Collection 1940s-1970s (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 21 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 (no photography)

402 In and Around Harlem

  • Roy DeCarava: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1949, 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 The Swimming Pool (no photography)

407 On Plexiglass (no photography)

408 Everyday Encounters (photography on view since Fall 2020)

  • Shomei Tomatsu: 1 gelatin silver print, 1961

409 Gordon Parks and “The Atmosphere of Crime” (photography on view since Fall 2020)

410 Nam June Paik, Instant Zen (no photography)

411 Andy Warhol’s Empire (photography on view since Fall 2020)

412 Domestic Disruption (no photography)

413 Touching the Void (no photography)

414 (closed)

415 Idea Art (photography on view since Fall 2019)

  • Jan Dibbets: 1 gelatin silver emulsion on canvas, 1969
  • Mary Beth Edelson: 1 cut-and-pasted gelatin silver prints with crayon and transfer type on printed paper with typewriting on cut-and-taped paper, 1976
  • Valie Export/Peter Hassman: 1 set of 6 screenprints, 1969
  • Valie Export: 1 8mm film transferred to video (black-and-white, silent), 4:08 minutes, 1967
  • Hannah Wilke: 1 16mm film transferred to video (color, silent), 10 minutes, 1976

416 (closed)

417 Architecture Systems (photography on view since Fall 2019)

418 Joan Jonas’s Mirage

419 Living for the City 

  • Barbara Brändli: 7 gelatin silver prints, 1974-1975; 1 photobook, 1975
  • Nalini Malani: 1 8mm film animation and 16mm film animation transferred to video (black-and-white and color, sound), 3:44 minutes, 1969-1976
  • Richard Misrach: 14 gelatin silver prints, 1972, 1973, 1972-1974, 1 photobook, 1974
  • Takuma Nakahira: 12 gelatin silver prints, 1971/2013

420 War Within, War Without (no photography)

421 Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe (no photography)

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The period between the 1940s and the 1970s was an intensely busy time in photography, but given the concurrent artistic competition from the powerhouse movements of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, the complexity of the photographic timeline tends to get marginalized in MoMA’s retelling of the history. In the flow of 21 rooms on the museum’s fourth floor, only two have been consistently dedicated to photography since the original post-renovation installation of the permanent collection (in 2019, reviewed here) and the subsequent Fall Reveal (in 2020, reviewed here), with photographs additionally sprinkled through various other rooms, often in a more secondary role.

Room 409 first hosted a wide ranging study of mid-century photographic abstraction, which then gave way last fall to a narrower look at the 1950s police imagery of Gordon Parks and crime photography more generally. Given the events of the past few years, the switch to Parks was both timely and relevant, even if it represents a much smaller slice of photographic history.

Room 419 has been the venue for two four person gatherings of work, both centered around life in particular geographies or cities. The first iteration brought together diverse projects from Graciela Iturbide, Daido Moriyama, Miguel Rio Branco, and Garry Winogrand, and the recent reinstallation of this room replaces those four with another equally intriguing if somewhat lesser known group – Barbara Brändli, Nalini Malani, Richard Misrach, and Takuma Nakahira.

These four aren’t the most obvious choices to represent the major threads of photography from the 1970s, but their efforts here do provide a snapshot of some of the ideas percolating around. Misrach’s project, shot on the streets of Berkeley, California, in the early 1970s, will likely be most familiar to American visitors. His portraits and atmospheric views of the people living on Telegraph Avenue are simultaneously gritty and compassionate, capturing both the pulse of the counter-culture choices being made by young people of that moment and the aesthetic styling of quite a bit of photographic work from those years. And while a few of the details of Berkeley-style political activism pop up in his images, Misrach’s photographs are largely memorable for their tender observations of people – young kids living the hippie dream, a young mother with an infant on the street, a relaxed guitar player in a diner window, improvised campouts on the streets and in People’s Park, and the everyday mixture of Black and white that felt more natural there than many other places in America at that time.

Barbara Brändli’s images from mid-1970s Caracas, Venezuela, plug more deeply into the pulse of the city. In her Sistema nervioso (nervous system) body of work, she plays with the contradictions of the city, particularly as they become visible in graphic elements like the signage, storefronts, advertising, and graffiti that decorate the urban fabric. She notices the textures of mismatched pavement and the curves of vegetables in the market, and then amplifies the tone of these discoveries with more surreal and in some cases grotesque finds – King Kong gets ready to toss a car through a windshield, Jesus oversees the work in an art studio, an indigenous woman peers down from a movie marquee, and good luck coins are on offer in a glass jar. Seen together, Brändli’s photographs give us a tense portrait of Caracas, tangled up with ambiguous fragments of past and present.

Takuma Nakahira’s vision of Paris is similarly built by isolating small details from the urban flow, albeit with a more performative and conceptual mindset. His images were made during the days of the 1971 Paris Biennale, and each day he documented the city, printed his results, pasted them up for public view as an installation, and iteratively edited and reorganized them (thus the title of the work Circulation: Date, Place, Events.) His photographs show us the fleeting surfaces of the French city, from Metro stations and billboards to cafe meals and market stalls, which were then continuously remixed, creating a shifting sense of life on the Parian streets. Even today, the Japanese photographer’s project remains fresh and lively, somehow capturing both the bold shapes of the city and its darkly contagious energy.

Nalini Malani’s two-part film takes the idea of a city portrait in an even more conceptual direction. In two side by side screens, she matches a meditative parade of young girls looking out on Mumbai, India, (and its ever present scenes of construction and decay) from the heights of an apartment block, and pairs it with architectural maquettes that turn the city into paper blocks tinted by a range of everchanging bright colors. By matching a version of utopian perfection with the dull failings of the everyday, she teases out the stark separation between dream and reality that lingers in the city.

Newly installed photographs can also be found a few other rooms in the fourth floor flow. Of particular note are a superlative selection of Roy DeCarava prints that have been added to Room 402 In and Around Harlem (replacing works by Helen Levitt), their velvety blacks providing an elegantly somber foil to the colorful paintings by Jacob Lawrence nearby. In Room 408 Everyday Encounters, three prints by Shomei Tomatsu have been replaced by a single work by the artist, the mood of the original 1960s era occupying sailors and memories of war now matched by a young girl with deformed eyes reaching up into the dappled leaves of a tree. And a handful of new works by Jan Dibbets, Mary Beth Edelson, and Valie Export have been added to Room 415 Idea Art, bringing more examples of feminist thinking and elemental optical visualization into the mix.

While all of these recent inclusions are certainly worthy additions to the art historical discussion, I continue to be left expectantly wondering about when some of the major photographers (Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, and Irving Penn, to name just four) and photographic ideas (the arrival of color, the New Topographics, etc.) that have largely omitted from this part of the permanent collection parade will ultimately arrive, and in what form. In this period of more deliberate inclusivity, perhaps these white men will need to stay on the proverbial bench a while longer, as we work to better understand the contributions of others. But leaving them out of the history leads to some puzzling inversions and discontinuities in the arc of photographic history, as we carefully step around the profound influence of so many innovative photographers. The canon is clearly always up for renegotiation, so it will be intriguing to watch as MoMA works to reconfigure (and expand) its sense of who durably matters.

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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