Elements and Unknowns Elements and Unknowns


In its early decades the Museum played a significant role in establishing photography as a modern art form. At the same time MoMA was integrating photography into innovative installation designs, blurring distinctions between photographs as art objects and as communications media. In this exhibit, books, periodicals, installation photographs, and examples of actual exhibition design illustrate how diverse developments in twentieth-century photography were mobilized to explain, disseminate, and promote modernism.

Organized by Jennifer Tobias, Librarian, Reader Services.

Objects are in the collection of the Library or Archives of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, unless otherwise noted.

Avant-Garde Influences

In the 1920s and through the Museum’s first three decades, exhibition design was influenced by the work of avant-garde artists, architects, and designers, such as those represented here.

Frederick Kiesler. Leger and Trager System. c. 1924. Architecture and Design Photo Files. Internationale Ausstellung neuer Theatertechnik (Vienna: Würthle, 1924).

For a 1924 Vienna exhibition of theater arts, Kiesler, an architect and designer, created a modular, transportable exhibition module he called the Leger and Trager System (“lying element” and “supporting element”). Images could be easily mounted on the slatted panels or attached to pivoting wooden beams. Kiesler also designed the exhibition catalogue; its bold cover echoes the formal geometry of the display system.

Katalog des Sowjet-Pavilions auf der Internationalen Presse-Ausstellung Köln (Cologne: Sowjet-Pavillons auf der Internationalen Presse-Ausstellung, 1928).

Russian designer and theorist El Lissitzky integrated large-scale photomontage into a radical exhibition design for an international press exhibition in Cologne. The show merged two contemporary styles of photography: Socialist Realism and New Vision. The catalogue evokes the dense imagery of the installation.

Film und Foto: Wanderausstellung des Deutschen Werkbundes. (Vienna: Winkler, 1930).
Film und Foto: Internationale Ausstellung des Deutschen Werkbundes. Installation photographs. Stuttgart, 1929.

The Deutscher Werkbund (German work federation) was a state-sponsored association of artists, architects, and designers who partnered with product manufacturers to promote German-designed crafts and goods. Its 1929 and 1930 Film und Foto (film and photography) exhibitions embraced experimental techniques such as unusual angles, montage, extreme cropping, and photograms. The exhibition design was equally experimental. Artist László Moholy-Nagy juxtaposed decontextualized images, while El Lissitzky created a Constructivist scaffold. This “new vision” of image making made little distinction between commercial and art photography, presenting examples side by side in exhibitions and catalogues.

Herbert Bayer. Fundamentals of Exhibition Design. PM 6, no. 2 (December 1939–January 1940).

Bayer, Bauhaus teacher and former student, introduced many innovations in modern exhibition design, including the idea that design should be modeled after vision. He wrote, “The exhibition space is available to the individual eye and should obtain its forms from the qualities of the eye itself.” Here he has diagrammed “all possibilities” for engaging the viewer’s “field of vision,” principles he used in 1938 in a daring installation for MoMA’s exhibition Bauhaus 1918–1928.

Berenice Abbott. Surrealist Gallery, Art of This Century. 1942. Architecture and Design Photo Files.

Frederick Kiesler created radical designs for Peggy Guggenheim’s New York gallery Art of this Century. In this photograph he sits, at left, in a chair he designed to turn on end for use as a pedestal. The collection catalogue cover was designed by Max Ernst.

Maurice Jarnoux. André Malraux chez lui. 1953. © M. Jarnoux/Paris Match/Scoop.
André Malraux. Musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale. (Paris: Gallimard, 1952).

Here Malraux, a French author and critic, considers the layout of a photobook similar to his Musée imaginaire de la sculpture mondiale (Museum Without Walls). Malraux believed that art was a universal language and photography its ideal medium of dissemination.

Whitechapel Art Gallery. This is Tomorrow. (London: Whitechapel, 1956).

The organizers of this exhibition challenged the idea of universal visual language and a passive viewer: “The freedom of the artist and architects . . . is communicated to the spectator, who cannot rely on the learned responses called up by a picture in a frame, a house in a street, words on a page.” One group of participants (Geofferey Holroyd, Toni del Benzio, and Lawrence Alloway) examined communications media itself, as in this diagram, which includes “film prints,” and “camera” as well as “stylus chisel.”

Commercial Influences

Early twentieth-century developments in commercial photography influenced modern exhibition design, especially the techniques of print advertising, store display, and corporate branding.

Paul T. Frankl. Form and Re-form: A Practical Handbook of Modern Interiors. (New York: Harper, 1930).

Frankl, an interior designer best known for his Sky-scraper furniture, published several books attempting to popularize modern design. In Form and Re-form he included a section on design for business. Here a display fixture is compared with a sculpture by Constantin Brancusi.

Frederick Kiesler. Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and its Display. (New York: Brentano’s, 1930). The Cooper Union Library, New York.

Kiesler believed that Americans would only accept modernism through mass production and commerce—“not through slow fostering of its theories and principles in academies and art schools, but simply by planting its creations down in the commercial marts.”

Commercial Art 9, no. 61, July 1931

This issue of a trade journal discusses how trends in modern photography can be mobilized for commerce. Techniques include double exposure, motion photography, closeups of machine-made objects, photo-montage, and finding an “affinity between modern ideas of art and modern publicity.”

Art Work: A Magazine for Commercial Artists, Cartoonists, & Fine Artists I, no. 1. (1938).

Art Work is an apt title for the magazine of United American Artists, a labor union. The cover image plays on conventions of documentary and commercial photography—with a touch of humor. Demonstrating fluidity between fine and commercial art practices, the magazine includes articles such as “Techniques of Subway Art” as well as a feature about Spanish artist, illustrator, and union member Luis Quantanilla.

Robert Gutmann and Alexander Koch. Ausstellungsstände (Stuttgart: Koch, 1954).

In this survey of midcentury exhibition design, the authors assert that “architects and designers are faced with a new, varied, and extraordinarily exciting task, the solution of which is not merely concerned with economic success but aims of artistic and cultural values.” At left, architect Hans Asplund uses historical imagery to promote advertising, giving it a three-thousand-year “history.” At right, in a show about traditional Swiss architecture designed by Josef Müller-Brockman, life-size photographs of tomb figures confront the viewer.

Ladislav Sutnar. Design for Point of Sale (New York: Pellegrini & Cudahy, 1952).

Sutnar’s approach is notable for the bold application of modernist graphic design principles to commercial print media such as sales catalogues and advertising. In this treatise on commercial display, Sutnar highlights works by major designers such as Alexey Brodovitch, Georgy Kepes, George Nelson, and Saul Steinberg. Painter Philip Pearlstein, who worked as an assistant to Sutnar, is represented by signage for Esso Gasoline. Visible here is a display Kepes constructed using a series of mirrors to multiply images of an eye.

Repros on the Road

MoMA’s Department of Circulating Exhibitions, established in 1933, mobilized diverse communications media to disseminate modern art to venues ranging from high schools to department stores. In this context, photography presented opportunities and challenges for promoting modernism: while photographs gave wider access to immobile works, such as sculptures, in the didactic context photography also altered traditional relationships between artists, photographers, curators, and educators.

Circulating Exhibitions 1944–1945 (New York: MoMA, 1944).

Chapel of the Agricultural School, Chapingo, Ceiling Detail. In Frescoes of Diego Rivera (New York: MoMA, 1933).

MoMA produced this portfolio of prints of frescoes by Rivera and showed them in a quasi-domestic installation, suggesting how they could be used as art for the home. The prints enabled the site-specific artworks to be experienced by a broader audience but, photographically detached from their physical context, pictured in detail, and reproduced in a different medium, each plate is also a new work, far removed from the original.

Hedrich-Blessing Photographers. Fallingwater (back). 1937. Architecture and Design Photo Files.

John McAndrew. Fallingwater Snapshots. 1937. Architecture and Design Photo Files.

These 1937 snapshots by McAndrew may be the first taken of Fallingwater, the Pennsylvania residence designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Some were used the following year in the Museum's traveling exhibition and book What Is Modern Architecture? Similar images of the residence were made available through the Architecture Department's photograph files. The file collection was created to raise awareness of modern architecture, and its success is indicated by the back of the image, which is cluttered with notations for reproduction.

Clipping Photograph
LEFT: What Is Modern Architecture? (New York: MoMA, 1938).
RIGHT: What Is Modern Architecture? 1938. Installation photograph (detail), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photographic Archive MA674.

These 1937 snapshots by McAndrew may be the first taken of Fallingwater, the Pennsylvania residence designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Some were used the following year in the Museum’s traveling exhibition and book What Is Modern Architecture? Similar images of the residence were made available through the Architecture Department’s photograph files. The file collection was created to raise awareness of modern architecture, and its success is indicated by the back of the image, which is cluttered with notations for reproduction.

Ansel Adams. Jacques Lipchitz. Figure. 1942.
Ansel Adams. Jacques Lipchitz. Figure. n.d. Painting and Sculpture Museum Collection Files.

Adams’s image of Lipchitz’s sculpture, taken in MoMA’s Sculpture Garden, has been reproduced several times by the Museum, including on this postcard. In this way photography enabled the dissemination of the artwork beyond the Museum’s walls.

Clipping The Shapes of Things. 1941.
Architecture and Design Photo Files.
On the panels for the strident circulating exhibition The Shapes of Things, (see image) photography was fully integrated with typography and graphic elements in bold compositions. Traveling design shows like this one sometimes included actual objects&madsh;in this case a panel of knives.

Modern Sculpture Teaching Portfolio. (New York: MoMA, 1948).

This portfolio includes images by several major twentieth-century photographers, making the images more than simple documentation of sculpture. Examples are Brassaï’s photograph of Death’s Head (1941), by Pablo Picasso, and Walker Evans’s silhouetted image of a Gabonese traditional carving. Most of the photographs in the portfolio were taken by its designer, Herbert Matter.

Sight on Site

MoMA curators understood photography to be both an avant-garde art form and a powerful medium of persuasion. Thus, the Museum promoted photography as an art form and also used it to illustrate, explain, and promulgate modernism.

Clipping Photograph
LEFT: Murals by American Painters and Photographers. (New York: MoMA, 1932).
RIGHT: Murals by American Painters and Photographers. Installation photograph,
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1932. Photographic Archive IN16.2

For this early exhibition the Museum installed large-scale murals, including photomontages by Berenice Abbott and Maurice Bratter. The imagery and billboard scale evokes a utilitarian exhibition drawn from her book Changing New York (see Repros on the Road, in this exhibition). In his triptych Three Newspaper Services, Bratter used commercial-style imagery to illustrate “Sports,” “Financ[e],” and “Advertising.”

Walker Evans. Seat. MaNyema. Belgian Congo. Profile View. In African Negro Art: Photographs (New York: MoMA, 1935).

Understanding African Negro Sculpture.
Installation photograph, The Museum of Modern Art,
New York. 1952. Photographic Archive IN515.4.

Evans was commissioned to document hundreds of works in the 1935 MoMA exhibition African Negro Art, a large show of material culture from through-
out the continent. In an effort to raise awareness about the work—and, indirectly, modern art—sets of the photographs were donated to colleges, museums, and libraries. The images were also integrated into numerous educational initiatives, such as the Museum’s 1948 teaching portfolio Modern Sculpture (on display here,
in Repros on the Road). Similar works were exhibited with photographs by Eliot Elisofon in the 1952 didactic show Understanding African Negro Sculpture. In both cases the images were presented as art objects and as documentation of art objects.

Eugène Atget. Versailles—Vase Détail. 1906. Albumen silver prints. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abbott-Levy Collection. Partial gift of Shirley C. Burden.

In the Museum’s early years, art photographs were often mounted on chipboard and affixed to gallery walls with blocks, not matted and framed as is common now. This method, also typical of business and didactic displays, blurred distinctions between fine art, commercial art, and educational material.

LEFT: Beaumont Newhall. Photography 1839–1937 (New York: MoMA, 1937).
RIGHT: Photography 1839–1937. Installation photograph, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 1937. Photographic Archive IN515.4.

Photography 1839–1937 was the first major museum exhibition on the history of photography, and the companion book was a standard reference text for several decades. The entrance to the show featured a life-size picture of a photographer, evoking New Vision photography and billboard advertising.

Photograph Clipping
LEFT: Eliot Noyes. Organic Design in Home Furnishings. (New York: MoMA, 1941).
RIGHT: Organic Design in Home Furnishings. Installation photograph, The Museum of Modern Art,
New York. 1941. Photographic Archive IN148.8a

Noyes—architect, designer, and curator—brought expertise and flair to MoMA’s design exhibitions. To demonstrate the weight of traditional furniture, in Organic Design in Home Furnishings he paired a chair with a life-size photograph of a gorilla in a “cage.”

Photograph Clipping
LEFT: Edward Steichen. The Family of Man. (New York: MoMA, 1955).
RIGHT: The Family of Man. 1955. Installation photograph,The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photographic Archive IN569.2

This exhibition, organized by Steichen in collaboration with architect Paul Rudolph and poet Carl Sandburg, featured at its entrance a photomural and window display, enticing viewers inside to even more dramatic installations. The work of individual photographers was subsumed into a larger curatorial message—the trimmed and mounted photographs were unattributed. The book remained in print for years, disseminating the images farther than the well-traveled show itself.

Photograph Photograph
LEFT: Transformations in Modern Architecture. (New York: MoMA, 1979).
RIGHT: Transformations in Modern Architecture. 1979. Installation photograph, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photographic Archive IN1250.9

For this exhibition about architectural trends, Drexler envisioned an installation that would “surround you with . . . far more images simultaneously than you can ever absorb in any other way,” emphasizing that “information about buildings depends upon surrogate materials” such as photographs.


Thanks to Jessica Croce for display screens and website design.