Since its founding in 1929, The Museum of Modern Art’s pioneering directors, curators, and trustees have dedicated themselves to collecting the foremost examples of the “art of our time.” To celebrate the range of styles and ideas that constitute the collection’s evolving foundation, from legendary favorites to lesser-known masterworks and contemporary landmarks, the Museum recently published Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, with an introduction by Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture. Here, she tells us a bit about the process of choosing works for the book, which represents only about 5% of the Museum’s Painting and Sculpture Collection.
In your introduction, you describe the prescience of the Museum’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., as well as MoMA’s trustees and curators, in acquiring works from yet-to-be-established artists such as Jasper Johns. Who are some other artists that stand out to you as having achieved a similar status?
During the 1960s, New York saw an incredible explosion of experiments in sculpture. It was a very fertile field, and The Museum of Modern Art was right in there. In 1969, we acquired a work by Dan Flavin that had as its components colored fluorescent bulbs, and that was it—fluorescent lamps constitute the entirety of the sculpture’s materials. That same year, we purchased a work by Eva Hesse, Repetition Nineteen III, made of fiberglass and polyester resin. I think this is an important and meaningful thing to have done at that moment because the artist died the following year, at the age of 33.
It was nice to remember that we bought a sculpture by Martin Puryear, Greed’s Trophy, the year it was made, in 1984, when the artist would have been not a known name at all. Similarly, in 1990, we acquired a painting by Christopher Wool from the year before, Cats in Bag Bags in River, a work by a painter who has since become emblematic of painting in the 1990s.
The arrangement of the works in pairs serves a kind of didactic purpose. Is there an example of a coupling that you find especially meaningful?
We organized the book chronologically, and there is always something very accurate and truthful about chronology as a guide, because of something we call the zeitgeist. It allows for artists who never meet or even know of each other’s work to end up doing things that are quite similar, even if they’re in different parts of the world.
A nice pairing is on pages 36 and 37, Constantin Brancusi’s Maiastra and Henri Rousseau’s The Dream, both from 1910. When we were making these pairings, we were mainly thinking about what makes the most beautiful combination. But of course when something looks really beautiful, there is an internal logic to the reason. In this case, these two artists, living nearby each other in Paris at this very fertile moment in the history of modern art, are both looking to the far away and exotic for inspiration in carving out a revolutionary new way of sculpting on the one hand, and painting on the other. In Brancusi’s case, he’s drawing on the legend of the magical bird Maiastra, from his native Romania, and in Rousseau’s case, he’s dreaming of a tropical jungle, even though he had actually never left Paris and had to find his inspiration by going to the botanical garden in the city.
Another interesting pairing is from 1981, again a painting and a sculpture, on pages 190 and 191. The painting is by Martin Kippenberger, a work from the series Dear Painter, Paint for Me, and the sculpture is by Jeff Koons, New Shelton Wet/Dry Doubledecker. Both of these works play with notion of the “readymade,” which became very important again at the end of the 20th century, when Marcel Duchamp’s fame and impact really hit a new height. In Kippenberger’s case, he didn’t even paint the picture—he commissioned a commercial artist known for his film posters and advertisements to paint it from a self-portrait photo of himself. In Koons’s case, he used purchased vacuum cleaners and fluorescent light bulbs to make a sculpture that in the end is completely his.
A decision was made to represent as many artists as possible in the book, which meant selecting only one or two works from some very prolific artists. Were there any that you were especially torn about while making a final choice?
Yes, we actually spent much of last summer struggling over these very questions.One regret is that, believe it or not, we only have one Andy Warhol painting in the book—Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962). Therefore we did not include his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962), which are a perennial favorite of our visitors and in fact the centerpiece of a special exhibition in the Prints and Illustrated Books Galleries right now. But because they were both from 1962, it seemed that we really had to choose just one, and since the Gold Marilyn Monroe was a painting that we bought right at the moment, we felt that was the one to go with. Many people call her our Mona Lisa.
We have five paintings and sculptures by Pablo Picasso in this book, but that’s actually a tiny fraction of the works that we own by Picasso, whose career spanned seven decades. We could easily have put in far more works by him. For example, the great Rose Period Boy Leading a Horse (1905–06), which has been in the Museum’s collection for many decades, is not in the book.
For Piet Mondrian we decided to put in Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43), a painting he made at the end of his life while he was living here in New York, just a year before he died. It’s an absolute icon of 20th-century painting. But for that reason we didn’t put in one of his beautiful paintings from his early years, when he was just developing the neo-plastic language that he used throughout his life.
The book features acquisitions made through 2014. Are there any new additions to the collection you’re particularly excited about?
You could say that our acquisitions program has two sides to it. One is keeping an eye on the present moment, and doing our best to select what is most important of the work being made today. The other side is catching up on past decades to acquire works that were not selected at that moment but have since become clearly important and have grown in significance, which we realize in retrospect are very necessary to the collection.
A couple of years ago, we acquired a work by Mike Kelley just before we showed his retrospective exhibition at MoMA PS1. The work is called Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites (1991/1999), and it’s a room composed of a lot of suspended sculptures of Kelley’s signature stuffed animals. It contains scores of stuffed animals attached together into these big balls that hang from the ceiling, filling the room, and you can walk between these suspended spears of stuffed animals. It’s a great, great piece, and one of Kelley’s great rooms. We have a tradition of collecting room-sized works—for example, there’s James Rosenquist’s F-111 (1964–65), and of course Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (1914–26)—and it’s great to add, from the end of the twentieth century, such an incredible work of art in an absolutely up-to-date and certainly unexpected medium.