Collection 1970s-Present (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 16 connected rooms on the 2nd floor.

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

201 Public Images (photography on view since Fall 2019)

  • Cindy Sherman: 24 gelatin silver prints, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980

202 To Live and Die in New York (photography on view since Fall 2019)

203 Art as a Verb

  • Ana Mendieta: 1 gelatin silver print, 1978
  • Senga Nengudi: 1 gelatin silver print, 1976

204 Gretchen Bender’s Dumping Core (no photography)

205 Print, Fold, Send

  • Artur Alipio Barrio de Sousa Lopes: 1 color photographs and presstype on board, 1980
  • Tunga: 1 case, title page and 12 pages from pamphlet, 1975

206 The Sum of All Parts (photography on view since Fall 2020)

207 Assembly (photography on view since Fall 2020)

  • Pope.L: 5 inkjet prints on Dibond, 1991/2021

208 After the Wall (photography on view since Fall 2020)

  • Boris Mikhailov: 1 chromogenic print, 1997-1998

209 Search Engines (photography on view since Fall 2020)

  • Sara Cwynar: 1 chromogenic print, 2018

210 Richard Serra’s Equal (no photography)

211 Paul Chan’s 1st Light (no photography)

212 Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia (photography on view since Fall 2020)

213 Wu Tsang’s We hold where study (no photography)

214 Surface Tension

  • Dionne Lee: 1 two-part collage of gelatin silver prints with graphite, 2019; 1 gelatin silver print with graphite, 2019; 2 collages of gelatin silver prints with graphite, 2019

215 History in the Present Tense

  • Deana Lawson: 1 pigmented inkjet prints, 2017

216 Building Citizens

  • David Goldblatt: 1 gelatin silver print, 1990

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The final section of MoMA’s permanent collection galleries (on the second floor of the museum) continues the chronological progression from the fourth floor, moving onward from the late 1970s to the present. Previous iterations of these rooms have struggled to define a clear photographic thread, opting instead for a more episodic view of the art of the past half century. After the first gallery in the flow (which is devoted to the Pictures Generation), photographs are included intermittently in rooms with broader process, conceptual, or chronological themes. This succeeds in making the point that photography is now an equal player in the art historical conversation, but fails to show how the medium has been evolving inside its own boundaries.

Like the other floors devoted to the permanent collection, the second floor mixes photographs that were put on view during the original post-renovation installation (in 2019, reviewed here) and the subsequent Fall Reveal (in 2020, reviewed here), as well as a range of new inclusions. The most significant photographic change comes in the first gallery, Room 201 Public Images, where the grid of untitled film stills by Cindy Sherman has been refreshed. Since there are 70 images in the series (which MoMA owns in full), replacing the initial installation with a different group of 24 prints keeps the influential project on view while energizing it for those who had already seen the first round of selections. The series remains an enduring powerhouse, with standout images of Sherman playing various female roles in kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms, on the streets, at airports, on stairways, and in other locations, each situation freighted with the possibilities of stereotypical drama or emotion. Seeing a second set of 24 images is an unexpected treat, and provides a strong reminder of just how deep (in terms of memorable standalone images) the project was (and is).

Many of the other photographic additions are more subtle, either replacing other similar works or slipping into the flow of the art historical argument being made in any given room with a minimum of fuss. Photographs by Ana Mendieta and Senga Nengudi join Room 203 Art as a Verb, fitting right into the discussion of performative artworks where the artist’s own body becomes an active participant. The same can be said of the inclusion of David Goldblatt’s image of a man building his house in Room 216 Building Citizens – it joins the dialogue, and introduces the tensions of race and history. Less noticeable are the strict one-to-one replacements of works by Boris Mikhailov (in Room 208 After the Wall) and Sara Cwynar (in Room 209 Search Engines), which simply switch out the images rather than reframe the discussion. And the inclusion of a selection of images from Pope.L’s powerful sidewalk dragging performance “How Much is that Nigger in the Window a.k.a. Tompkins Square Crawl” is a smart and timely addition, but it seems somewhat misplaced in Room 207 Assembly, even though its message resonates with those in many of the found materials-centric works nearby.

Contemporary works by Black women provide the photographic highlights in the final few rooms in the second floor flow. A group of Dionne Lee’s 2019 collages fill a small wall in Room 214 Surface Tension, bringing hand-crafted physicality (in the form of cutting, scratching, layering, and inscribing) back into the photographic equation. In “AA O KK”, she uses the textures of the landscape as the starting point for a study of analog survival techniques, building up graphic letterforms from iterations of negative reversals, mark making, cutouts, and shadows drawn from fire making tools, a circle of rope, and the artist’s own hand. And in “True North”, Lee uses those same hands to measure the sky, the jittering multiple exposure and collage elements making the navigating measurement all the more approximate and improvised. And the show ends with a photographic bang, in the form of Deana Lawson’s “Nation” (on view in Room 215 History in the Present Tense), the knockout juxtaposition of two Black men on a couch and an insert of George Washington’s wooden teeth. It’s one of the most memorable contemporary photographs of the past decade, and it’s great to see that it has landed in MoMA’s permanent collection.

Like the new additions of photography on the fourth floor, the second floor photo arrivals leave little to quibble with, aside from the larger issue that the galleries don’t really provide us with a chronology of the last fifty years of photography. So much is left out of the past five decades of photographic art making that it’s hard to see this installation as much more than an eclectic sampler. Perhaps when the galleries get updated again in the next few seasonal quarters, we’ll get at least one more room temporarily devoted to contemporary photography, to better orient those who wish to wrestle with the many complexities of the medium in its current form.

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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