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MoMA, as it’s nicknamed, doesn’t want for masterpieces. This is where you’ll find seminal works by Picasso, van Gogh, Brancusi, Dalí, and Matisse, among others. Its riches, however, aren’t apparent on first glance. Oddly, the museum hides most of its masterworks waaaay up on the fifth floor—a ploy, I think, to get patrons to first look at the more contemporary, and often less celebrated, pieces that are housed in the lower galleries. Foil the curators by heading upstairs first and seeing the museum in “reverse order” to ensure that you have enough time to meander in front of the works that make the museum great. Pick up and study the museum’s gallery map; while the architecture of MoMA is justly renowned, it can be sometimes tricky to navigate from one area to the next.

If you want to concentrate on the museum’s “Mona Lisa’s” don’t miss:

  • Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, which has an even more vivid impact when viewed in person, the thickness of the brush strokes making it as much sculpture as painting. Created a year before his suicide, when van Gogh was in an insane asylum, the painting is filled with premonitions of what was to come, the foreground taken up with a soaring cypress tree, symbol of death.
  • Pablo Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon, a massive brothel scene in which Picasso experimented with a number of art styles—look closely and you’ll see that one of the women’s heads looks like an African mask, another profile is taken from Egyptian art, the woman in the middle assumes a classical Venus-like pose, and a leg of one of the figures devolves into cubist abstraction. Reportedly, Picasso painted the work when he was suffering from syphilis, which may be why the women appear so threatening.
  • Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory, in which watches melt and a long-nosed figure (some say it was a self-portrait of Dali, others think it represents an unborn baby) lies prostate on the ground. You may be surprised at how small this seminal work is.
And don’t just spend your time indoors. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, which was enlarged during the 2004 renovation, is one of the most delightful spots in the city.