Artistic Innovation in The Long Run

October 19, 2018
Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1980–98.
Lee Bontecou. Untitled. 1980–98.

For the past many decades there has been a fundamental disconnect between the way The Museum of Modern Art has collected painting and sculpture and the way it has displayed that collection. If we consider an artist to be of major importance, we amass work from across the full spectrum of his or her career. And yet in the collection galleries, the work generally on view is that made at the artist’s moment of breakthrough or soon thereafter. We recently calculated the artists’ ages at the making of each painting and sculpture on view in our fifth-floor galleries (those covering the years from 1885 to 1950). More than two-thirds of the works were created when the artists were in their twenties or thirties.

What is going on here? The answer is simple. Modern art history was developed as a linear narrative that charts a succession of art movements propelling us through the decades. This structure has long been reflected in the collection display at The Museum of Modern Art: the sequence chronicles the innovations of young artists eager to overthrow the work of their elders and to make their own mark on history. Usually these artists join together in small groups that brand themselves, or are branded, with a distinctive name. In the traditional telling, we parade from ism to ism in a march of progress that leads from Post-Impressionism to Fauvism to Cubism, for example, or from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism to Pop. In each case, a new generation of artists seeks to dethrone the generation that came before, driving art forward by casting off the styles of their predecessors.

Such a telling of history points to modernism’s infatuation with innovation, for the individual artist as well as for the overall history of visual art. The parallel to the commercial world is unmistakable: new styles and names must come along like so many endlessly self-obsolescing phones and sneakers. Despite the obvious fact that everything is dependent on that which came before, and everything is derived from things already there, modern art history is told through tales of revolution and discovery rather than threads of continuity. Our emphatic focus on new avant-gardes brings with it a certain side effect: as art history’s narrative moves onward, it abandons the individual artists’ stories that have already begun. But, in fact, strong artists continue on to develop multi-decade careers long after their emergence on the scene. An initial personal style is a springboard, which the artist may then choose to deepen, vary, or subvert. Careers assume all different shapes and rhythms. But our preference for beginnings leaves these largely unexplored in our collection galleries.

Obviously, our framework for displaying the collection inhibits viewers’ awareness of an artist’s full career. Other ramifications follow as well. For example, when we train our lens primarily on artists involved in the heady founding of a new avant-garde group, it turns out that women are disproportionately absent. In their younger years, women artists of the early and mid-20th century often were busy earning a salary, furthering the careers of their artist husbands, or raising their kids. They were rarely welcomed into the ranks of artistic groups (with notable exceptions such as the Russian avant-garde of the 1910s), and thus were deprived the collective notoriety that fueled the takeoff of a career. But if we look for those taking more solitary paths, often as so-called late bloomers, women appear in greater abundance.

In the experimental spirit that has governed the few years before MoMA opens in expanded quarters in 2019, we have installed a special presentation of the collection display on the Museum’s fourth floor. This area is normally dedicated to the decades of the 1950s–1970s. Now, we are featuring work by the same artists usually included in those decades—Abstract Expressionists and Pop artists, for example— but are instead showing only works made later in their careers. So, for example, among the hundred plus on view, we see works by Andy Warhol from the 1980s, Agnes Martin from the 1990s, and Gerhard Richter from the 2000s. We’re calling the exhibition The Long Run. The vibrancy of these artworks refutes the notion that creativity diminishes with age. They champion the reality that great artists never stop exploring and taking risks. They also attest to the mysterious and beautiful fact that what may appear to be repetition is nothing of the kind: to face what will be one’s next work of art is always an encounter with the new.

In this conversation, Temkin and a panel of contemporary artists explored the varied forms and paths of a life dedicated to making art, and shared observations, thoughts, and questions about the careers of artists featured in The Long Run.