The Neue Galerie’s permanent collection is stuffed with lovely things. It has cafe chairs that can’t be sat on, cabinets that can’t be opened, and coffee cups which have been dry for decades. But in these galleries, where time seems to have stopped in 1933, the clocks are still ticking.
The Neue’s Otto Dix spectacular ended yesterday, meaning that the petite museum is mostly closed to the public. But some of the rooms of the permanent collection remain open, allowing visitors a look at four of the few clocks in New York City’s museums which actually tell time. Like the rest of this exceptionally focused collection, they are of Austrian and German make, and date to the first decades of the 20th century. That they still work gets to the heart of the museum’s philosophy.
“I think that says something about the period,” said Janis Staggs, associate curator in charge of the permanent collection. Just as the furniture on display was meant to be as easy on the behind as on the eyes, these clocks are not mere decoration.
“If it can be running, it should be running,” she said. Three of them are wound regularly by the museum’s art handlers, while the other, whose mechanism was misplaced some time before it entered the collection, runs on quartz crystal batteries. “Generally,” she said, “the clocks run well,” and only need maintenance when they have been moved.
Many of the historic rooms of The Brooklyn Museum and the Met’s American Wing feature period-appropriate timepieces, but none tick. Of the two period clocks on display in The Museum of the City of New York one does not run, and the other, still in fine condition after 240 years of use, has lately displayed the wrong time: a result of its appointed winder’s summer vacation. (When informed of our interest, a representative of the Museum dispatched a handler to correct the lapse.) Only The Frick Collection joins the Neue in reminding visitors of time’s passage. Most of their eight clocks run, the exceptions being the very old ones in the enamel room, which are only there to look pretty.
But, while their chimes contribute to The Frick’s dreamy European atmosphere, the Neue’s are making a statement about the room as a complete artwork, catchily referred to as a Gesamtkunstwerk. If the clocks are still running, it was Wagner’s idea. “All things within the opera should work in harmony,” said Ms. Staggs. “The music, the costumes, everything should immerse you in this total experience. We feel that we’ve taken that over in our museum.
“Besides,” she added. “You wouldn’t want to stand there and look at a clock that doesn’t tell the time.”
Update! Although neither of the clocks on display from their design collection run, The Museum of Modern Art will have a working clock on display later this month, as part of a large show on the history of 20th century kitchens. The sky blue, teardrop shaped clock and egg timer was designed by Max Bill in the mid-fifties, and we can easily imagine Betty Draper hurling it against the wall in a fit of pique.