Free Your Mind

These kinds of contrasts give rise to history understood as a morass of unresolved conflicts and multiple lines of flight, rather than a unified tale of artistic development. Of course, none of the current constellations break new ground or present innovative scholarship—that is still a step too far for even #newMoMA—but they renounce the egregious evasions that were previously MoMA’s calling card.

A Speculative Review of #NewMoMA

Left: Émile Bernard, Iron Bridges at Asnières (1887); right: Alfred Stieglitz, The Hand of Man (1902).

Let’s get right to the point: The “new” Museum of Modern Art is extraordinary. Yes, you read that correctly—we come to praise #newMoMA, not to bury it. On every level, the institution has completely rethought what a museum of modern and contemporary art should be, righting the wrongs of its own history as well as much of 20th- and early 21st-century museology: Gone is the narrative of progress that starts with European experimentation and ends with US triumphalism; good riddance to recent empty gestures toward multiculturalism and weak stabs at a global purview; farewell to the museum-as-mall, where masterpieces meet mass marketing; buh-bye to forbidding expansions that serve neither the collection nor the public. Once again, MoMA has become a leader—and this time, all US museums should follow its example.1

The first signs of this new direction can be seen in the remodeled museum lobby, where the usual list of donors has been replaced with a territory acknowledgment—an increasingly fashionable gesture that here exceeds empty invocation. MoMA now situates itself within the context of Native American genocide and displacement: The beginning of the museum’s collection is contemporaneous with the last massacres of the country’s indigenous peoples. The hoary tale of the avant-garde—from prewar Europe to postwar US—has been abandoned, and, in its place, the transnational stories of Europe and North America are interwoven, starting in the 1880s. Both show modernism emerging from the foundational violence of industrialization and colonialism, which are traced through to their contemporary legacies in environmental destruction and white supremacy. In this telling, modern art is no longer autochthonously Western but parasitically dependent upon the repression and appropriation of other cultures.

The reimagined collection display begins on the fifth floor, with Émile Bernard’s modest oil painting Iron Bridges at Asnières (1887), in which the thick steam of a passing train dissipates into gray skies, and Hugo van Werden’s crisp panoramic photograph of a Rhineland arms and artillery factory, Krupp Cast Steel Works at Essen (1873).2 MoMA’s standard-issue white walls have been discolored to dingy gray, the gloom punctuated by two of the earliest films, the Lumière brothers’ Arrival of a Train and Workers Leaving the Factory (both 1895)—glimmering testaments to the technological “progress” of transportation and mass production, and their reorganization of time and space. The human cost of industrialization is detailed in Dramas (1883), a portfolio of etchings by Max Klinger that combine symbolism and social realism to starkly expose personal human misery and civil unrest. At the gallery’s center looms the iron entrance gate to the Paris Métro, designed circa 1900 by Hector Guimard. Previously located in the Sculpture Garden, a context that underscored its flowery ornamentation, here the sinewy stalks seem to shed their glamorous Art Nouveau fantasy and read as so much heavy metal.

Against this onslaught of industrial “new media,” the familiar works of post-Impressionism in the next gallery become inescapably legible as a retreat to pre-modern pastoral. Despite its quotidian directness, Paul Cézanne’s Bather (1885)—for many years the celebrated entry point to MoMA’s collection—now seems to willfully snub the changing world. Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti, including The Seed of the Areoi (1892), and Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy (1897) appear as “exotic” idylls that deliberately ignore the ravages of French colonialism and ethnic discrimination. By placing these works after the image of industrialization, rather than as the starting point of modernism, we encounter the full force of these artists’ conflicted relationship to modernity. Such juxtapositions—call it “curatorial montage”—constitute a method that MoMA returns to frequently in the new hang, oscillating between individual expression and the big historical picture.

The American half of this story similarly places urban and rural in dialectical tension, but necessarily (due to the limits of the collection) leans more heavily on photography. A pendant to the Bernard canvas, Alfred Stieglitz’s murky gelatin-silver print The Hand of Man (1902) captures a more ominous engine as it lumbers darkly along crisscrossing tracks, belching black soot; once a symbol of progress, here the train reads as a harbinger of climate disaster. For once, the story of US modernity is accompanied by images of those displaced by settler colonialism, with solemn portraits of Native Americans by Gertrude Käsebier (c. 1899) and Charles Bell’s Indian Delegation, Washington, DC (1880). The legacy of African-American emancipation and segregation in “the color line,” meanwhile, is starkly drawn in Frances Benjamin Johnston’s exquisitely composed photographs of Virginia schools (1899–1900). An early short by D. W. Griffith, A Corner in Wheat (1909), tells a more didactic tale of predatory capitalism, juxtaposing the grinding poverty of rural farmers with a tycoon’s opulent parties.

Chronological or thematic hangs? Museums have wrangled with this binary since 2000, when MoMA briefly flirted with the latter before returning to the former. Now the museum seems to have resolved this intractable problem by narrating art through history—an inspired (if, in retrospect, obvious) reorientation that seamlessly allows some galleries to emphasize a timeline while others focus on a topic. For example, the Russian Revolution is at last given its due as a seismic political upheaval that inspired an equally radical overhaul of aesthetics. Only recently, Suprematism and Constructivism were bundled with De Stijl and subsumed under the rubric of “Abstraction and Utopia,” a head-scratching move that allowed genteel Dutch poise to mute the dynamic angularity of the Soviets. The expected canvases and constructions are still on display, but placed alongside Varvara Stepanova lino cuts, Liubov Popova books and costume designs, Aleksandr Rodchenko photographs, Dziga Vertov films, Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg posters, and Gustav Klutsis photomontages, conveying a tumult of innovative design activity across visual art, moving image, journals, poetry books, and broadsides. (The dark side of this history is not swept aside, either: Käthe Kollwitz’s poster Help Russia punctures the optimism by drawing attention to the famine that gripped millions in the Volga region in 1921.) Next door, a room devoted to the figure of “the worker”—an iconographic staple of the 1930s—is evidenced through competing registers of heroic idealization and brutal exposés of political struggle and hardship, as seen in striking photography from Mexico (Manuel Álvarez Bravo), the US (Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans), and Cuba (Evans again).

The blockbusters of a collection pose another perennial problem: How to cast a fresh gaze upon the canonically familiar? The former strategy of “Modernism Plus”—the same old story, but padded out with art by women, people of color, and non-Westerners—has been jettisoned as an ineffective multicultural band-aid. Instead, #newMoMA uses race and gender to drive a critical wedge into history, and to question whom it serves. One case in point is the presentation of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), which has finally caught up with decades of feminist and post-colonial critiques. Pablo Picasso’s heady brew of female sexuality and tribal culture (at once idealized and menacing) is no longer presented as an unprecedented art-historical rupture. Instead, the painting is contextualized with photographs of African masks—admittedly, not those in Picasso’s collection but as captured by Charles Sheeler a decade later—and archival ephemera, such as images of colonial loot in the Musée d’éthnographie du Trocadéro, in Paris, which Picasso visited in summer of 1907. The display also includes a study for Demoiselles from earlier that year, in which a portly—and fully clothed—gentleman surveys a group of naked women, before presumably choosing one. Bereft of proto-Cubist angularity, the stark sexual politics of Picasso’s fantasy become more glaringly apparent.

Thinking 20th-century art through colonialism puts pressure on the canon in multiple ways. At last, the German approach to Primitivism is no longer positioned as the authentic expression of raw emotion (all those jagged woodcuts!) but as racialized fantasies that intersected with actual black and brown bodies—such as the circus performers employed as models by Erich Heckel, and Somali dancers at an ethnographic exhibition portrayed by Max Pechstein (1910), and Papuans encountered by Emil Nolde on a colonial expedition to German New Guinea (1913–14). Later works made in Paris—from Alexander Calder’s jiggly wire sculpture Josephine Baker (III) (c. 1927) to Constantin Brancusi’s monumental Blond Negress II (1933), based on someone he saw in a colonial exhibition—foreground the artists’ sexualization of black women. What the French called négrophilie—an enthusiasm for exoticized stereotyping—is here juxtaposed with the development of négritude by African diaspora intellectuals in Paris, shown in poetry by Aimé Cesaire and Leopold Senghor, and numerous canvases by Wifredo Lam. Once ignominiously placed along the corridor to the coatroom, Lam’s tour de force The Jungle (1943) shows Afro-Cuban laborers bleeding into the sugarcane they harvest. Sightlines lead to galleries devoted to two influences on this Pan-African movement, Surrealism and the Harlem Renaissance. The latter’s interdisciplinary ferment—hitherto an unforgivable blind spot in the collection—is finally given its due through new acquisitions by Loïs Mailou Jones, Aaron Douglas, and Charles Alston, to name a few.

World War II, for so many decades the undisclosed rationale for dividing the collection at 1940, is introduced via a galling drawing of Buchenwald by Jewish Italian painter Corrado Cagli. (One benefit of the museum’s new approach is that lesser-known figures no longer seem secondary or belated but entirely of their moment.) The curators rightly observe that in the current climate, it is urgent to see the full horror of fascism rather than burying it beneath a story of abstraction in exile. Painterly allusions to violence (Rufino Tamayo, Jean Fautrier, Picasso) now hang alongside sickening photographs of Nazi camps, taken by the US Army Signal Corps after entering Germany in March 1945.

On the fourth floor (and directly below the Demoiselles room), abstraction returns, but in a new guise. The curators position African-American culture as foundational to mid-century aesthetics—just as African art was to early 20th-century trends—by acknowledging the vast importance of improvisational composition. Abstract Expressionism is no longer presented as an outgrowth of European Surrealism, but as a striving for painterly freedom equivalent to the explosive energy of jazz and bebop. (As the wall text indicates, the museum is one block from 52nd Street, which after the repeal of prohibition in 1933 was the center of jazz for two decades.) The flickering colors of Norman Lewis’s Phantasy II (1946) face the tangled web of Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A, 1948 (1948) and Lee Krasner’s Number 3 (Untitled) (1951). They are accompanied by the sounds of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and other musicians in the record collections of these painters. The inclusion of Ornette Coleman’s 1961 album, Free Jazz, with Pollock’s White Light on the cover, shows the traffic was two-way.

By contrast, the decolonization processes of the ’50s and ’60s are difficult for MoMA to tackle, as the institution has only recently begun to seriously consider art from postcolonial nations. The museum’s huge collection of Latin American art from the ’60s onward, albeit still dominated by mega-donor Patricia Phelps de Cisneros’s preference for geometric abstraction, is now re-narrated through the history of US intervention in the region, from the dictatorships to the IMF. A related gallery conjures a picture of late ’60s and ’70s New York that is far more diverse than #oldMoMA’s displays would have us believe. Focusing on the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the wall text helpfully explains why the US (and New York in particular) experienced a surge of artists from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The room draws together a vast array of figures who moved to the city in the wake of this law: Anna Maria Maiolino and Hélio Oiticica (Brazil), Juan Downey (Chile), and Frank Bowling (Guyana), plus significant painters from South Asia like Mohan Samant (a founder of India’s Progressive Art Movement) and prickly Pakistani conceptualist Iqbal Geoffrey (who wrote letters to MoMA’s founding director, Alfred Barr, threatening to urinate on his grave).

In an adjacent room, Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967) suggests that the experience of these new arrivals was hardly one of benign cultural melting pot. Her vividly violent painting is the centerpiece of a room devoted to the civil rights movement, which includes photos of demonstrators singing “We Shall Overcome” after Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington (Leonard Freed, 1963) and Coretta Scott King, Harry Belafonte, and other mourners at Dr. King’s funeral (Don Hogan Charles, 1968); tributes to Malcolm X by Melvin Edwards and Elizabeth Catlett; and Stephen Shames’s photographs of children in a Black Panther school in Oakland (1971). A new mural commissioned from Emory Douglas overlooks posters from the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America, on temporary loan from the Interference Archive in Brooklyn.

These kinds of contrasts give rise to history understood as a morass of unresolved conflicts and multiple lines of flight, rather than a unified tale of artistic development. Of course, none of the current constellations break new ground or present innovative scholarship—that is still a step too far for even #newMoMA—but they renounce the egregious evasions that were previously MoMA’s calling card. Even though contextual wall texts were introduced in 2012, it’s only now that the curators make connections between art-historical movements and world-historical events, in language that is at once exciting and accessible. (One panel on Ab Ex, for example, quotes former MoMA President Nelson Rockefeller, who promoted the style as “free enterprise painting” to be toured around the world to compete with Soviet influence.) Happily, rumors of art history’s demise at MoMA have been greatly exaggerated: Back in September, the press reported that established terms such as Appropriation and Pop would be replaced with generic phrases like “Public Images” or buried beneath nondescriptions (“From Soup Cans to Flying Saucers”). Instead, the new labels speak to a revitalized educational mission, rather than a faux-populist dumbing-down.

Historicizing the present is always a more vexed issue. While #newMoMA’s efforts aren’t perfect, the museum no longer pussyfoots around the political. In the past, the museum’s grab bag of globalism was scattershot, beholden to the whims of its collector-trustees. Now the museum has decided to focus on contexts and issues that have specific relevance to contemporary America (environmental crisis, surveillance capitalism, precarious labor, diaspora and migration, the second Gilded Age)—an approach that has echoes of the museum’s response to the travel ban in January 2017, when it pulled a dozen works out of storage by artists from majority Muslim nations blocked from receiving visas by the Trump Administration. It’s the kind of counter-hegemonic stance that a privately run institution like MoMA is in the perfect position to get away with.

The improvements come thick and fast. One of the most moving galleries contains an ensemble of mother-child portraits (Rineke Dijkstra, Bill Owens, Ketaki Sheth), which picks up a trope from previous rooms (images of motherhood by Mary Cassatt and Dorothea Lange, and paintings of pregnant women by Paula Modersohn-Becker, Gustav Klimt, and Betye Saar). Here, however, these maternal images are displayed alongside Regina José Galindo’s video installation America’s Family Prison (2008); the wall text points to the ongoing atrocity of family separation at the US-Mexico border. Flowing on, in the adjacent gallery, are Danny Lyon’s searing black-and-white photographs of Texas prisons, where inmates, primarily black, are put to hard labor in the fields (1968–69); sketches from Ibrahim El-Salahi’s Prison Notebook (1976), documenting his harrowing six-month incarceration in Khartoum; and Robert Gober’s installation Prison Window (1992). The curators make a deft triple move from documentation to personal experience to a sudden reversal of perspective that places the viewer metaphorically behind bars. Bleakly padding out this carceral space is Cameron Rowland’s Attica Series Desk and New York State courtroom benches (both 2016), manufactured by prisoners for $0.16 to $1.25 an hour.

Other standouts include images of Apartheid South Africa (David Goldblatt, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Jo Ractliffe) placed alongside video of the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Emily Jacir); Ringgold’s bombshell United States of Attica (1972) next to Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds’s Surviving Active Shooter Custer (2018), both meditations on our national history of white terrorism; and the social choreography of protest as seen through Anna Boghiguian’s drawings of Tahrir Square (2011) and the multi-authored Occuprint Portfolio (2012).

How did MoMA turn itself around after decades of double-talk—professing liberal values without ever acting on them? All those platitudes about diversity and “fresh perspectives” never managed to shake up the museum’s master narrative in any meaningful way. At last, MoMA has realized that true innovation in the gallery lies in rethinking its model of history, and this can only come about once structural change is accomplished. Equity in the workplace, and a board of trustees whose commitment to art is not simply financial, are fundamental prerequisites for reshaping its approach to art history. Who works at the museum—and how they are treated—necessarily affects what gets exhibited and how it is presented, which in turn reaches different audiences.

A few days before the reopening, the museum announced major changes at the board and staff levels. Numerous trustees were removed for their connections to private prisons, sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, the Puerto Rican crisis, and the kind of white-collar crime that has long been shrugged off by greedy institutions happy to assist in artwashing. Gratifyingly, their names have been peeled from the heights on the gallery walls, and divestment of MoMA’s sizable endowment from their associated funds has commenced. These are not the the only white men who have been cut loose, as MoMA—long one of the whitest museums in the city—has pledged to investigate incidences of bias and abuse of power across the board. Belatedly, but better than never, more non-white and indigenous senior curators and top administrators have been hired, while at MoMA PS1 in Queens, senior staff were let go for gender discrimination; an external review of reporting practices and additional restructuring are currently underway.3 Having put its house in order, MoMA can proudly show its incredible collection—including works about prisons, pregnancy, and Puerto Rico—with a straight face (and a clear conscience).

MoMA’s new vision extends to all its employees—whether full-time, part-time, or contracted: Everyone is guaranteed a living wage and can participate in the museum’s excellent healthcare plan (instead of the previous two-tier system, in which only the top earners received first-rate benefits). Among other policies, MoMA has started offering six months’ paid family leave as well as childcare (see below). These significant changes—which apply equally to the museum’s two campuses, the mothership in Manhattan and its satellite in Queens—mean that jobs at the museum become accessible to all qualified applicants, not just those with trust funds.

Other recent decisions reflect MoMA’s awareness of its wider responsibilities. A climate-emergency declaration will from now on steer what work is acquired, how it is shown, and the travel budget of its curatorial staff, who have finally committed to the late Gustav Metzger’s campaign to “Reduce Art Flights.” Works borrowed and loaned will no longer be shipped on planes; indeed, the vast surplus of art formerly considered mainstays of the collection is currently on a slow boat to China, where it will tour a number of mid-size museums on the Asia-Pacific rim. The Atrium—always an inhospitable hangar for performance, installation, and “activated sculpture”—has been given over to the education department, with a special focus on art, social justice, and the climate crisis.

The icing on the cake, however, is the bold decision to buck the expansionist trend. Once the most bloated museum in the US with plans to swell still further, MoMA has—like an oversize cruise liner in the Hudson—magnificently changed its course. The additional square footage gained by swallowing the former American Folk Art Museum is now utilized not for exhibitions but for much-needed community services. If you dreaded entering the lobby of #newMoMA, expecting to find an anonymous-looking airport waiting lounge hung with bland Brice Mardens and other corporate collection favorites, you’ll be pleasantly surprised: The museum has given over the ground floor to a new childcare facility, available to all its staff. The higher floors of the extension will provide affordable housing for low-income workers in the arts, designed by the London-based feminist architectural collective muf.

Institutions have long stalled on systemic change with the infuriating GOP line, “How will we pay for it?”—a question only reserved for progressive programs and never for further enriching the 1 percent. The issue has always been one of priorities. For MoMA, with its $2 billion endowment, it was simply a question of rethinking its values—and reorganizing the budget accordingly. As Funkadelic once said, “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.” Low-income housing, for example, has been paid for by deaccessioning ten of the museum’s 324 works by Robert Rauschenberg—an artist known for his generous financial support of fellow artists. A colorful diagram in the lobby breaks down MoMA’s annual budget, showing the percentages spent on salaries, operating costs, and a severely slashed acquisitions fund. Commendably, the director has decided to bring the museum into line with more progressive institutions, earning no more than eight times that of workers on the bottom rung. The surplus from the formerly exorbitant salary has reportedly been redirected to eliminate unpaid internships. Free admission has finally been instituted, in recognition of the fact that the public has every right to see the collection of a tax-exempt museum.

In the end, it’s hard to say what’s most striking about the new MoMA: its grasp of the stakes of modernity, the connections made between the past and the future of humanity, or the structural changes that shift the burden of inclusivity away from works of art (and the people who made them). After all, pretty sprinklings of diversity mean little if their ultimate destination is the Sunken Place of the museum-industrial complex. There is still much more to do, of course—the very concept of a collection and philanthropy as a model remain problematic. But the outrageous disconnect between saying and doing at this museum—the brazen hypocrisy and superficial multiculturalism—used to make one’s head spin. Today, by shifting its entire operation to a more socially just horizon, MoMA can truly claim that its collection, building, staff, board, and endowment all face in the same direction.4

  1. In the spirit of full disclosure, it should be noted that Nikki Columbus filed a complaint against MoMA PS1 with the New York City Commission on Human Rights in 2018; the case was settled in 2019. 

  2. Unless otherwise noted, all works in this review are in MoMA’s collection. 

  3. There must be something in the air: A day earlier, the publishers of Artforum announced similar redress, alongside a full-throated apology for initially defending their colleague accused of serial sexual harassment and criticizing his victims. (Gender discrimination and sexual harassment are endemic in the art world, as they are in society at large, but MoMA PS1 and Artforum are the only two institutions publicly named in lawsuits.)  

  4. Thanks to Ralph Lemon for kickstarting this thinking in 2014; to students at CUNY Graduate Center whose research informed aspects of this review (especially Gemma Sharpe and Yates McKee); innumerable exhibitions; Tate’s “Climate Emergency” declaration (2019); and all of the activists, artists, and academics who are working to make this vision a reality. 

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