Collection 1940s-1970s @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 23 connected rooms on the 4th floor.

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

400 New Monuments (no photography)

401 Out of War

  • Maya Deren: 1 16mm film, 1945

402 In and Around Harlem

  • Helen Levitt: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1938, 1939, c1939, 1940, c1940, c1945/1970, c1945/c1979, 1 16mm film, 1952

403 Action Painting I (no photography)

404 Planes of Color (no photography)

405 Action Painting II (no photography)

406A In and Out of Paris (no photography)

406B Henri Matisse’s Swimming Pool (film as reference)

  • Frédéric Rossif: 1 16mm film, 1950

407 Frank O’Hara, Lunchtime Poet (photography as reference)

  • Allyn Baum: 1 gelatin silver print, 1965
  • Hans Namuth: 1 gelatin silver print, 1958
  • Frank O’Hara: 2 gelatin silver print contact sheets, 1965, 2 gelatin silver prints, 1965, 1966

408 Stamp, Scavenge, Crush

  • Romare Bearden: 1 gelatin silver print/photostat, 1964
  • Merce Cunningham: 1 16mm film, 1964

409 Abstract Lens

  • Gertrudes Altschul: 1 gelatin silver print, c1952
  • Geraldo de Barros: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1949
  • Robert Breer: 1 16mm film, 1956
  • Harry Callahan: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1947, 1956
  • Mario Finazzi: 1 offset lithography booklet, 1951 (in vitrine)
  • Robert Frank: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1951, 1952
  • Gaspar Gasparian: 1 gelatin silver print, 1953
  • Heinz Hajek-Halke: 1 gelatin silver print, 1947-1951
  • Hiroshi Hamaya: 1 gelatin silver print, 1953
  • Man Ray: 1 offset lithography booklet, 1952 (in vitrine), 7 gelatin silver prints, 1959
  • Tosh Matsumoto: 1 gelatin silver print, c1950
  • Marie Menken: 1 16mm film, 1961
  • Ray Metzker: 1 gelatin silver print, 1958
  • Lennart Olson: 1 3-part gelatin silver print mural, 1960
  • Shigeru Onishi: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1955
  • Gen Otsuka: 1 gelatin silver print, 1953
  • Robert Rauschenberg: 1 cyanotype, c1950
  • Arthur Siegel: 21 gelatin silver prints on card with typewritten text, c1946 (in vitrine), 1 gelatin silver print, c1947
  • Aaron Siskind: 1 gelatin silver print, 1949
  • Aldo Augusto de Souza Lima: 1 gelatin silver print, 1950
  • Otto Steinert: 1 gelatin silver print, 1952
  • Hiroji Yamada: 1 gelatin silver print, c1956
  • Ko Yanome: 2 gelatin silver prints, c1950
  • Yasuhiro Ishimoto: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1950
  • Kilian Breier: 1 offset lithography booklet, 1954 (in vitrine)

410 At the Border of Art and Life

  • Alberto Greco: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1963/2003
  • Hi Red Center: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1966
  • Mieko Shiomi: 1 16mm film, 1965
  • Ben Vautier: 2 gelatin silver prints, 1964
  • La Monte Young: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1962/1992

411 Andy Warhol’s Kiss, Blow Job, and Sleep

  • Andy Warhol: 3 16mm films, 1963, 1964

412 From Soup Cans to Flying Saucers (no photography)

413 Breaking the Mold

  • Yvonne Ranier: 1 8mm film, 1966

414 City as Stage

  • Vito Acconci: 1 16mm film, 1969
  • Trisha Brown: 1 16mm film, 1970
  • Graciela Carnevale: 1 set of 40 gelatin silver prints, 1958
  • Gordon Matta-Clark: 1 16mm film, 1972

415 Idea Art

  • Mary Beth Edelson: 1 cut-and-pasted gelatin silver prints with crayon and transfer type, 1972
  • Dan Graham: 1 gelatin silver and chromogenic prints, paint chip, felt tip pen, and colored pencil on two boards, 1966-1967
  • Mehdi Khonsari: 1 gelatin silver print, 1969
  • Ana Mendieta: 6 chromogenic prints, 1972
  • Eleanor Antin: 51 halftone reproductions (postcard), 1971-1973 (in vitrine)
  • Bernd and Hilla Becher: 1 set of 30 gelatin silver prints, 1970
  • VALIE EXPORT: 1 video, 1968
  • Anna Bella Geiger: 1 video, 1974
  • Nancy Holt: 1 video, 1973-1974
  • Dora Maurer: 2 sets of gelatin silver prints on cardboard, 1979
  • Fred McDarrah: 3 gelatin silver prints, 1969/2019
  • Martha Rosler: 1 video, 1975

416 The Art of the Multiple (no photography)

417 Architecture Systems

  • Constant: 1 collage of gelatin silver prints and paper with alkyd paint, crayon, pencil, and colored pencil, c1969
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: 1 collage of cut-and-paste reproductions, photograph, and paper, 1954
  • Massimo Magri: 1 Super8mm film, 1972
  • Jacques Tati: 1 70mm film, 1967

418 Joan Jonas’ Mirage

  • Joan Jonas: Installation of 6 videos, props, stages, and photographs, 1976/1994/2005

419 Four Photographers, Four Places

  • Graciela Iturbide: 9 gelatin silver prints, 1969, 1972, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1984
  • Daido Moriyama: 14 gelatin silver prints, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971
  • Miguel Rio Branco: 21 gelatin silver prints, 1970-1972
  • Gary Winogrand: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1964, 1974

420 War Within, War Without

  • Adrian Piper: 15 gelatin silver prints, 1971
  • Lotty Rosenfeld: 1 video, 1979-1980

421 Rosemarie Trockel’s Book Drafts (no photography)

(Installation shots below.)

I ended my discussion of the photography included in the first section of the rehung permanent collection at MoMA (covering the period between the 1880s and the 1940s, here) with the hypothesis that the filter or rubric the curators seemed to be using for choosing the photography was medium-independent innovation – the idea that photography was being displayed in the larger flow of art history only when it contributed something to the artistic dialogue during those years that no other medium could or did.

As we move to the artistically-busy period between the 1940s and the 1970s (on view on the fourth floor of the museum), that standard becomes much, much tougher on photography. When forced into a fair fight for precious display space with the other artistic mediums, the landmark photographers and photographic projects of these decades that we in the photography world hold up as masters and milestones are generally found to be lacking or of lesser importance/influence/impact than those in other mediums, which will come as a splash of cold water to many. With these classics partially sidelined, replacements have been unearthed, thereby rebalancing the historical progression. And while the logic of the broader artistic argument being employed holds together well, the overall conclusions about what was most critical are more than a bit humbling for the photography.

Coming out of World War II, a bridge gallery essentially connects the ongoing evolution of Surrealism and the development of more psychologically evocative abstraction to what would ultimately become Abstract Expressionism. A short interlude focuses on works made in Harlem, and while a well-edited selection of Helen Levitt photographs has been included here, the strength of the Jacob Lawrence Great Migration panels nearby simply overwhelms Levitt’s intimate street scenes. This is then followed by a series of powerhouse rooms filled first with Pollock, De Kooning, Krasner, Still, and Kline (among others), then Rothko, Newman, and Reinhardt (among others), and finally another set of De Kooning, Mitchell, Krasner, Smith (and others). And while we know that Abstract Expressionism also took form in photography, that historical detail is overlooked in this muscular parade. A broader, and more inclusive gathering of painted and sculpted abstraction then leads into Matisse’s cut-outs, and further toward a room of scavenged material-centric artworks, highlighted by Rauschenberg, Johns, Bontecou, Twombly, and others; a Bearden photocollage is smartly tucked into this collection, but again, it is overshadowed by bigger, more prominent works.

Photography gets primary attention in the next gallery, which accumulates a globe-trotting selection of photographic abstraction, mostly from the late 1940s and 1950s. The definition of “abstraction” is loosely applied, moving from strict geometric studies, light experiments, chemical accidents, and photograms to more representational imagery that has been cropped, framed, or reconsidered to highlight its patterns, textures, and surfaces. Chicago-based work from Callahan, Siskind, Siegel, Metzker, and Ishimoto provides the foundation, which is then enhanced and expanded by photographers from Latin America (like de Barros), Japan, Germany (via Steinert’s subjektive fotografie), and elsewhere, like an appetizer plate. In the context of the rooms that precede this one, photographic abstraction is seen as an alternate flavor of experimentation, one part of a wider artistic rethinking of the world around us in more intimately abstract terms.

Aside from its role as a documentary record of performances, first for Fluxus (around the world in different forms) and then later for other non-museum-centric installations, interventions, events, and happenings, photography once again fades into the background for a while in this flow as other artistic methods and movements take prominence. Warhol’s short films provide a link to what becomes Pop Art (as seen in works by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Oldenberg and others), which in turn leads to Minimalism (Le Witt, Judd, Martin, Flavin) and on to Post-Minimalism, in a whirlwind of action and reaction.

Photography resurfaces underneath the massive conceptual tent of “Idea Art”, with serial works and videos taking center stage. A grid of cooling towers by the Bechers is matched by Mendieta’s glass-flattened face, Antin’s rubber boots, and Edelson’s Last Supper of female artists, with a well-edited string of late 1960s/early 1970s videos by women (Rosler, Holt, Geiger, and VALIE EXPORT) adding to the gender recalibration. True photoconceptualism (from this same time period) might have been a natural fit for this room (Baldessari, Bochner, Cumming, Nauman, Oppenheim, Wegman et al), but Graham’s study of tract housing is the only work included that feels even adjacent to the structured playfulness of that mindset.

The art historical through line gets more diffuse and less discernible in the last few rooms. Art in multiples, a next wave of architectural systems, and a Joan Jonas performance/installation give way to a gallery that highlights the 1960s/early 1970s work of four photographers – Iturbide, Moriyama, Rio Branco, and Winogrand. The choice of these particular photographers feels carefully plotted to ensure inclusivity and geographic breadth. The New York work by Rio Bravo (who is better known for his images of his native Brazil) and the Texas work by Winogrand (who is better known for his work almost anywhere else, but especially in New York) are unexpected selections, to the point of feeling a bit arbitrary and meaningfully less than essential. The early Moriyama images are the most innovative and ground breaking of this group, signalling the beginning of a radical new photographic style in Japan. That said, in the MoMA of the Szarkowski age, Arbus and Friedlander would have each merited a hefty wall in this kind of group, but are noticeably and prominently missing here. (An alternate thought to wrestle with is whether this room would have been any more or less effective if the four photographers had been Tomatsu, Goldblatt, Gasparini, and DeCarava, as an example.) The fourth floor installation finishes up with art with a more actively political bent, responding to the Vietnam War and other conflicts and violence, with Piper’s inky black Food for the Spirit series bringing identity back into the mix.

While I understand and can follow the argument being made by the curators in this period from the 1940s to the 1970s, and am sympathetic to the impossible challenge of matching the audacity and scale of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and the like, a significant amount of important photography has been left out of this summary narrative. Robert Frank has been relegated to the abstract photography area, which besides making little sense in the context of his art, misses the massive opportunity to place images from The Americans in the context of the rest of 1950s art; this omission feels glaring and inexplicable. William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, and the rest of 1970s color photography are also missing, as is the studio work of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, as well as that of Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, which would have offered an opportunity to include photography from Africa, which is otherwise absent. Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and the New Topographics photographers are similarly unrepresented. So while it’s obvious that all of this work couldn’t be included in MoMA’s survey, I think it’s also clear that we are giving up some durably worthy artistic ideas (that largely live inside the world of photography) when we collapse the narrative so tightly.

Coming through this second section of the permanent collection, my head turned to the idea of multiple independent histories of art rather than a definitive canon or arc, to the reality of many rather than just one. From a photographic perspective, the fourth floor installation is a single, undeniably compelling version of the period between the 1940s and the 1970s. But there are also many other histories, perhaps of equal validity and import, waiting patiently in the wings to have a chance to make their case. As seen here, we seem to have swung to a place where we are somewhat embarrassed (or bored) by our photographic classics, and so have put them away in favor of an effort to redefine and update them with works that feel more in tune with our current sensibilities. As the exhibits are rotated in the coming months, it will be intriguing to see how this floor and the pressure points of its underlying argument evolve.

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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2 comments

  1. Janet /

    I would like to buy you a drink!!! This is an amazing analysis. That said, I’ll be drinking hemlock.

  2. Pete /

    Very informed assessment. Very striking last paragraph, opening with, ‘my head turned to the idea of multiple independent histories of art rather than a definitive canon or arc, to the reality of many rather than just one.’

    Photography has its own story.

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