Selections from the Permanent Collection @MoMA

JTF (just the facts): Over 200 images, spread across 5 rooms. The prints are grouped together by artist/subject matter, exhibited in roughly chronological order. Here is a quick run down on each room, with the artists represented, the number of images displayed (in parentheses) and the subject matter of those images:

Room 1:
Bernard (8) Sherman’s campaign
Blancard (5) Eiffel Tower
Muybridge (10) Motion studies
Kasebier (3) Mother and child
Stieglitz/White (4) Nudes

Room 2:
Modotti (3) Abstractions
Stieglitz (3) Hands
Weston (8) Nudes
A. Adams (4) Geysers
Moholy-Nagy (2) Portraits
Rodchenko (3) Portraits
Sander (12) Portraits
Atget (6) Staircases
Albers (2) Portraits

Room 3:
Strand (3) Houses
Anonymous/Vernacular (Many)
Brassai (4) Bar scenes
Lange (5) People
Callahan (5) Heads
Callahan (4) Reeds

Room 4:
Winogrand (14) Animals
Arbus (6) People
Friedlander (6) Self-portraits
Koudelka (11) Gypsies
Gedney (8) SF Hippies
R. Adams (10) Colorado development
Eggleston (4) Color

Room 5:
Bechers (21) Industrial facades
Groover (3) House parts – color
Horn (5) Water
Spano (2) People
Struth (4) Buildings – b&w
Dane (postcards)
Shore (postcards)
Ruscha (Sunset Strip book)

Comments/Context: While collecting photography has become over the past decade or two a priority for museums of all sizes across the country, only a handful that I can think of (MoMA and SFMoMA are two of the best) treat photography on a somewhat even footing with paintings or sculpture by dedicating a relatively consistent space for displaying highlights from the permanent collection. Carving out this space allows (and forces) the curators to continually revisit the collections and rediscover ways to use the images on hand to tell stories about the nature of the medium.

As I walked through this exhibit, I was reminded of all the talk that surrounded the rehanging of the permanent collection of paintings and sculpture when the MoMA reopened after its recent renovations. Given the museum’s prominence, many considered the installation of the permanent collection to be a very important commentary on the history of art, and there was much learned debate and detailed review of very single work included (and omitted).

The primary structural device in this hanging of the photography collection is grouping via common subject matter, although not necessarily a particular photographer’s iconic work. I started to think to myself: what would the paintings galleries look like if they were hung with this same structure? A grouping of Cezanne fruit still lives, a bunch of Picasso cubist guitars, a few Matisse portraits of women near windows, and a group of Van Gogh agricultural landscapes, on separate walls, all in one room, as an example. What do we make of such an exhibit? Or a couple of Pollock drip paintings, a handful of small Newman zips, some De Kooning women, and a group of Kline black and white paintings, all in one room? My feeling is that for paintings, using subject matter (even if it is abstract) as the driving force behind the categorization misses much about differing artists’ stylistic approaches and ends up being overly reductive and potentially misleading about the broader sweep of art history.

And yet, I think this approach works quite well for the photography. And while this particular hanging of the collection has some uneven spots (the first and last galleries seem less tightly focused than the ones in the middle), in general, I think these groups of images deliver a coherent narrative about the evolution and forward progression of photography over time and show us that the great work of many photographers was not limited to a few masterpiece images. It also reminds us that by its very nature, photography has always lent itself to the “project”, “album” or group of related photographs that together tell a multi-faceted and more robust story than a single image would – a single Atget staircase might seem random; 6 hung together give us theme and variation and end up making a more interesting comment on Parisian life of that period. Sequences and recurring motifs are much easier to execute in photography than in any other medium.

So while the organizational concept of this exhibit does lead to some “jumpiness” and the feeling of some gaps here and there, it does a terrific job of showing off what is exciting and amazing about photography. An audio guide would be a welcome addition, to hear more detail/context about the various artists and their work (especially in the last gallery, which feels more like a grab bag).

Collector’s POV: As collectors who organize our collection using subject matter genres, this show had some perfect matches for us. There were several groups of pictures I would gladly take home lock, stock and barrel and which would fit snugly into our view of the world:

  • The 8 small Weston 4×5 nudes from 1933/34. (seen at right) We have one nude from this series in our collection (see here), and we would very much like to find others that we like and could afford, but there just aren’t that many floating around in the marketplace.
  • The 3 Stieglitz portraits of hands. These are spectacular, and would fit well with other nudes we own. Unfortunately, these are both not available and far removed from anything we could realistically add to our collection.
  • The 3 Strand images of houses (seen at right). Again, these are truly amazing images that would easily fit in our city/industrial genre. However, they too are far out of reach.
  • I also thought the Modotti abstractions, the Callahan heads, and the Friedlander self-portraits were all tremendous, even if they don’t quite fit what we collect today.

Overall, the folks at MoMA should be commended for continuing to so explicitly support all kinds of photography, and you should visit this show from time to time to see how they are recasting and reinventing the history of the medium.

Rating: ** (2 stars) VERY GOOD (rating system defined here)

Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
New York, NY 10019

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