On Monday, October 21, 2019, New York’s Museum of Modern Art opened its doors and welcomed the first visitors to its new-look gallery: bigger, brighter, and sporting a highly anticipated ‘remix’ of its collection.
As has been widely reported for many months, the new curatorial approach places emphasis on those artists whose work is crucially important to the development of 20th and 21st century art and theory, but whose contributions have perhaps been overlooked or undervalued by the canonical status quo. Naturally, this means that the institutional bias towards white European and American artists, usually male artists, has been redressed. Many of the newly-emphasized artists are women and people of color.
The move has been met with broad approval and support, with a few key complications, by figures from across the art world. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Sheena Wagstaff, chairman of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Met, welcomed the re-opening, saying, “MoMA has a beautiful new spirit of generosity.”
Writer and curator, Christian Viveros-Faune, pointed out that there may be a slight discord between the museum’s multi-million-dollar expansionism and its championing of alternative artists from outside of the historical mainstream. He saw the domineering architecture and the massiveness of the institution itself as being at odds with the anti-establishment voices of the newly-emphasized artists on show. “I’m not convinced you can do both without the seams showing,” he said.
The discourse has been ongoing since the development’s announcement, and will continue through much of its life-cycle. What’s certain is that MoMA has brought a challenging and refreshing new angle to the preservation and celebration of the world’s best modern and contemporary art. MutualArt here looks at some of the artists whose work is being highlighted by MoMA’s remix.
Narratives become tactile, physical objects through the intimate weaves of Ringgold’s quilts. She’s first and foremost a storyteller, but the artist in her found the perfect way of giving history a felt reality. The coziness of the material both shields us and exposes us to the often harsh historical realities of the stories depicted.
At 89 years of age, Ringgold can be considered among the most significant living artists. Her work has diagnosed and preserved the histories of black Americans since before the Harlem Renaissance. Her friendship with Sonny Rollins is just one detail which throws into relief the fact that Ringgold was present at, and making definitive art throughout, crucial flashpoints of modern artistic history. Her inclusion at the forefront of the retold story is more than justified.
Often overlooked due to the stellar art-world celebrity status of her contemporaries like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, Gretchen Bender was nonetheless a definitive artist of the “Pictures Generation” in 1980s America. That being said, as the designer for the credits of hit television show, America’s Most Wanted, her pioneering film work was familiar to a far greater number of Americans than Sherman’s, though they likely wouldn’t have known it was hers.
Bender’s influence on modern filmmaking is difficult to understate. Indeed, the famed art critic Roberta Smith credited her with inventing “the rapid-fire hyperediting now pervasive in film, television and video art.” From her very first solo show, in New York in 1983, Bender made an early diagnosis of what has become perhaps the defining dilemma of contemporary mankind: the tension between vast technological/institutional systems and individual, experiencing humans. Her work is of great importance both in its development of techniques in popular film and film art, and the keenness of its insight into the human condition.
From his work as cultural attaché at the Sudanese Embassy in London to his position as a pioneering member of Osman Whaqialla’s “Khartoum School,” Ibrahim El-Salahi has spent most of his 89 years at the very forefront of Sudanese art and culture. He’s a figure of global importance, and his art is considered pioneering both in Sudan and worldwide.
Taking cues from coptic script, El-Salahi includes Arabic calligraphy in much of his work, blending and complicating the modes of artistic and linguistic address across cultural boundaries. In 2013, El-Salahi became the first African artist to have a retrospective of his work held at London’s Tate galleries.
Tarsila do Amaral
Tarsila do Amaral was a leading figure in Brazilian modernism during the early decades of the 20th century. She is considered perhaps the foremost painter of the movement, and is held in as high esteem as even Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazil’s most beloved poet.
Her bold palette and swooning, sexual figures are as geometrically expressive as Matisse's, and as controlled in their activation of color as Mondrian, though she’s more fluid and musical than formalist painters. Part of the appeal of the new MoMA exhibition is its reading of the throughlines of artistic modernism into geographies where it has been historically underrepresented. Do Amaral’s fealty to the landscapes of her nation chime beautifully with her embrace of the theoretical advancements in picture-making imported from Europe.
By the time of her death in 2015, sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee was one of India’s most well-known contemporary artists. Her work has appeared in collections or in solo retrospectives across the globe, from India’s National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi to the Tate Modern, via Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Modern Art Oxford.
Her work incorporates fabrics, usually woven and coaxed into strange, looming figures which refuse to settle into a final form. They’re ghostly but organic, haunting, and beautiful. She works also in ceramics and metal, creating material forms which don’t look like anything you’ve seen before, but which somehow would serve as a perfect souvenir if we were ever to leave our world behind.
Part of the immense value of MoMA’s re-telling of the modern art story is that it can shine a light on overlooked members of well-known schools. Paula Modersohn-Becker was an early practitioner of German expressionism, and one of the driving forces behind European Modernist painting. Her life was tragically cut short when she died of an embolism in 1907, aged just 31. This meant she missed out on participating in what are seen as Modernism’s defining years, from around 1920 onwards. But in her short life, she created pictures of astonishing beauty and crucial importance. MoMA rightly bring her work to the fore.
Fitting in light of the stated aims of the new MoMA, Wu Tsang’s work is itself directly involved with rediscovering hidden corners of history, and bringing marginalized narratives back into the centerfold. A MacArther ‘Genius Grant’ winner in 2018, Tsang is hardly without official recognition, but her rightful place among contemporary art’s most innovative practitioners is further solidified by the MoMA platform.
Predominantly working in film, Tsang uncovers the experiences of marginalized humans amongst the roving behemoth of modern history. Her feature-length documentary, Wildness (2012), followed a group of artists holding a weekly night of performance art at Los Angeles trans-bar, Silver Platter. The bar, and the film, became a collision site for the lives and beliefs of many marginalized communities - trans people, homosexual people, people of color - united by their resistance to societal stereotyping and oppression. Tsang’s art is concerned with presenting these groups in a complex and tender light, beyond the stereotypes.