February 3, 2010  |  Behind the Scenes
MoMA Offsite: Uncommon Common Objects

John Baldessari. Goya Series: And. 1997

My coworker Paulina Pobocha’s recent post discussing a new painting acquisition made casual mention of a staggering fact: at any given moment, MoMA is only able to display some 10 to 15 percent of its collection. This is due to limitations of space, plain and simple. Our acquisitions practices are necessarily limited by these same constraints, and though we continue to carefully maintain and build upon our collection, we cannot acquire nearly as many works as we may wish. Despite our frequent gallery rotations, there are inevitably pieces that spend too much time in crates in Queens.

The Museum counteracts this by being a generous lending institution. At present, more than 170 works from the Department of Painting and Sculpture alone are off-site. This number includes both works that are infrequently exhibited and those that visitors may be accustomed to seeing on a more regular basis.

One of the many works currently housed elsewhere is Goya Series: And (1997), an inkjet and synthetic polymer painting on canvas by the artist John Baldessari. The work is part of an international tour of the 78-year-old artist’s most expansive museum retrospective to date, Pure Beauty, which is set to open in Barcelona’s Museu d’Art Contemporani in early February and will reach New York by way of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in September 2010. Goya Series: And is a somewhat recent work from an artist best known for breaking major ground in the California Conceptual Art scene of the 1960s and 1970s, but it maintains his heavy conceptual bent. Nothing more is depicted on the canvas than an outsized paperclip and the word “and.” I recall walking past the work once when it was on view in MoMA’s Education and Research Building for a period of a few months in 2007 (it also made a brief appearance in Vik Muniz’s Artist’s Choice show of winter 2008–09, but otherwise has not been in a main space since 2003), when a visitor stopped me and asked me to explain. She posed a familiar question: “Why is this art?” I began to speak about how the artist took inspiration from Francisco de Goya‘s Disasters of War series of 1810, but when I saw that her facial expression screamed “unconvinced,” I encouraged another reading: Relinquish any need to consider the work seriously, and look for humor instead. Though in this particular work he was not interested in conveying a connection between text and image, Baldessari’s Goya Series: And undeniably suggests a language joke. And the artist is certainly known to playfully monumentalize the menial and mundane. In 1977 he made Six Colorful Inside Jobs, a video that shows a man painting a room six times over in six different colors. Baldessari used to work for his father as a housepainter by day while secreting away with his artistic inclinations by night. He came to realize that the two activities were not so different, so he decided to close the gap by memorializing trade work as performance art.

Stuart Davis. Lucky Strike. 1921

Another artist who often walked the line between high and low with purpose and poise is Stuart Davis, who in 1921 declared, “I WANT a direct expression of my desires. I want to paint a series of pictures the subject matter of which will be popular. By ‘popular’ pictures, I mean those phases of modern life which I am capable of understanding. One of these things is the beauty of packing. Where a few decades ago everything was packed in barrels and boxes they now are packed singly or in dozen or half-dozen lots as the control over distribution increases. This symbolizes a very high civilization in relation to other civilizations.”

He realized this professed desire for “direct expression” in Lucky Strike, a painting of cigarette packaging completed later in 1921, which MoMA visitors may be surprised to see is currently missing from the fifth floor. The painting was removed last fall so that it could be included in Nexus New York: Latin/American Artists in the Modern Metropolis at El Museo del Barrio, a show featuring dozens of artists who were inspired by New York’s landscape in the early twentieth century (well worth a visit before it closes on February 28!). At once layered and flat, this painting of a quotidian vessel recalls Cubism and Purism both. But it is perhaps most striking not for what it recalls, but for what it foretells: Davis is absolutely a proto-Pop artist. Some forty years later, Andy Warhol, a commercial illustrator of catalogs and advertisements, would become famous for painting contemporary American packaging (Campbell’s Soup cans, anyone?). Lucky Strike is thus an important link between the fourth- and fifth-floor collection galleries at MoMA. Fittingly, it was most recently shown adjacent to the escalators that connect the two floors, the two halves of the twentieth century.

So what can be called the “MoMA experience” in fact extends far beyond our midtown Manhattan home. And wonderfully, when MoMA collection works travel, they become part of a shared narrative with many other institutions. With easy fluidity, our works are both vehicles that tell the story of MoMA’s founding and lifespan, and conduits of the many art histories told by museums the world over.