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Discriminatingly Nondiscriminatory: MoMA Expands the Canon (but Leaves Out Native Americans)

Although I griped in my previous post about jarring juxtapositions of strange bedfellows in the reinstalled Museum of Modern Art, I also came across new matches made at MoMA that seemed meant-to-be. Those involved works that strongly resonated with each other, but that might not have been previously displayed together because artists from certain demographics—women, minorities, non-Westerners—had not typically been treated as equal partners in MoMA’s galleries with white European and North American males.

Female artists, in particular, are more abundantly represented in the current hang and stand up to comparison with their more renowned male colleagues:

L to R: Lee Krasner, “Gaea,” 1966; Grace Hartigan, “Shinnecock Canal,” 1975; Willem de Kooning, “Untitled XIX,” 1977
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Much has been made of the idiosyncratic, engaging focus gallery devoted to “Florine Stettmeier and Company,” including costume designs like this one for “Georgette,” the main character, in an unrealized ballet that Stettmeier had conceived:

Florine Stettmeier, “Georgette,” c. 1912, oil, cloth, fur, yarn & hair on canvas
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Also included was this fanciful, idyllic portrait painting:

Florine Stettmeier, “Family Portrait II,” 1933
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In another gallery, “In and Around Harlem,” this sensitive portrait by Alice Neel (in the company of works by Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence), at once dreamy and confrontational, stopped me in my tracks. After Alice met Arce on a street in her Spanish Harlem neighborhood, she was inspired to paint the boy several times:

Alice Neel, “Georgie Arce,” 1953, promised gift of Glenn and Eva Dubin
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Another welcome change in the new MoMA is more frequent juxtaposition of related works in different media—paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs and (sometimes distractingly noisy) videos. The “19th-Century Innovators” gallery (pictured in a previous “new MoMA” post) included not only MoMA icons by van Gogh, Cézanne and Rousseau, but also two Cassatt drypoint-and-aquatint prints…

L to R: Mary Cassatt, “By the Pond,” c. 1898; “Under the Horse Chestnut Tree” (1896-97)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…a bizarre Redon charcoal-and-chalk drawing:

Odilon Redon, “Eye Balloon,” 1878
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and a mysterious Medardo Rosso wax-over-plaster sculpture:

Medardo Rosso, “Woman with a Veil,” 1895
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Two special exhibitions, which beckon to us from an alcove leading from MoMA’s overwhelmingly monumental atrium, reflect the museum’s increased attention to African-American artists:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Betye Saar: The Legends of Black Girl’s Window, on the atrium level, is pegged to MoMA’s recent acquisition of 42 of her early works on paper. Member: Pope.L, 1978-2001, installed directly above “Saar,” highlights William Pope.L‘s provocative performances. The Saar show includes this 2018 MoMA acquisition, a tender portrayal of the artist as expectant mother, purchased with funds from the Candace King Weir Endowment for Women:

Betty Saar, “Anticipation,” 1961, screenprint
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Other works by black artists recently acquired by MoMA include this mosaic-like, eight-panel Jack Whitten—a highlight of his Met Breuer retrospective last year…

Jack Whitten, “Atopolis: For Edouard Glissant,” 2014
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and this provocative Chris Ofili, which famously caused a sensation at the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 “Sensation” show. It was a 2018 gift to MoMA by its trustee and mega-donor Steve Cohen and Alexandra Cohen, but shoulda gone to the museum that had championed it:

Chris Ofili, “The Holy Virgin Mary,” 1996
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Ofili’s label mentions the painting’s “patties of elephant dung [two at the base, one at the breast]–a substance believed to have medicinal properties.” But it says nothing about the excrement hurled (figuratively) at the Brooklyn Museum by then Mayor Rudy Giuliani during the show’s run. (Speaking of which, the Ford Foundation recently granted $65,000 to then Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman “to conduct research documenting the legal battle in Federal court” over “Sensation.”)

We can only hope that this Basquiat, one of the few works in MoMA’s current hang that the museum doesn’t own, will become a promised gift. Otherwise, the curators potentially did the private owner a big service by including this in the inaugural exhibition of its permanent collection in the enhanced facility…

Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Glenn,” 1985, private collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and by using it as the signature image in its promotion for a free-admission day:

Screenshot of MoMA promo featuring the privately owned Basquiat (detail)

Given the emphasis on increased diversity of representation for artists featured in the permanent collection (including acquisitions of major collections of Latin American and African artists), the apparent failure to include Native Americans in the new MoMA’s inaugural displays (also noted by Jillian Steinhauer in Monday’s Art Newspaper review) is beyond comprehension.

I’ve written repeatedly for the Wall Street Journal on Native American art (here, here, here, here and here, as well as in several CultureGrrl posts), so I’m keyed-in to those artists. Although I didn’t notice any of their works among the MoMA’s displays, I knew that, even with three long visits, I hadn’t managed to see everything. To make sure I hadn’t overlooked Native American examples, I emailed this query to MoMA’s press office on Oct. 21 (two weeks before Jillian’s review appeared), with three emailed follow-ups:

Are there any works by Native Americans in the new hang (or in the collection)?

Because of MoMA’s failure to reply to my repeated queries, I think it’s fair to assume that the answer is “No” (at least for the current hang): MoMA readily responded to my other queries, including some that I posed in the same emails as the unanswered question.

Happily, enterprising museumgoers can fill this hole in MoMA’s “canon,” starting Nov. 16, by visiting the New York outpost of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), where Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native Painting will display works from about 1940 to now. In the context of MoMA’s surprising snub, the NMAI show couldn’t be more timely in its stated mission to push back against “systems [that] often place Native artists aside from their non-Native contemporaries or attempt to pigeonhole Native art to a certain style.”

It should be noted that the Whitney Museum’s recent Biennial included strong representation for Native Americans, including this…

Nicholas Galanin with his “White Noise, American Prayer Rug,” 2018, Collection of the Artist
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

…and this:

Jeffrey Gibson, “Stand Your Ground,” 2019, Collection of the Artist
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What’s more, the Whitney has assembled an Indigenous Artists Working Group, headed by curator David Breslin, who was recently picked (along with another in-house curator, Adrienne Edwards) to be co-organizer of the next Whitney Biennial:

David Breslin discussing Jacob Lawrence’s “War Series,” 1946-47, in the Whitney’s new permanent-collection display, which he organized
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

But back to MoMA: Below is a CultureGrrl Video in which Thelma Golden elucidates Projects 110: Michael Armitage, the lusciously painted, deeply engrossing show that she curated for MoMA’s new temporary exhibition space on the ground floor, to the left of the main entrance. That high-ceiling gallery is (and will continue to be) open to the public free-of-charge, following the example of the Renzo Piano-designed new Whitney:

Thelma Golden with Michael Armitage’s “The Promised Land,” 2019, Courtesy of the artist & White Cube
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Playing hooky from her directorship of the Studio Museum in Harlem (from which she’s been temporarily displaced during the construction of a new David Adjaye-designed facility), Golden assembled eight highly charged, expressionistic paintings by the Kenya-born Armitage. They are as audacious in their subject matter (including chaotic political demonstrations and gang torture), as in their unconventional support (not canvas, but lubugo—a fabric made from fig-tree bark, interrupted by holes and sewn seams).

Under the rubric of MoMA’s Projects Series for emerging artists, this focus show is part of of the Studio Museum’s multiyear partnership with MoMA— an arrangement that entails “a series of programs and exhibitions,” including “a joint fellowship for rising professionals in the arts,” according to the announcement.

But enough of me. Here’s Thelma:

A NOTE TO MY READERS: I plan to comment on the new MoMA’s architecture in a future post, after I return to see how the spaces function with the crowds who visit during normal hours (not during the more sparsely attended press previews). My past three “new MoMA” posts are here, here and here.

In the meantime, if you appreciate my extensive MoMA coverage, please give me a little encouragement (as some have already done) by supporting CultureGrrl via the “Donate” button in the righthand column of this blog. Contributors of $10 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of my new posts.

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