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MODERN ART THROUGH CONTEMPORARY EYES: CORRESPONDENCE FROM MoMA’S INTERNATIONAL PROGRAM

Modern Art through Contemporary Eyes: Correspondence from MoMA’s International Program
From left: Alexander Calder. The Big Gong. 1952. IC/IP, I.A.56. The Museum of Modern Art Archives; Installation view of Calder's The Big Gong (top) in Twelve Modern American Painters and Sculptors, Musée National d’Art Modern, Paris, 1953. IC/IP, I.A.64. The Museum of Modern Art Archives

From left: Alexander Calder. The Big Gong. 1952. IC/IP, I.A.56. The Museum of Modern Art Archives; Installation view of Calder’s The Big Gong (top) in Twelve Modern American Painters and Sculptors, Musée National d’Art Modern, Paris, 1953. IC/IP, I.A.64. The Museum of Modern Art Archives

This past year the MoMA Archives processed and opened to the public the full record history of MoMA’s International Council and International Program, a collection so large that it required the work of three staff members to complete it in one year. One benefit of processing a large collection as a team was the opportunity to share our most interesting discoveries with one another. In particular, the correspondence reveals a close working relationship between Museum staff and artists in organizing some of the very first international circulating exhibitions of modern art, and exposes the differing perceptions of modern art from inside and outside the Museum.

Letter from Alexander Calder to Museum staff, dated June 19, 1953. IC/IP, I.A.388. The Museum of Modern Art Archives

Letter from Alexander Calder to Museum staff, dated June 19, 1953. IC/IP, I.A.388. The Museum of Modern Art Archives

An excellent example of artist collaboration is found in a set of correspondence from Alexander Calder, whose work was exhibited as part of two major exhibitions organized by the International Program in 1953: Twelve Modern American Painters and Sculptors, which circulated in Western Europe, and a survey of his work selected to represent the United States in the second Bienal do Museu de Arte Moderna, São Paulo. In numerous illustrated letters, Calder communicated directly with curators and registrars to choose works for exhibition and to provide installation instructions for his complex sculptures and mobiles through hand-drawn color illustrations of his works. Amid a long year of coordinating exhibitions with the Program, Calder even used a visual aid to express his fatigue: in a letter from June 1953 regarding his selections for São Paulo, Calder wrote in his signature calligraphic ink, “I hope this is the last list—because I am beginning to list myself, badly, to port (or due to port).” The statement is accompanied by a drawing depicting a nude man leaning precariously to his left.

Correspondence between the Museum and the viewing public also provides telling insights into contemporary perceptions of American art of the time, epitomized by reactions to the exhibition of work by Ben Shahn and Willem de Kooning at the XXVII Venice Biennale in 1954. One American viewer was so incensed that she wrote separate letters to MoMA, Shahn, and the U.S. State Department, writing that no other country had chosen to show works by “any artist not of native birth,” deriding de Kooning’s canvases as “a series of color gymnastics,” and likewise comparing Shahn’s work unfavorably to other artists. Director of Museum Collections Alfred H. Barr, Jr., countered by stating that Shahn was the first American to win a prize at the Biennale. Similarly, when a critic for the American Legion wrote that the Modern Art in the U.S. exhibition represented “revolutionary” values, René d’Harnoncourt, Director of the Museum, responded that modern art must be considered congruent with American values because modern art is only created when “tyranny is replaced by democratic freedoms.”

U.S. Pavilion, XXVII Biennale di Venezia, June 19–October 17, 1954. IC/IP, I.A.450. The Museum of Modern Art Archives

U.S. Pavilion, XXVII Biennale di Venezia, June 19–October 17, 1954. IC/IP, I.A.450. The Museum of Modern Art Archives

These are only a few of the fascinating examples of correspondence from artists and curators that can be found in the extensive International Council and International Program Records. The collection also contains comprehensive International Program exhibition records, installation and event photographs, press reviews, and printed ephemera. Read more about the collection in the online finding aids.

Processing of the International Council and International Program Records was made possible by generous funding from the Museum’s International Council. The collection can be consulted by appointment in the MoMA Archives reading room Wednesday–Friday, 1:00–5:00 p.m. Appointments can be made through the Archives contact form.

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