October 13, 2010  |  Collection & Exhibitions
Ab Ex NY: Rethinking the Display of the Permanent Collection

Installation view of Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture. Photo: Jason Mandella

Regular visitors to the Museum will have noticed that the fourth-floor Painting and Sculpture Galleries have undergone a complete reinstallation. These spaces, which are typically used to exhibit a broad survey of the Museum’s collection, are now home to Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture</a>, an exhibition featuring approximately 170 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs associated with the movement that put New York on the art world map more than fifty years ago.</p>

I worked on this show with exhibition organizer Ann Temkin, but I am still struck by its premise. MoMA, like most other art institutions, usually shows the collection as a “little bit of this and a little bit of that”—our fourth floor began with late Surrealism and ended in Conceptual art; visitors were sure to see work by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Sol Lewitt, Donald Judd, etc. By visiting the fourth floor, one could get a good idea of the variety of currents that pulsated through the art world from 1940 to 1970. However, in that scenario what we encountered was really just the tip of an iceberg. As I mentioned in a previous post, typically only 10 to 15% of the Museum’s collection is on view on Fifty-third Street, while the remainder travels to various loan shows or resides in our storage warehouse.

Installation view of Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture. Photo: Jason Mandella

Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture is drawn entirely from MoMA’s collection and offers an alternative to the way that the collection is typically displayed. Rather than presenting a broad selection of our holdings, we focused our attention on a particular movement, Abstract Expressionism, and were able to put on view not only the familiar masterworks by Arshile Gorky, Pollock, or Rothko (although these are surely there), but also a range of lesser-known works by these same artists as well as works by Richard Pousette-Dart, Joan Mitchell, Alfred Leslie, Hedda Sterne, Grace Hartigan, Bradley Walker Tomlin, and many others who were a part of Abstract Expressionism but whose work is on view at the Museum less frequently.

Grace Hartigan. Shinnecock Canal. 1957. Oil on canvas, 7' 6 1/2" x 6' 4" (229.8 x 193 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of James Thrall Soby. © 2010 The Estate of Grace Hartigan

To an extent, of course, there is a trade-off—breadth vs. depth—but the great thing about our collection is that while the collection is “permanent,” our approach to its display is becoming more fluid and flexible. When the show closes in late April, visitors can expect to see some of their old favorites back on view, but they will certainly be joined a few new and unfamiliar names.