August 30, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions, Publications
MoMA and the World: The International Program

Clement Greenberg speaking in New Delhi in 1967 at a presentation of the MoMA exhibition Two Decades of American Painting

Clement Greenberg speaking in New Delhi in 1967 at a presentation of the MoMA exhibition Two Decades of American Painting

An interview with Jay Levenson, Director, International Program, The Museum of Modern Art

In 1952, The Museum of Modern Art established the International Program of Circulating Exhibitions, which was supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, with the aim of sending exhibitions to museums around the world. The following year, the International Council was organized to provide long-term financial support to the program.

Amy Horschak: In light of MoMA’s upcoming installation Abstract Expressionist New York and the exhibition of many of the “AbEx” artists abroad by the International Program (IP) in the 1950s, can you comment on the often-made claims that the IP was, at that time, part of a CIA project? As Eva Cockcroft commented in her 1974 essay, “Abstract Expressionism, Weapon of the Cold War,” “The political relationship between Abstract Expressionism and the cold war can be clearly perceived through the international programs of MoMA.”

Jay Levenson: That’s a quotation that in some ways is probably close to the truth and in others is extremely misleading. One of the program’s major goals in those days was to help American artists become better known internationally. The United States has never had a ministry of culture, and in the early years of the program the Federal government was hamstrung by McCarthyism. The Museum felt it would be disastrous for the government to become involved with the visual arts, so it made perfect sense for MoMA to take the lead in circulating shows of contemporary American artists. And of course the Museum had to be aware of the importance of promoting American culture internationally in the context of the Cold War. Whether that political dimension led the Museum to favor AbEx artists, as some commentators have claimed, is another question altogether. It’s actually been argued that the CIA was itself behind the exhibition program, but the agency’s influence is hardly needed to explain the initiative. Moreover, I find it extremely difficult to believe that the Abstract Expressionists were selected by MoMA for inclusion as an intentional stylistic contrast with the Socialist Realist works that the Soviet Union was exhibiting by its artists, as a way of demonstrating that American culture allowed creative freedom while this USSR did not. I’m certain that the Museum’s curators chose to exhibit AbEx artists internationally for the same reason they showed them in New York: because they believed in their importance as artists. Of course, there is no documentation one way or the other, and the debate is likely to continue forever.

The International Program, in its early years, was able to circulate an extraordinary number of shows and to send them all over the world. This was possible because of the relatively low costs of shipping and installation, the sky-high dollar of the period, and insurance values for modern and contemporary art that were nothing like today’s. Conservation was not thought to be an issue for such recently created works, and climate control and security of facilities were not the same issues that they are now, so exhibitions were sent to relatively modest venues that could never be considered today for shows of this type.

AH: Why and when did IP stop circulating exhibitions?

JL:  While the traveling exhibition program was a remarkable success, over time it began to seem like a less effective way of reaching the parts of the world that had been the special interest of the IP—the countries outside of North America and Western Europe that were not as well connected to the international museum scene. The shows were by then organized by the curatorial departments rather than by the Program, and were often more aimed at a New York audience than an international public, and costs had risen dramatically.  For those reasons, when I joined the department, I began looking for other ways to help connect MoMA to the broader world. The first new initiative was the suggestion of Patterson Sims, then head of [MoMA’s Department of] Education. He proposed that we start a series of workshops at MoMA, drawing on museum professionals from different parts of the world, and we began with a group of Latin American colleagues. The first workshop, which focused on the departments of the museum that were involved with organizing exhibitions, was so successful that our program turned into a yearly event, with participants in turn from Central and Eastern Europe, eastern Asia, and Africa. We even sent a group of MoMA staff to Hong Kong for a workshop there with Asian colleagues, and another, smaller, curatorial workshop took place in India. More recently we have concentrated on curatorial workshops, which connect our own curators with colleagues from parts of the world with which they may not be familiar, and on working with research groups from our curatorial departments to expand the Museum’s knowledge of artistic centers outside North America and Western Europe.

Cover of Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, edited by Wu Hung. The Museum of Modern Art, 2010

Cover of Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, edited by Wu Hung. The Museum of Modern Art, 2010

AH: How did IP develop its publications series?  The fifth in the series is a book on Chinese art, Contemporary Chinese Art: Primary Documents, coming out this fall, correct?

JL: That was an idea that came from a proposal by Laura Hoptman, then a curator here in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. I was looking for a new program for Eastern Europe, and she suggested that we compile an anthology of historical documents on art from the region, translated into English. It was a very difficult first project because of the many different and complicated languages involved, but the result—a compendium of important writings by artists, critics, and historians from the 1950–2000 period—turned out to be so useful that it has served as the model for the entire series. It not only allows MoMA to focus its audience’s attention on areas of the world that for one reason or another do not fit into the exhibition program; it also helps to direct the Museum’s own attention to these regions. We have already published anthologies on Argentina, Venezuela, and Sweden, and we already have two titles in process on Japan and Brazil. I’m pleased with the reach of these new programs and believe that they help to connect the Museum with an ever-expanding world in ways that would no longer be possible through an exhibition program alone.

Learn more about the International Program at


Hi Mr Jay Levenson,
I am coming to New York,on 8,9,10 of July.I am a contemporary artist from India, living and creating in Canada for the past four decades.How can I connect to MOMA.Regards.i had communicated with you before.

Dear Ms Amy Horschak,

my late father, the artist-critic J. Swaminathan had a run in with Mr Greenberg while he visited delhi on that 1967 trip. But then he penned an article on the Indian art scene in the light of a comment that Greenberg made. I paste for you the text of that article, as it might be of Interest. In return could I ask for a copy of the photograph above?

S. Kalidas
J Swaminathan Foundation, New Delhi.

The New Promise
By J. Swaminathan
(written after Clement Greenberg’s 1967 visit to India with the exhibition Two decades of American painting)
The concept of exportability in art propounded by the eminent American critic Clement Greenberg at the time of the “Two decades of American painting” exhibition in New Delhi has more to it than credited for by most people here. While the term smacks of commercialism, its meaning is far from being so. What Greenberg meant was the exclusive character of a country’s art which makes it acceptable as a distinct contribution to world art, and can therefore be “exported” or presented abroad. It is in this that Greenberg found the Indian effort, in general, lacking.
Paradoxically, while Modern Indian art has a negligible market at home and artists depend mostly on foreign patronage, the saleability of works by Indian artists to foreign (mostly American at that) clients does not establish their “exportability” in Greenberg’s sense of the meaning. For the level of popularity at which modern Indian art has operated hitherto has little to do with its exclusiveness. Paltry landscapes of the Indian countryside rendered in a pseudo-academic style have been as avidly picked up by the foraging tourist as much as the more fashionable “abstracts” simulating styles in the West. And while this ‘popularity’ has been helpful in building reputations at home, there are very few Indian artists who have been able to create any noticeable stir in the art-centres of the world.
It is interesting to find Greenberg’s somewhat blunt judgment finding confirmation in Archer’s enthusiasm for Indian art as represented by artists of the first decade and a half after independence. Archer, the noted English critic and writer on Indian art, finds in painters like Avinash Chandra, Souza, Husain, etc., the true precursors of the modern movement in Indian art, believing that it is their intelligent acceptance of the European vision that brings Indian art into the realm of modernity. Unfortunately, it is this very acceptance of concepts developed by the modern movement in Western art that has inhibited our painters and relegated them to a secondary status vis-a-vis contemporary world art. This is not to say that there have not been artists of merit and excellence in the Indian movement. Husain, Souza, Raza, Ram Kumar, Samant, Gaitonde, to name a few, are serious painters of considerable talent. They have created some works of lasting value while all of their creations are informed with technical efficiency and taste. They have rendered a signal service by freeing Indian art from the eclecticism practised by previous artists, whose “modernism” lay in grafting Western concepts on to traditional Indian styles in the name of being both “Indian” and “modern.” . These painters sought to free themselves from superficial mannerisms and arrive at individual visions. Thus their works have distinctive character. Souza’s ferocity and satire stand in marked contrast to Ram Kumar’s austereness and melancholy. Gaitonde’s abstracts are resonant with his penchant for vibrating colour.
Yet, to my mind, they fail to fulfil Greenberg’s dictum of “exportability.” They could, at best, be classed as modern painters of great merit, belonging to this or that trend in the movement in the West. We are not concerned here with such factors as the apathy and insensibility of our intelligentsia, the disadvantageous position from which the artist in an “underdeveloped” country operates; the power of big money behind the success stories in the West, etc. There is no doubt that the art market and the art business in the West are highly motivated and controlled, and the topicality of many a ‘genius’ there is often due to the workings of the powerful propaganda machine at their disposal. From the galleries to the publishers to the museums, a powerful chain exists to pick up whomsoever the business chooses to make “immortal.” A second- rate painter like Bernard Buffet could overnight become a ‘master’ owning a fleet of Rolls Royces or an Andy Warhol flaunt soup-cans on the face of the public to earn his million. Such handicaps notwithstanding, the reasons for the failure of our painters in making any significant mark on the world scene have to be sought elsewhere.
Three distinct attitudes are discernible in the modern Indian movement till the recent past: That of the traditionalists, the “Indian-moderns” and the “modern-expressionists.” The traditionalists, who sought refuge in the past in the face of the cultural onslaught of the West, were satisfied in copying traditional styles and manners instead of grappling with the reality around them. Thus the Bengal school style, which spread like an epidemic all over the country once but now, lives only in the nooks and corners of backwater aestheticism, revelled in a mawkishly sentimental line borrowed from the Ajanta frescoes, wallowing in themes of pastoral tranquillity while life was anything but peaceful around. The “Indian-moderns,” in an attempt to retain their patriotism while paying homage to modern times, grafted half-digested concepts evolved by the modern movement in Western art on to indigenous folk and miniature styles to arrive at a compromise highly satisfying to the average mind. This movement, too, had its heyday and is even now widely prevalent. The “modern expressionists” are significant in as much as they saw the untenability of former attitudes. Realising that art is not mere proficiency of manner but the expression of an inner urge and reality. These painters evolved personal styles which logically flowed out of the needs of their imagery. However, in as much as they were steeped in the ideologies of the West, their art, howsoever individual, remains only an extension of the Western mind, individual as variation, but broadly falling into categories of the movement in the West.
I do not mean to suggest that we have to oppose the Western movement with something ‘Eastern’ to arrive at originality. Yet it is impossible to overlook the values established by Indian art in the past if we have to achieve universality in defining ourselves through art. It is generally known that the English in the early period of their rule thought poorly of our art and started teaching us “perspective” and realism through art schools started by them. Yet the modern movement in the West gave up linear perspective for two-dimensional space, a principle practised by our miniature painters and folk artists long before Picasso was born. Again, the use of flat areas of colour as against tonalities, the simplification and distortion of forms to depict “meaning” instead of mere fact, the principle that colour in painting functions palpably to create a reality different from that of nature-—all these notions have been practised here for centuries. It can be said with equal veracity that such contemporary movements in Western art as Hard-edge painting, Pop art, Optical-art or even Psychedelic art have nothing “new” to give in terms of the use of materials as collage, spatial or colour organization if only we knew more about Jain miniatures, the folk art of the Rajasthan- Gujarat area and Tantric art.
It has often been pointed out by well-meaning foreign writers on Indian art that we have no tradition in oil painting and that whatever tradition we had in painting as such had been broken for more than two centuries. It was therefore logical for us to learn from the Western tradition. What this had led to in practice is that there has been an unjustified emphasis on technique, with Indian painters trying to master various methods evolved in the West for “building up” the canvas. There is a very valid reason for the “constructivist” approach in Western Art. The analytical realism of the Western approach led it to question successive modes of pictorial representation. The movement which started as a revolt against the Renaissance tradition led to questioning the various components of pictorial representation and not pictorial creation.
So we have the painter moving away from Naturalistic representation to Impressionistic representation, from Impressionistic representation to Expressionistic representation, from Expressionistic representation to Cubism, from Cubism to Surrealism as the representation of the other reality and so to Abstraction as a flight from reality, and therefore inexorably bound to it. The return to the mundane in Pop art is but the completion of the cycle. This entire “tradition” of the modern movement in the West, however, is wholly damaging and irrelevant to our purposes. Excepting for Paul Klee, who cut himself asunder from the analytical stream to create a world of myth, to destroy all representational context to make the mystery of life palpable, there is no other painter who comes anywhere near what I would consider as our true tradition.
The anthropomorphic imagination functioning in our miniature painting, the psychedelic use of colour in Tantric painting and the geometric use of space in all of our traditional painting have one end in view: not to represent reality or even analyse it, but to create that para-natural image which inspires man to contend with reality. This is what Phillip Rawson, Keeper of the Gulbenkian Museum of Oriental Art at Durham, England, and a most original thinker on contemporary Indian art, calls the “Numenons” image. There is something in the vast complex of our racial psyche, from the austere, crystalline poetry of our Vedic forbears to the awesome pantheon of gods and demons, from the abstract metaphysics of Hindu thought to the threatening totems of folk ritual, that beats its head against the wall of the pseudoscience that our so-called intelligentsia has inherited from modern Western culture. It is only when the Indian painter tears asunder the false veil of Western progressivism that he will be able to make the “Numenous” image manifest and create an art significant to us, and so to the World.
It is in this context that the strivings of the new painters of the sixties in India become relevant. There is a perceptible shift in the modern Indian movement, and we are perhaps on the threshold of a great and meaningful upsurge. Among the artists of the sixties working in significant directions, away from the false modernism of previous decades, are Ambadas, Jeram Patel, Himmat Shah, Rajesh Mehra, Bhupen Khakhar. Ghulam Mohd. Sheikh, Jyoti Bhatt, Raghav Kaneria (sculptor), Vivan Sundaram, Gautam Vaghela, Piraji Sagara, K.C.S. Pannikar, to name a few. Not all of them share the same motives nor are they necessarily working in the direction sketched out above. But for all of them the break with the analytical and constructivist approach is complete. Ambadas, an “abstract” painter but not in the conventional sense, creates mazes of inter-weaving lines and flashing pastures of colour which record many an undecipherable legend and the eternal mysteries of creation. Rajesh Mehra had been painting figures and landscapes. But his are the figures and landscapes of the mind embracing the universe as space. His later water colours are most fruitful to my mind in the direction of the “Numenous.” Jeram works with blow-torch on wood. He too is abstract, but there is a terrifying economy in his statement and what he lays bare through a single colour and a burning brand palpitates with ‘primeval’ urges. Himmat’s drawings on the human condition anticipate and warn off the terrible doom man is unwittingly moving towards. Bhupen, Vivan and Sheikh bring out the pathos of our situation where pictures of gods decorate our barber shops and loudspeakers blare forth from hoary temples. The satire in their works, and the “meaningfulness” of vulgarity revealed through them as against the false sophistication of the self-satisfied bourgeois, points to a whole new direction. Sagara, by using folk art materials as collage, creates works pulsating with racial memory, strangely bridging the gap with the past. The situation, l feel, is nowhere more pregnant with possibilities than in Indian painting today. However, our painters are working against great handicaps.
It would be well to pay heed to the words of Philip Rawson, spoken at the time of the inauguration of the “Art Now in India” exhibition at Newcastle-on-Tyne. Speaking of the new painters, he said: “They are once more exploring the resources of style to express what they truly feel, rather than trying to put across what other people have told them they ought to feel. This means they are dealing in truth, not slogans. And dealing in truth can be an uncomfortable and un-rewarding activity. Because of their cultural inheritance these young painters may well be in a position to give a new lead to artists all over the world on the artistic problems involved in the emergence of the Numenous image out of form. It is time that the heroism of their struggle was recognized?

I attended the above mentioned seminar in New Delhi.I witnessed the Cultural Clash. It was a lesson
that I have cherished to this day. With gratitude to the Indian artists resistance to Greenbergh I remain indebted . The arrogance of Greenbergh was only sensed but now understood in a wider cultural and political context.As US Empire is now collapsing.

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