In each gallery of the recently opened Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography, you will encounter a wall of photographs (sometimes two) with only pictures of women. This is not because women focused their cameras primarily on their female peers—there are plenty of exceptional landscapes and photographs of other subjects in the Museum’s collection, and a select smattering of these are now on view—but rather because I, along with my colleagues and co-curators Eva Respini and Roxana Marcoci, were fascinated by how these groups of pictures of women and by women suggest, in their diversity, the plasticity of both photography and female identity. Read more
During recent months, Fluxus has begun making waves in MoMA galleries. This past October, Fluxus Preview opened on the fourth floor and continues to provide a sampling of the diverse activities carried out by artists engaged with a rebellious approach in the 1960s and 1970s. Most recently, true to Fluxus’s irreverent sensibility, derrières—hundreds of female asses—have taken over a space on the third floor of the Museum. The work is Yoko Ono and George Maciunas’s Fluxus Wallpaper, which repeats black-and-white close-ups of a human behind from floor to ceiling.
A still from Ono’s Film Number 4 (Bottoms), this wallpapered image is of one of the (allegedly) 365 individuals who walked for the artist’s camera in London during the early 1960s. As Ono once described Film Number 4, it is “like an aimless petition signed by people with their anuses”—a collective mooning in support of the absurd. Maciunas took one of these signature back ends, possibly Ono’s own, and printed it in fashion that enabled the provocation to occupy any receptive surface.
The wallpaper is part of The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift, acquired in 2008. It is currently on display in conjunction with the exhibition Pictures by Women: A History of Modern Photography.
One could say that Atsuko Tanaka is having a moment here at MoMA. Her untitled painting from 1964 is currently one of the most visible works on view at the Museum (situated above the information desk in the main lobby), and a recently acquired drawing just went on view this week for the first time at MoMA in the exhibition Mind and Matter: Alternative Abstractions, 1940s to Now.
Born in Osaka, Japan, in 1932, Tanaka was a member of the Gutai Art Association, the major experimental postwar Japanese art movement founded by a group of young artists in Ashiya in 1954. She was best known for sculptural installations made from non-art materials, such as Electric Dress (1956), a wearable sculpture made of flickering light bulbs painted red, blue, green, and yellow. When originally worn, the sculpture both made the body the center of artistic activity and masked it in a mass of light and color. This work, along with Work (Bell) (1955)—made of twenty electric bells connected by one hundred feet of electrical cord and a switch that viewers can press to activate a line of ringing sound—are prime illustrations of Tanaka’s interest in the application of intangible materials in art, namely electricity, and Gutai’s overall reaction to a modernizing Japan. Read more
Though I’m still a believer, I’m a bit too old to send a want list to Santa each year. But if I did, at the top of that list would be a Joseph Cornell box. Any box would do. Even one of the later collages from the 1960s would be just fine by me. But since Santa bestows linens and cooking utensils upon me these days, I keep my nose pressed against the glass on the Cornell boxes on exhibition at MoMA. (No, not really!)
So imagine my excitement in 1995 when The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation donated a comprehensive gift of film materials made and collected by Joseph Cornell to MoMA’s Department of Film. In this collection are films made by Société Lumière, Georges Méliès, and Pathé Frères. These early film pioneers imbued their inventive cinematic efforts with magic, whimsy, fairies, and other-worldly adventures. Cornell—a sometimes mysterious figure in the New York art world who is best known for his collages, box constructions, and experimental films—was drawn to the escape that these enchanting moments of cinematic exploration afforded him while he remained firmly rooted to the middle-class landscape of Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens. If film-going was a treasured diversion for Cornell—who was also a frequent visitor to the Museum’s Library, Archives, and galleries and who engaged in lively, revealing, and surprisingly humorous correspondence with Museum personnel—then just imagine his delight in corresponding with Iris Barry, the first curator of the MoMA Film Library and one of the most influential personalities in the world of film as art. Read more
The other day I caught up with Joan Jonas at her studio, around the corner from where she first performed Mirage—Anthology Film Archives’ former Soho location. Forty years ago Soho was inhospitable, even dangerous, with zero amenities. Surrounded by what were then inexpensive, down-and-dirty lofts, Anthology film and video screenings were integral to neighborhood artists’ daily lives. Jonas performed for several nights over a number of weeks in 1976. Her audience included many locals—artist, musician, and dancer friends. They all dined at Food, Gordon Matta-Clark’s wholesome restaurant. Nearby, Richard Foreman presented his Ontologic Hysteric Theater, Jack Smith carried out his midnight events, and Alanna Heiss hosted other happenings on Bleecker Street and at the Clocktower.
Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend had recently launched their Soho galleries at 420 West Broadway, and Jonas later performed at each. Joyce Nereaux directed Castelli-Sonnabend Tapes and Films, and distributed Jonas’s and other visual artists’ media works to museums and art schools. These works leaned towards narrativity. Two blocks away a different media faction congregated at The Kitchen, the alternative space founded by Woody and Steina Vasulka. Artists there knew how to put technical things together. Read more
Migrating media to accommodate rapidly evolving playback technology is a common occurrence. Our daily tendency to preserve images and sounds as we progress technologically means that we often discard old recording forms and playback equipment for digital replicas. Yet this drive to preserve content unexpectedly distorts the importance of technology as more than mere platform for content. When we disconnect media from its method of presentation we must consider the loss of contextualization for an object. Technology may seem disposable, but is it? Read more
When the Department of Media and Performance Art collects and exhibits time-based media or performance, caring for and properly installing such work is a collaboration between the artist and the Museum. Time-based media commonly uses video, film, audio, and computer programs as platforms for creativity. Often such artwork is digitally based, and it depends upon technology that may become obsolete. In the case of performance art, the ability to re-perform the work mainly relies on the artist’s memory, with the aid of documentation. Both time-based media and performance are therefore mediums in which individual works are often replicated, migrated, or emulated in order to ensure their continued existence. Read more
At the moment Joan Jonas is on a residency at Kita-Kyushu in western Japan. She has worked in Japan several times since her first visit in 1970, when she bought a portable video camera and began her exploration of media art. The immediacy and reality of video entranced Joan. It was so unlike the stark artificiality of traditional Japanese theater. There, the actors moved at a glacial, mesmerizing pace across a spare stage, and the productions, often stretching over an entire day, made time dissolve. The formality and ritual of Japanese performance became integral to Joan’s work, as can be seen in Mirage, the installation currently on view in the Media Gallery. She wrote that Noh and Kabuki, the two poles-apart forms of traditional Japanese theater, taken together contain every idea that has ever been realized on a stage. Read more
Joan Jonas works by developing iterations of a theme. I saw the first version of Mirage as a young MoMA curator in 1975. It was performed at the Anthology Film Archives Theater, then in SoHo on a boutique-free Wooster Street. Joan transfixed me, moving slowly about the stage, stomping her feet to the rhythm of a heartbeat. Images from the cameras focused on her were projected onto a large screen and several monitors dotted around the stage. Interacting with her apparitions, Joan transformed the performance into a dense, many-actor theater piece. Then she disappeared behind the projection screen to appear merely as a silhouette. Read more