March 3, 2010  |  Behind the Scenes
MoMA Offsite: Across the River, Across the Pond

Institutions that engage in munificent and far-reaching lending forge important collegial relationships with one another, and in the process help to create a network of public spaces with dynamic, diverse programming. Rarely, however, are these relationships sanctioned in any official capacity, which is what makes the affiliation between MoMA and P.S.1 so special. The two joined forces in 2000, with the goal to “promote the enjoyment, appreciation, study, and understanding of contemporary art to a wide and growing audience.” In the last ten years the institutions have worked together in many ways, but 1969, an exhibition on view at P.S.1 through April 5, is the first time that a group exhibition at the Long Island City center has been drawn entirely from MoMA’s collection.

Occupying an entire floor at P.S.1, the exhibition features some eighty objects representing all seven of MoMA’s departmental collections plus the Museum Archives. I was delighted to discover dozens of works for the first time, as well as to embrace long cherished images that I had never before seen in person. Just as gratifying was seeing several works—works that MoMA visitors are surely familiar with—in a new context.

Installation view of 1969 with John McCracken

In July 2009, MoMA curators packed up Larry Bell’s Shadows (1969), and John McCracken’s The Absolutely Naked Fragrance (1967), in anticipation of the Minimalist sculptures’ inclusion in 1969, where they serve as crucial representations of California art in the titular year. Of course, this means that MoMA’s Minimalism gallery notably lacks that aspect in its current iteration. Yet that absence makes room for other products of Minimalism, and in the sculptures’ place visitors can now see Jo Baer’s Primary Light Group: Red, Green, Blue (1964–65) and Frank Stella’s Empress of India (1965). The Baer work hasn’t been on view since 2006, and although the Stella painting was recently on view for a year and a half in a very public location—hanging high in the Museum’s lobby—one gets a totally different impression of the work in its new home. At eye level, the massiveness of the canvas and its implied motion are more truly apparent.

Around the same time that MoMA and P.S.1 were making their link official, Tate Modern was established, and in just a few years it soared to become the best-attended modern-art museum in the world. Just as quickly, Tate Modern and MoMA developed an important if informal bond, and in the last decade the museums have collaborated extensively on loans and exhibitions. For example, 2008’s Dalí: Painting & Film was an exhibition originally organized by Tate Modern, and next year the recently closed MoMA exhibition Gabriel Orozco will have a showing at the British institution. In the meantime, Tate Modern visitors can view a number of works from MoMA’s collection in Van Doesburg and the International Avant-Garde (through May 16)—in all, a whopping eleven works were lent to the show from the Departments of Painting and Sculpture, Architecture and Design, and Drawings. Van Doesburg is perhaps best known for pioneering diagonal construction, as seen in Contra-Construction Project, Axonometric (1923), and Simultaneous Counter-Composition (1929–30).

Theo van Doesburg. Rhythm of a Russian Dance. 1918

But Rhythm of a Russian Dance (1918) points toward Van Doesburg’s other most common associations—with the movement known as De Stijl and the artist Piet Mondrian. The colorful and fractured line segments in this work may remind viewers of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie, which would not be painted for another twenty years (1942–43). Rhythm of a Russian Dance and other Van Doesburg paintings haven’t been on view in our collection galleries since 2006.

There is another institutional linkage embedded here, and that is one between Tate Modern and the much smaller Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden, which co-organized the exhibition with Tate. It happened that the two were planning similar exhibitions simultaneously, and when they learned of one another’s efforts, they decided to come together. In the jointly written foreword of the exhibition catalogue, Edwin Jacobs, former director of De Lakenhal, and Vincente Todoli, director of Tate Modern, state, “Too often large arts institutions work in partnership with similarly sized organizations. This project rejects such hierarchy and demonstrates a commitment by both [museums] to place art and ideas at the center of our programming.” It was a similar aim that motivated the MoMA and P.S.1 affiliation, and indeed prioritizing art and ideas propels any institution that seeks innovative collaboration and diverse dialogue. No one collection is complete on its own, and it’s only via open pathways between all modern and contemporary collections in the world that we can begin to approach a full story.