Photo of Yayoi Kusama’s “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead.” An audience looks on as several naked people stand next to a statue in one of the pools in the garden

“But Is It Art?” in New York Daily News, August 25, 1969

Messing With MoMA: Critical Interventions at the Museum of Modern Art, 1939–Now

As an institution dedicated to ever-changing art forms, MoMA consistently attracts direct engagement. This exhibition documents seven decades of interventions by artists, the general public, and even MoMA staff, ranging from manifestos and conceptual gestures to protests and performances. “Messing” connotes the variety of these actions, which question, play with, provoke, subvert, and comment on the paradox of institutionalizing radical art.

The exhibition is organized by Jennifer Tobias, Reader Services Librarian, MoMA Library

1930s and 1940s

Even in its first decades, MoMA engendered debate and controversy. Much of the criticism came from journalists and concerned the nature and validity of modernism, but artists and staff sometimes joined the fray.

Invitation: “The Empress of Blandings and Mister Charles Beyer request the honor or Mr. Goodyear’s presence at the semi-public opening of the new Museum of Standard Oil…
Frances Collins. Oil that Glitters Is Not Gold. 1939
The Museum of Modern Art Archives. Goodyear Papers 52.19.

Irked that some fellow staff members weren’t invited to the elite opening party for the Museum’s new building in 1939, Manager of Publications Frances Collins produced this satirical invitation.

Association of American Artists. How Modern Is The Museum of Modern Art? 1940

Designed by painter Ad Reinhardt, this broadside (a large printed page) registered a desire for more curatorial attention to contemporary American artists. The text refers to the contemporaneous exhibitions Art in Our Time (1939), Modern Masters from European and American Collections (1940), and Italian Masters (1940).

Ad Reinhardt. How to Look at Modern Art in America and How to Look at Modern Art in America Fifteen Years Later in Art News 60, no. 4 (Summer 1961)
Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Cubism and Abstract Art (New York: MoMA, 1936)

Reinhardt took satire a step further in this metaphorical tree, published in 1940 in the liberal New York newspaper PM, and then in a 1961 follow-up in Art News. Both versions take a critical stance toward the institutionalization of modernism.

With “roots” in “Cézanne,” “Negro Sculpture,” and “Japanese Prints” that grow into “Braque,” “Matisse,” and “Picasso,” the tree refers indirectly to a chart by founding MoMA curator Alfred H. Barr, Jr., reproduced on the cover of the 1936 Cubism and Abstract Art catalog, also seen here.

In the pit (or graveyard) at the lower right of the 1961 version, “Museum of Modern Arts” replaces the Abstract American Artists group—publisher of Reinhardt’s 1940 broadside.


In the 1960s, many institutions—including museums—began to be aggressively questioned by swelling ranks of activists. MoMA became a site for debate on topics such as the artist’s role in the exhibition and the sale of their work, emerging and historical art movements, and overarching social issues such as the Vietnam War, racism, and sexism.

Groups such as the Art Workers Coalition, the Guerrilla Art Action Group, Women Artists in Revolution, and Artists Meeting for Cultural Change organized numerous actions at the Museum, while other artists intervened individually.

Photo of the exhibition Around the Automobile
Installation view, Around the Automobile, MoMA, December 9, 1965–March 21, 1966

MoMA acquired Vern Blosum’s painting Time Expired (1962) as an early example of Pop Art and displayed it in the 1965 exhibition Around the Automobile, but later research revealed the work to be a critique of Pop painted under a pseudonym.

Henry Flynt. Demonstration. 1963

Flynt and friends organized a campaign to “destroy serious culture” in demonstrations at MoMA and other New York City cultural institutions. This gesture marked the beginning of Flynt’s extended campaign for the idea of “Veramuseument,” or purposeless pleasure.

Artwork by William Anthony
William Anthony. Object Stolen, Circa 1965, by the Artist from The Museum of Modern Art. 2011

Black Mask, no. 1 (1966)

With the credo, “our struggle cannot be hung on walls,” in 1966 the radical artists’ group Black Mask planned to shut down MoMA for a day (police preemptively closed the Museum).

Photo of work by Christo
Christo Wraps the Museum (New York: MoMA, 1968)

MoMA commissioned Christo to generate ideas for “messing” with MoMA at a grand scale. He proposed to wrap the building (as well as trees, sculptures, and people) and construct a barricade of barrels across 53rd Street.

New York Free Press, February 29, 1968

Curator Gene Swenson reacted strongly to the 1968 exhibition Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, contesting the show’s presentation of Surrealist works. Swenson picketed the Museum, placed newspaper ads, and organized a protest at the show’s opening.

East Village Other, January 24, 1969

In 1969 Takis Vassilakis demanded removal of his Tele-sculpture (1960–62) from the exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (1968–69), objecting to the display of the work without consultation.

René d’Harnoncourt. Meeting Agenda,1966)

MoMA Director René d’Harnoncourt took imaginative notes during meetings, as seen in this example.

Photos from Fluxblattzeitung
Fluxblattzeitung, no. 12 (1969)

Studio International 180, no. 927 (July–December 1970)
Art Workers Coalition. Art Workers Welcome You. n.d.
Lack of Negro Art at N.Y. Museum Hit in Cleveland Press, April 14, 1969

Artist’s organizations such as the Art Workers Coalition and the Guerrilla Art Action Group organized numerous interventions at the Museum from the late 1960s through the 1970s. Among other actions, the groups called for open meetings with MoMA leaders to discuss demands, initiated protests in the lobby and galleries, and organized the New York Artists Strike, a day-long commitment to political activity.

Kynaston McShine. Information (New York: MoMA, 1970)

In 1969 artist Yayoi Kusama organized a “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead,” in which “six young women and two men stripped off their clothes and cavorted for 20 minutes among the bronze and stone nudes in the garden,” according to The New York Times, while she read a printed statement titled “Thoughts on the Mausoleum of Modern Art.” In the 1970 Information exhibition catalog, a multi-page photomontage included a newspaper account of Kusama’s event, appropriating it into institutional history.


In an artistic context of Conceptualism and Happenings, actions in the 1970s involved “messing” with institutional assumptions about the use of space, participation, and political engagement.

Franz Erhard Walther. Tagebuch (Cologne: Heiner Friedrich, 1970)

The 1970 exhibition Spaces was one of the first in which artists were invited to work with MoMA spaces. Walther took over a street-view gallery with objects and actions based on a diagram, and invited audience commentary.

Photo of the installation Information by Hans Haacke
Installation view, Information, MoMA, July 2–September 20, 1970

Hans Haacke. MoMA Poll. 1970

The 1970 exhibition Information brought Conceptual art to MoMA. Of the many daring works on view, Hans Haacke’s MoMA Poll was controversial by design, taking on MoMA trustee and New York governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Yoko Ono. Museum Of Modern (F)art (New York: self-published, 1971)

Ono conceived of a “one woman show” at MoMA, complete with advertisements, performance, and a catalog, from which this image is taken—but no actual show. The project is documented in detail in Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, on view on the sixth floor.

Seth Siegelaub and Robert Projanksy. Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement (New York: Artists’ Rights Association, 1971)

Inspired in part by Takis Vassilakis’s removal of a sculpture from a MoMA show (documented here in the 1960s case), in 1970 curator, publisher, and art world catalyst Seth Siegelaub and lawyer Robert Projanksy produced this contract, a legal document enabling artists to have a role in the re-sale and display of their work.

Paul Kopelow. Catalogue: Stromberg Photo-Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art in New York Magazine, June 1971

Prankster Stromberg became well known for placing “illegal art”—illusionistic photographic images of fixtures such as an electrical outlet—in the MoMA galleries.

Announcement for an protest, headed Attention! Women Artists and Feminists!
Women in the Arts. Attention! Women Artists and Feminists! 1972

Artforum 12, no. 4 (December 1973)

A strike by MoMA’s professional and administrative staff union was extensively discussed in this issue of the influential art journal.

Eleanor Antin. 100 Boots. 1971–73

Antin conceived a series of photographs showing one hundred pairs of boots installed in diverse settings. Photographed by Philip Steinmetz, the images were intended to function like film stills, suggesting a journey from California to New York. Antin printed and mailed the images as postcards. In one card, the boots enter the Museum.

Photo of a blindfolded person standing next to a taxi
Marta Minujín. Kidnappening. 1973

Minujín’s performance—in which selected visitors were blindfolded by artists (their faces painted to resemble Picasso portraits) and driven around New York—had a somber undertone, referring to abductions and abuses of power under authoritarian regimes in her native Argentina.

Newspapeer front page with headline VANDAL SPRAYS PICASSO MURAL, Priceless Work Attacked Here
Vandal Sprays Picasso Mural in New York Daily News, March 1, 1974

In 1974 Art Workers Coalition member and future gallerist Tony Shafrazi spray-painted the phrase “kill lies all” on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937), linking the anti-war painting to the 1968 My Lai Massacre in Vietnam.

Eraser stamped with the text ERASE SEXISM AT MOMA
Joanne Stamerra. Erase Sexism at MoMA. 1976

During a 1976 demonstration protesting the marginalization of women artists, Stamerra placed stamped erasers throughout the Museum.

Announcement for Vagrich Bakchanayan’s performance
Vagrich Bakchanayan. First Russian Propaganda Art Performance at Museum of Modern Art in New York. 1978

Toward the end of the Soviet era, Bakchanayan examined MoMA’s early embrace of Russian avant-garde art from the perspective of an immigrant.


Beginning in the 1980s, with politically engaged art practices ascendant, “messing” started to become an accepted practice at MoMA and other art institutions, with artists and curators collaborating on projects. Independent actions continued apace.

Paul. Dear Picasso Fan. n.d.

As described in this self-published pamphlet, “Paul” burned two of his Pablo Picasso prints in front of MoMA, urging “The Museum of Remote Art” to show more current work.

Flyer advertising Women Artists Visibility Event
Women Artists Visibility Event. The Museum of Modern Art Opens but Not to Women Artists. 1984

Following completion of the Museum’s 1984 expansion, Women Artists Visibility Event protested the underrepresentation of women artists in the opening exhibition, An International Survey of Painting and Sculpture.

Guerrilla Girls. How Many Women Had One-Person Exhibitions at NYC Museums Last Year? 1985

Pink paper airplane by Louise Lawler
Louise Lawler. Did You Take This Airplane Home? Enough. 1987

This paper airplane, published for a 1987 MoMA show of Lawler’s work, contrasts the complacency of attending cultural institutions with U.S. military action in Nicaragua.

Ray Johnson. Bill de Kooning. 1990

For the exhibition Chuck Close: Head On/The Modern Portrait (1990), Close assembled portraits from MoMA’s collection. The artist wanted to include a portrait by Ray Johnson, but the Museum didn’t own any of his work. As a result, this work from Johnson’s extended mail art exchange with MoMA librarian Clive Phillpot was displayed.

Guerrilla Girls. 3 White Women, 1 Woman of Color and No Men of Color—Out of 71 Artists? 1997
MoMA Archives Exhibition Files

The activist group Guerrilla Girls organized a postcard campaign to protest the lack of gender and racial diversity in the exhibition Objects of Desire: The Modern Still Life (1997).

Photo of an immense canvas painted with the words “LOOK AT JASPER’s PICTURES / THINK WE ARE NICE / SMOKE OUR CIGARETTES / AND DIE,” signed PHILIP MORRIS AND TONY KAYE
Tony Kaye. Look at Jasper’s Pictures. 1996

Objecting to Philip Morris’s sponsorship of the exhibition Jasper Johns: A Retrospective (1996–97), filmmaker Tony Kaye had a giant canvas erected across from the Museum. From a bucket lift, he painted a statement.

Michael Asher. Painting and Sculpture from The Museum of Modern Art: Catalog of Deaccessions (New York: MoMA, 1999)

As part of the 1999 exhibition The Museum as Muse, a millennial reflection on MoMA’s history and institutional critique, Asher worked with Museum staff to compile this list of works sold or exchanged by the Department of Painting and Sculpture since the Museum’s founding in 1929.


At the turn of the twenty-first century, a millennial mindset prevailed at MoMA, taking the form of collection shows, a substantial expansion project, and a merger with PS1. Other forms of “messing” reflect on the Museum’s eighty-six-year history.

Janine Antoni. Banners Project, Series III. 2000

In one of several banners commissioned for the Museum’s exterior, artist Janine Antoni altered an existing banner to read “MoM,” pointing out the Museum’s role as both nurturer and power center.

Thomas Griesel. Strike. 2000

A strike by members of MoMA’s professional and administrative staff union involved the repurposing of a Pablo Picasso costume by Maurizio Cattelan, made for a 1998 MoMA exhibition.

Christopher Speradino and Simon Grennan. Modern Masters: Stories About PS1 and The Museum of Modern Art (New York: DC Comics, 2001)

Photo of Filip Noterdaeme holding the MoMA HMLSS museum-in-a-suitcase
Homeless Museum. Manhattan Is Robbed Again. 2004
Homeless Museum. MoMA HMLSS. 2005

Artist Filip Noterdaeme founded the Homeless Museum to protest high museum admission prices. The flyer takes aim at both Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) and an advertising theme created for the MoMA reopening. MoMA HMLSS refers to Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise (1935–41), currently on view on the fourth floor.

Banksy work depicting a can of tomato soup
Banksy. Untitled. 2005

The artist known as Banksy installed paintings covertly in art museums worldwide. The Tesco can plays on Andy Warhol’s soup can paintings, now on view on the second floor.

A page of drawings from Jason Polan’s Every Piece of Art in The Museum of Modern Art Book
Jason Polan. Every Piece of Art in The Museum of Modern Art Book (New York: Jason Polan, 2005)

Catalog cover with the text What is Modern Art? Museum of Modern Art
Museum of American Art, Berlin. What is Modern Art? (Berlin: Museum of American Art, 2008)

Goran Djordjevic’s project explores the circulation of modernist tenets to Eastern Europe during the Cold War via MoMA and other Western institutions. The exhibition catalog cover appropriates the design of a work by Alfred H. Barr, Jr., intended to popularize modernism.

Screens: selected 30 Seconds videos by Thilo Hoffman with MoMA members and staff. 2009–10

Hoffmann worked with MoMA members and staff to create short films based on their ideas and experiences in and around the museum.

Yevgeniy Fiks. Communist Tour of MoMA. 2010

Fiks initiated gallery tours to explain the sociopolitical context of Communist period artworks.

Maria Anwander. The Kiss. 2010

As the artist recalled, “I entered the museum as a regular visitor and gave an intense French kiss to the wall.”

Daniel Feral. Graffiti and Street Art. 2011

Feral created his riff on the chart created by former MoMA Director Alfred H. Barr, Jr. (on view in Case 1) for an exhibition of street art installed across the street from MoMA.

Occupy Museums. Occupy MoMA. 2012

Members of the Occupy movement organized a demonstration at the Museum in an effort to bring public attention to economic inequality.

Xaviera Simmons. Archive as Impetus. 2013

As part of the Museum’s Artists Experiment program, Simmons addressed the theme of activism through research, appropriation, and performance.

FolkMoMA. 2013

A label posted anonymously on the facade of the former American Folk Art Museum marks the building as an acquired object.

David Horvitz and Zanna Gilbert. MoMA Cubicle. 2014–15

Artist David Horvitz began posting diverse objects to MoMA employee and mail-art scholar Zanna Gilbert. Gilbert installed the works—such as this one—in her cubicle and documented the results.

Guerrilla Girls. Dear Art Museum. 2015

The group produced and distributed stickers with the encouragement to apply them liberally and to document the process through social media.

PASTA-MoMA. Minimum Wages. 2015

During contract negotiations, MoMA’s graphic style was adapted by the union.

Nina Katchadourian. Dust Wipe. 2015

Also part of the Artists Experiment program, Katchadourian investigates the theme of dust, exemplified by this cloth printed with an image from the MoMA galleries.


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