s lecture-performances from 1983-2007 play on a continuous loop, one on each television, with headphones for the viewer to sit down and listen with. Most of the lecture-performances focus on an anti-patriarchal narrative, but also incorporate humor and role-play. I ended up watching “Ask the Goddess”, a 1991 solo performance Schneemann conducted in Ontario. Schneemann’s performance involved her responding to questions from the audience regarding sexual or psychic dilemmas. This is what I saw: Schneemann wielding an axe to split a pillow as feathers float around her head; Schneemann acting as a cat crawling around meowing against an orange painted backdrop; Schneemann filling a fake swan with some sort of brown liquid as Bobby Hebb’s “Sonny” plays in the background; and eventually Schneemann signing off for the evening, her face lit up by a single spotlight from below. It was totally weird. But it was also hilarious. I was laughing out loud (to my own personal embarrassment and the disruption of my neighbors) and couldn’t help but appreciate the artist’s humorous spin on awkward questions and her unapologetic willingness to embrace eccentricity.

I also spent some time in the Cathy Wilkes exhibition, which initially looked to me like nothing more than a bunch of household items scattered across the floor, a couple mannequins thrown in for good measure. This was where I really needed those PS1 employees for some insight, and they majorly came through!

Cathy Wilkes

Wilkes focuses on the “rituals of life”, taking everyday objects and connecting them with larger subjects such as pregnancy and death. As I peppered my new PS1 friend with endless questions, I began to develop a more intimate relationship with the work. In spending time with the various objects she employs, you begin to wonder more about their use. A group of razors, for example, seems banal and yet utterly dangerous, used to shave but also having the capacity to wound or kill. I found that, with a little context, the initial mystery of these works began to fade.

Cathy Wilkes

This was also an exhibition that emphasized a more interactive display of the art, with a noticeable lack of pedestals, frames or boundaries. I really appreciated this format throughout PS1.

I ended my journey visiting the installation I had been most interested to see. I knew that James Turrell’s Skyspace, “Meeting,” had reopened in 2016 after renovations, and I was dying to go. Since reading about his “Roden Crater” installation in Arizona, I’ve been fascinated by Turrell and his projects. “Meeting”, his site-specific work for PS1, is similar to “Roden Crater” in that it presents an unobstructed look at a portion of sky.


James Turrell, Meeting


The room of the Skyspace is square, with a wooden bench around all four walls from which visitors can sit and observe the installation. There is a square cut into the ceiling that displays a simple view of the sky. When I first entered, the sky was a bright blue color, the surrounding ceiling glowing white. As time passes and the sky changes colors with the rising and setting of the sun, so does the ceiling lighting. I was lucky enough to experience the installation during sunset and see a whole spectrum of bright color. Purple and cerulean, turquoise and violet, green and grey, salmon and light blue. The man sitting next to me had some questions for his wife. “Is that a projection?” “Are you sure it’s not a projection?” “It’s a hole?” “Aren’t you cold in here?” She ignored him. I couldn’t help but laugh as I found myself wondering some of the same things. And, yes, the room was cold. Dress for the weather.

What I came to realize the longer I stayed in the room was that the fade and change of color can signal a mood or feeling and people’s comportment shifts with each new combination. Because the colors change gradually, mood alterations are subtle and hard to trace, but still able to be felt. I enjoyed just sitting still for a few minutes and watching a beautiful transition with no distractions, a true rarity in my day-to-day existence. Being able to experience this left me relaxed and rejuvenated, making it the perfect way to end my visit to PS1.


James Turrell, Meeting

My inaugural trip to MoMA PS1 was so much more enjoyable than I had even expected. I not only learned about the artists being exhibited, but about the contemporary movement itself and how to understand what might initially seem intimidating or mysterious. I also had some good laughs and left happy and relaxed. It’s hard to ask for much more! I already can’t wait to return to see what new pieces they bring in to challenge and inspire.

Check out what’s happening now and what else is coming down the pike here.