Social Realism: Art for the People

Elizabeth Catlett. Mother and Child. 1956. Terra cotta. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Friends of Education of The Museum of Modern Art, The Modern Women’s Fund, and Dr. Alfred Gold (by exchange). © 2012 Elizabeth Catlett/Lincensed by VAGA, New York, NY

This past summer, the Museum acquired an important sculpture by the African American artist Elizabeth Catlett (b.1915). Catlett, who came of age in the 1930s, an era of legally mandated racial segregation in America, made Mother and Child in 1956 while she was living in Mexico. This terra cotta work marks the artist’s return to sculpture (the subject of her formal training) after a long period during which she focused on printmaking. Made of simple, rounded, figurative forms, this intimately scaled sculpture serves as a quiet tribute to motherhood as experienced by many women across cultures.

At any given time, only 10 to 15% of MoMA’s collection is on view to the public at the Museum itself (the remainder is lent to exhibitions at other institutions or safely stowed in our storage warehouse). But the Museum tries, whenever possible, to display significant acquisitions soon after they enter the collection. Sometimes these new additions can be worked seamlessly into planned presentations of the collection. For example, this summer, the reinstallation of the Museum’s fourth-floor galleries, which display art made roughly between 1940 and 1980, provided the perfect opportunity to showcase a selection of key Conceptual artworks from the recently acquired private collection of the Belgian collectors Herman J. Daled and Nicole Daled-Verstraeten. Likewise, the new installation of the Contemporary Galleries on the Museum’s second floor created a ready context to display a major recent acquisition by Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanjia, untitled 1992/1995 (free/still), an installation in which visitors are invited to eat vegetable curry inside the gallery.

José Clemente Orozco. Barricade. 1931. Oil on canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously. © 2012 José Clemente Orozco/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SOMAAP, Mexico

At other times, a newly acquired artwork itself acts as a catalyst for display activity within the Museum, as was the case with Mother and Child. Catlett made this sculpture in the style of Social Realism, a term used to describe artworks made by artists working between the two World Wars, a period defined by international political turmoil and the hardships of a worldwide economic depression. Inspired by the strength of leftist workers’ movements in the Soviet Union, Europe, Asia, and the Americas, these artists relied on realism, rather than abstraction, to call attention to the declining conditions of the poor and working class, and to challenge the governmental and social systems they held responsible. Social Realist art was meant to be easily accessible and legible to a mass international audience, and often depicted monumentalized subjects—both recognizable figures and anonymous everyday workers were recast as heroic symbols of persistence and strength in the face of adversity.

Energized by the social awareness in the air courtesy of the Occupy movements that have swept the country over the past several months, and knowing we wanted to create a thematic gallery that would illuminate this greater historical context for the new Catlett sculpture, curators Anne Umland, Laura Hoptman, and I headed out to our storage warehouse in search of other Social Realist works. We had some ideas already in mind: we knew we wanted to include José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, two of Los tres grandes (The Big Three) Mexican muralists at the time (the third, Diego Rivera, is currently the subject of an outstanding exhibition on the Museum’s second floor, on view through May 14, 2012).

Philip Guston. Gladiators. 1940. Oil and pencil on canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Edward R. Broida. © 2012 The Estate of Philip Guston

We also knew we wanted to pair these Mexican artists with a selection of American painters and sculptors who responded to their work. Some artists stood out as obvious choices, such as Thomas Hart Benton, who had known Rivera and worked alongside Orozco on a mural commission, and Philip Guston, the Abstract Expressionist painter who got his start as Siqueiros’s studio assistant in Los Angeles. Others, such as Emma Lu Davis, an American sculptor with a particular interest in international socialism, and Ahron Ben-Shmuel, whose simply rendered, massive stone head of a fighter reveals elements of his formal training and career as a monument carver, felt like secret treasures buried deep within our storage, just waiting to be discovered anew.

Emma Lu Davis. Chinese Red Army Soldier. 1936. Walnut. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund

We assembled a group of works that fit our criteria, and tested them out in Gallery 11 on the Museum’s fifth floor. Ultimately we chose to install 19 works in a variety of mediums that we hope, when considered together, provide new insight into the key themes and trends of Social Realism and offer a fresh context for some of the rarely seen works in MoMA’s collection.