Collection 1880s-1940s (spring 2021 update) @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): A wide ranging group show presentation drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, displayed in loose chronological order across a series of 24 connected rooms on the 5th floor.

For each room, the photographs and films on view are listed below:

500 Constantin Brancusi (no photography)

501 19th Century Innovators (no photography)

502 Early Film and Photography

  • American Mutoscope and Biograph Company/G.W. Blitzer, F.A. Dobson: 1 35mm film transferred to video, 1905, black and white, sound, 4 minutes (on view since Fall 2019)
  • Ottomar Anschütz: 1 set of 8 albumen and gelatin silver printing-out-paper prints, 1884
  • Eugène Atget: 1 albumen silver print, 1905-1906; 1 gelatin silver printing-out-paper print, 1912
  • Charles M. Bell: 1 albumen silver print, 1880
  • Paul-Marcellin Berthier: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • Edwin Middleton/T. Hayes Hunter: 1 35mm film transferred to video, 1914/2014, black and white, silent, 3 minutes (on view since Fall 2019)
  • Adolphe Braun: 1 albumen silver print, c1852
  • Julia Margaret Cameron: 1 albumen silver print, c1867
  • Guillaume-Benjamin-Armand Duchenne de Boulogne/Adrien Tournachon: 1 albumen silver print from a wet-collodion glass negative, c1856
  • Louis-Émile Durandelle: 1 albumen silver print from a glass negative, 1865-1872
  • Clementina, Lady Hawarden: 1 albumen silver print, c1863
  • Paul Henry/Prospère Henry: 1 albumen silver print, 1885
  • Lewis Hine: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1910, 1911
  • Frances Benjamin Johnston: 4 platinum prints, 1899-1900
  • Gertrude Käsebier: 2 platinum prints, c1899
  • Darius Kinsey: 1 gelatin silver print, 1906
  • Alphonse Le Blondel: 1 albumen silver print with watercolor, gouache, and gum, 1857
  • Gustave Le Gray: 1 albumen silver print, c1856
  • Étienne-Jules Marey: 1 set of 2 chronophotographic albumen silver prints, 1883-1887; 1 gelatin silver print, 1893-1894; 1 collodion lantern slide, 1890-1891
  • Étienne-Jules Marey/Georges Demeny: 1 gelatin silver print, after 1893
  • Eadweard Muybridge: 1 collotype, 1884-1886
  • William Henry Pigou: 1 albumen silver print from a paper negative, c1855
  • William H. Rau: 1 albumen silver print from a glass negative, 1895
  • J.C.P. Skottowe/Times World Wide Photos: 1 gelatin silver print, 1935
  • Edward Steichen: 1 gelatin silver print, 1918
  • Alfred Stieglitz: 1 photogravure, 1907
  • Unknown: 1 daguerreotype, c1850
  • Unknown: 1 albumen silver print from a glass negative, c1870
  • Unknown: 1 albumen silver print from a glass negative, 1860s
  • Carleton Watkins: 1 set of 2 albumen silver prints, c1875
  • Yerkes Observatory: 1 gelatin silver print, 1910

503: Around Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon (no photography)

504: New Expression in Germany and Austria (no photography)

505: Circa 1913 (no photography)

506: Henri Matisse (no photography)

507: (closed)

508: According to the Laws of Chance (photography on view since Fall 2020)

509: New York City 1920s

  • Walker Evans: 1 gelatin silver print, 1929
  • James Van Der Zee: 1 gelatin silver print, 1927

510: A Modern Media World (photography on view since Fall 2020)

511: Ornament and Abstraction (photography on view since Fall 2020)

512: Circle and Square, Joaquin Torres-Garcia and Piet Mondrian (no photography)

513: The New Spirit in Paris (no photography)

514: Weimar Citizens (no photography)

515: Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (no photography)

516: (other exhibit)

517: Surrealist Objects

  • Manuel Álvarez Bravo: 1 gelatin silver print, 1931
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: 1 gelatin silver print, 1933
  • Horacio Coppola: 1 gelatin silver print, 1934
  • Kati Horna: 1 gelatin silver print, 1962
  • Man Ray: 1 gelatin silver print (solarized), 1929
  • Grete Stern: 1 gelatin silver print, 1949/1950

518: (closed)

519: Architecture for Modern Art (photography on view since Fall 2019)

520: Picturing America

  • Berenice Abbott: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1937, 1938
  • Margaret Bourke-White: 1 gelatin silver print, 1937
  • Mike Disfarmer: 6 gelatin silver prints, c1940, 1942, 1943
  • Philip Elliott: 4 gelatin silver prints, c1950, before 1952; 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, before 1952
  • Walker Evans: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1931, 1936
  • Lisette Model: 1 gelatin silver print, 1940
  • Wright Morris: 1 gelatin silver print, 1939
  • Gordon Parks: 1 gelatin silver print, 1948
  • Ben Shahn: 1 gelatin silver print, 1938
  • Aaron Siskind: 1 gelatin silver print, 1940
  • Ralph Steiner: 1 gelatin silver print, c1929
  • Luke Swank: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1930-1941
  • Edward Weston: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1939, 1942, 1943
  • Marion Post Wolcott: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1940
  • (vitrine): Unknown: 1 set of 522 gelatin silver prints, c1938-1960 (on view since 2019)
  • (also includes paintings by Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Andrew Wyeth)

521: Masters of Popular Painting (no photography)

522: Responding to War (no photography)

523: Pablo Picasso’s Interior with a Girl Drawing (no photography)

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While the global pandemic certainly reordered the scheduling of many exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the ongoing rotation of the permanent collection galleries seems to have now settled into a predictable rhythm. After the original post-renovation installation (in 2019, reviewed here) and the subsequent Fall Reveal (in 2020, reviewed here), the permanent collection updates have slid out with less fanfare, with changes and room rehangs now marked on a quarterly basis. Some crowd pleasing works, like Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, are essentially on view without restriction, but the rest of what’s installed in the permanent collection flow is on one or two year cycles, the various individual rooms each reshuffled on their own timelines.

For photography lovers, this means that a trip through MoMA’s permanent collection will always be a mix of works that have been on view for a while and those that have been recently refreshed, creating both continuity and a reason to come looking again. The latest round of updates happened in May (with a few in the past month or so), and photographically, they include three notable changes in the fifth floor galleries: a nearly full rehang of room 502 Early Film and Photography, a switch out of the photographs in the room 517 Surrealist Objects, and a nearly full rehang of room 520 Picturing America, plus a few less obvious photographic replacements in other galleries.

The organizing ideas that provided the foundation for the first installation of the Early Film and Photography room have been kept constant in this new iteration, with different works substituted in to make the same artistic points. The basic argument being made is that the invention of photography did two critical things to the pre-existing flow of art: its precision upended all of the art forms that tried to accurately replicate the detail of life, and its mechanized approach opened up new possibilities for observation that were previously impossible. What thus emerged in this early period was a wide ranging sense of photographic experimentation, with risk-taking artists leveraging the newfound strengths of the medium in a variety of directions.

This leads to an eclectic survey-style installation in this room. Motion studies by Étienne-Jules Marey, Eadweard Muybridge, and Ottomar Anschütz break down the flight of birds and the tumbling of acrobats into slices of time, while more scientific images by J.C.P. Skottowe and the Yerkes Observatory capture the cycle of the sun on the shortest day of the year and the passing of Halley’s comet. Other photographic documentation of detail comes in many forms, from William Henry Pigou’s stone inscriptions in India and Darius Kinsey’s logger’s cut the size of a lying man to Edward Steichen’s aerial view of France after a WWI bombing attack and Carleton Watkins’s two-part panorama of the city of San Francisco. These were pictures that just couldn’t have been made without the invention of the camera.

This room also delivers plenty of examples of early photographic elegance: Julia Margaret Cameron’s wispy haired young woman, Adolphe Braun’s floral still life, Eugène Atget’s curved stairway railings, Gustave Le Gray’s majestic tree in Fontainbleu forest, and Clementina, Lady Hawarden’s portrait of two young women in gauzy dresses. These are then balanced by sensitive photographs of underrepresented social groups, including Lewis Hine’s pictures of child laborers, Gertrude Käsebier’s portraits of native Americans, and Frances Benjamin Johnston’s images of African-American training school classes. In one wide ranging room, it becomes clear just how frame-breaking the arrival of photography actually was.

There are just a handful of photographs in the Surrealist Objects room, and the new additions have been thematically grouped into two smart sets of three. One group centers on the surreal qualities of eyes, connecting Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s optometrist’s sign, Henri Cartier-Bresson’s reflected eyeglass lens, and Horacio Coppola’s flea market mirror reflections. The other trio links surreal versions of women’s faces, tying Man Ray’s solarized sleeping woman, Kati Horna’s spooky two-faced woman, and Grete Stern’s woman as lamp into one flow of visual strangeness. Both sets successfully make the point that the high points of photographic Surrealism compare well with the innovative work of the movement that was being made in other mediums.

The rehanging of the Picturing America room hits many of the same themes as the original version, but with a different balance of emphasis. More space is given to images of commercial storefronts and vernacular signage, highlighting graphic elements, shop window displays, and bold advertising with images from Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans, Aaron Siskind, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott, and others. And a refreshed set of studio portraits by Mike Disfarmer is matched with the existing vitrine of anonymous photobooth portraits, offering a sense of what the faces of America looked like in the 1940s.

But the lingering disquiet of the post-Depression period also comes through in the works on view. Signature paintings by Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth touch on the loneliness and empty despair of the times, while photographs by Edward Weston (of a female nude in a gas mask and a burned out car on a beach) and Margaret Bourke-White (of black flood victims in Louisiana lined up in front of a billboard touting the American Way) push even harder on the real-life anxieties, fears, and inequalities hiding in plain sight.

For this group of early period galleries on the fifth floor, these recent photographic updates are all solid replacements. They refresh the imagery on view with consistently unassuming excellence, while still continuing to make the larger curatorial arguments that connect the photography rooms to the larger sweep of art history being presented nearby. MoMA still has plenty of late 19th and early 20th century photographic treasures and rarities which have yet to be included in this permanent collection flow, so we need not worry that we’ve already seen the best of what’s in storage. As the contents of the other adjacent galleries ebb and flow over time, some of those photographic masterworks will surely find their way into the conversation.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show of permanent collection highlights, there are of course no posted prices. Given the broad number of artists and photographers included in the exhibition, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery representation relationships and secondary market histories.

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