Small Steps Lead to Bigger Changes: MoMA’s Shifting Wall Colors

On one of my recent early-morning checks of the fifth-floor collection galleries—a daily duty of the curatorial staff, to spot any oddities—an elusive, visceral feeling gave me pause. It took me a moment to recognize that it was prompted by the wall color, which, as I moved from the European Expressionist gallery to the adjacent Matisse room, had changed from a light grey to what appeared to be a bright white. This color change is subtle enough to likely go unnoticed by many visitors, but deserves a brief moment of attention.

View of Cézanne to Picasso: Paintings from the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection, July 17, 2009–August 31, 2009. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: John Wronn

Upon entering the first few rooms of the fifth floor, the greyish beige wall color is as quiet as Cézanne’s compositions or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon appear in their perennial splendor. But this seemingly natural tint is actually part of a relatively recent repainting effort that was initiated by Ann Temkin, chief curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture. Begun last summer, it was prompted initially by the focused installation of nine early modern paintings from the David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection (July 17–August 31, 2009). In their original setting in the Rockefeller home, the paintings were hung against yellow, but it was agreed that a greyish beige—Benjamin Moore’s Big Bend Beige to be precise—would be more suitable for the show, its natural and softening effect balancing the paintings’ color scheme, framing, and external lighting. That the same would hold true for the other turn-of-the-century works on the floor was a matter of course; thus the project spilled beyond the Rockefeller gallery and now encompasses the first five galleries.

Unless they happen to pertain to our own private home or the rooms we navigate on a daily basis, the wall colors of public spaces rarely make us raise an eyebrow. However, in the context of this Museum and its rich institutional history, a shift in wall color is both exciting and significant. In the 1930s, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., MoMA’s founding director, tirelessly scoured the front and back spaces of commercial galleries, artists’ studios, and museums, including such forward-thinking European institutions as the Museum Folkwang in Essen and the Landesmuseum in Hanover, keenly observing display and installation methods. He took particular note of the effectiveness of plain walls as a backdrop for the presentation of avant-garde art, their unadorned surfaces drawing attention to the objects rather than the surrounding architecture. Barr had MoMA’s walls lined with plain beige monk’s cloth, a cotton fabric that, according to Philip Johnson, who founded the Department of Architecture and Design in 1930, was “the most neutral thing he could get.” In tandem with this came an innovative way of installing works of art: rather than stacking and hanging pictures up high, as was the prevailing style in many places, paintings were hung in a single row, just below eye level, with ample interstitial space. The cloth soon gave way to white wall paint, although in Johnson’s opinion “the beige color was far better for painting than white.”

View of MoMA’s first exhibition, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat, Van Gogh, November 7, 1929–December 7, 1929. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Photo: Peter Juley

Compared to MoMA’s contemporary, often complex exhibition installations—the current multimedia-driven Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present for instance, or the recent polychromatic and richly layered Bauhaus 1919-1933 Workshops for Modernity , whose color scheme was based on the interior walls of Walter Gropius’s 1925 Master houses in the school’s home in Dessau—Barr’s early experimentations, particularly the monk’s cloth, may strike one as modest, if not antiquated. Yet from the viewpoint of an American museumgoer in the 1930s and 1940s, his pared-down approach was in fact an innovative one. It differed considerably, for example, from the stuccoed and molding-embellished interiors of The Metropolitan Museum of Art uptown, or the cheek by jowl Salon-style installation of the formidable Impressionist and modern art collection of Albert C. Barnes in Pennsylvania. Barr’s adoption of the white-walled space set a pioneering, if not uncontested, international standard for exhibiting modern and contemporary art, one that to this day, by virtue of its chromatic simplicity, has remained somewhat of a norm. MoMA’s “white cube” galleries have been fertile ground for many critical debates and the subject of several not-so-neutral arguments. A brief institutional anecdote, kindly shared with me by Jerome Neuner, MoMA’s longtime director of exhibition design, is amusing and fitting in this context.

Jerry remembers that during MoMA’s major 1984 renovation, the white walls of the collection galleries became a point of intense discussion. William S. Rubin, then chief curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, together with the exhibition design team, had deliberated fervently about the shade of white that could be used for the new walls. After a customized “Rubin-White” had been painstakingly selected and nearly agreed upon, Rubin surprised everyone by walking into the Museum one morning with an unmarked bucket of white paint, announcing that he had discovered the perfect white for the Museum’s walls. The surprise bucket, it turned out, contained Benjamin Moore’s Decorator’s White, the most commonplace and popular white produced by the company. It has graced the walls of millions of American homes, including Rubin’s own, and was eventually used in the galleries until the Museum’s 2004 expansion.

MoMA’s staff always tries to enhance and enliven the experiential qualities of the gallery space. Subtle experimentation with wall colors is anything but insignificant. It transforms the objects on display, and our experience of them, subtly altering the overall atmosphere and mood of the gallery space. As of today, the repainting effort encompasses the first five galleries of the fifth floor, but as initial steps lead to bigger changes, more will be added in the future. So on your next visit, take note of how the grey-beige background of one gallery—or the white of another—might delicately shift the way you discern the formal intricacies of Seurat’s Evening, Honfleur, the rich palette of Robert Delaunay’s Simultaneous Contrasts: Sun and Moon, or the visually absorbing canvases of Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman.