The New Commissions
On her last day, a curator talks about inviting artists to create works for MoMA’s public spaces.
Yasmil Raymond, Hanna Girma
Nov 14, 2019
Hanna Girma: Can you give me a little bit of background on the Commissions project?
Yasmil Raymond: The Commissions began as a humble idea of how we could incorporate works by living artists in our public spaces where people spend time and relax—common spaces that could provide an informal experience, different than what visitors might see in the gallery. Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, asked me to think of artists who would be interested in creating new work that visitors could experience while moving between the galleries, having a cup of coffee, or eating lunch. It's very peculiar to ask an artist to think of creating a work of art for a café. Most of the time they're thinking projects in their studio intended to be seen in the format of an exhibition, often in the so-called “white cube” space. It is even more unusual because the Commissions are in semi-public spaces, not necessarily outdoors but spaces that feel public, different than MoMA’s garden, for example.
It was a challenge, but all the artists embraced the idea immediately. The final result is not far off from what they initially envisioned, which is reassuring. It was really great to see the artist stick to their ideas despite the complexities of mounting the works during the inauguration of a new MoMA.
How did you pick this specific group of artists?
Believe it or not, this group of artists was chosen through a collective process. When you're a curator, you often work independently. You are often given autonomy to choose your project; you choose the artists that you want to work with and the institution as a whole doesn’t necessarily need to be in agreement. In this case, because the works were going to exist in our public spaces, I felt that it was crucial that the decision needed to be a collective one, that there needed to be a certain consensus on at least the selection of the artists.
Curators come and go, but these commissions will be on view anywhere between 1 and 10 years. Because of this, these works had to be something that a large majority of our staff was enthusiastic about taking care of. Let's say an artwork gets damaged, conditions of light or humidity change, a bottle of wine gets spilled by accident, who knows? These are public spaces and a lot can happen. It was important for me to know that the artists were entering a long-term relationship with MoMA and that their work was in good hands.
It's like having people stay over at your house. I always think about museums as a kind of home and that part of our responsibility is to be good hosts—not only to our visitors but to the artists that we show, even if they're no longer living. It's important for me that everybody feels welcome and they belong here.
What did the artist prompt look like?
I went in person to ask all the artists. Two of them are in New York: Haim Steinbach and Yoko Ono. At the time, Kerstin Brätsch was in Rome, even though she lives and works in Brooklyn. I also went to London to meet Goshka Macuga, I went to Amsterdam to see Experimental Jetset, and I visited Philippe Parreno in Paris.
I went with a floor-plan of the locations where they could consider making the work and showed them examples of previous MoMA commissions. It was very important from the beginning that Experimental Jetset and Kerstin Brätsch, who were working within restaurant spaces, meet Chef Abram Bissel and his team. I thought to myself, this needs to be a conversation, their work will be in dialogue not only with food but with the staff that greets and serves our guests. That exchange was really fruitful.
Because the commissions are not permanent, it gives MoMA a certain level of play and flexibility. Francis Picabia said, "The head is round so that the thoughts can move around." That's the beauty of the project: it’s a long-term engagement but not a permanent static gesture.
Installation view of Kerstin Brätsch’s Fossil Psychics for Christa (2019)
Can you briefly walk us through the commissions.
The other day someone described Kerstin Brätsch’s piece as a psychedelic garden. It’s in the sixth floor Terrace cafe, and consists of wall mounted reliefs made of stucco marmo, an Italian technique where you mix wet plaster with pigments to make a type of fake marble. With Brätsch’s unique palette of colors—bright pinks, greens, yellows, blues, and oranges—she created creature-like abstractions. The whole space feels like you’ve entered another period of time with excavated fossils. It's quite mysterious and otherworldly.
Yoko Ono wanted a space that was soothing and calming; she chose the third floor Loggia. Like a lot of her previous work, she dealt with the theme of peace, in this case her slogan "Peace is power." From the minute I went to meet her in her apartment, she said, "I know what I want to do. I want an affirmation that peace is power." We started from there and she developed a wallpaper that looks like the sky and ottomans that look like fallen clouds. The fabric she used for the furniture says "yes, yes, yes" in her handwriting. The phrase “Peace is power” repeats on the windows in 24 different languages Ono selected. It was not an easy phrase to translate because peace and power don't have the same meaning in all different cultures.
Installation view of Yoko Ono’s PEACE is POWER (2019)
On the second floor, the collective Experimental Jetset did the decor for Café Two. Their subject of inspiration was modernism. They made “windows” that take the same shape of the Philip Johnson windows on the facade of the cafe to open up the space and make it feel bigger with reflective surfaces. The colors of the panels, however, paid tribute to an earlier episode of modernity, Café Aubette, a cafe-bar decorated by Theo van Doesburg, with artists Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber. They also brought together text into their installation and designed the menus and placemats with phrases culled from texts about modern art and architecture.
Installation view detail of Experimental Jetset’s Full Scale False Scale (2019)
In the Cullman Education Center, there's a large wall, around 30 feet by 50 feet long, that was offered to Goshka Macuga. Macuga is known for engaging with archival material and documents to unearth new narratives. So she spent some time going through MoMA’s archive and collection selecting what she understood to be meaningful acquisitions in terms of human rights, women’s rights, civil rights, and affirmations of race and gender. She created a personal scrapbook of her favorite works and documents. She then staged a photo shoot in her studio to look like the legendary portrait of the French novelist and theorist, André Malraux. Macuga enacted the role of the “author” and dressed as him but if you look closely behind her, the piano is turned upside down in an act of rebellion. Her body language is pensive and confident. Her project is a good reminder that art history is a construction of subjectivities, of multiple perspectives and several cultures in dialogue. As museums have the freedom to choose our own art history, we don't have to follow a canon and we don't have to believe in one single story.
Installation view of Goshka Macuga’s Exhibition M (2019)
Last but not least is our lobby. On the far west side of the lobby is a text-work by Haim Steinbach. Steinbach has been known for amassing collections not only of objects but also of found texts, phrases, and slogans that he finds poetic, humorous, or even awkward. From there, he makes a work by respecting the original typeface but altering the scale. In this case, he used the phrase "Hello. Again." It's a straight-forward and fascinating work because at first, you might read it as propaganda for the reopening of MoMA, but if you read it with various intonations, its poetry is subtle and subversive.
Installation view of Haim Steinbach’s hello again (2013)
Also in the lobby is a work by Philippe Parreno that spans the entrances on 53rd Street and 54 Street. On one side, you are greeted by a video and sound piece accompanied by a group of motorized sculptures that move gently in synch. On the other side of the lobby is a large marquee, a gorgeous structure that seems to have come from the facade of the Apollo in Harlem. All the sculptures turn on and off at unexpected moments upon receiving live data from around the Museum, culling light, heat, and sound. Parreno wanted to treat the space as a living being that feels and responds to its environment.
Installation view detail of Philippe Parreno’s Echo (2019)
What is something that surprised you about the project?
The potential of collective work. Each of these projects was shaped by the engagement and labor of a large group of people; artists, fabricators, and studio assistants but also the MoMA staff. Tara Keny, the curatorial assistant for this project, was a master coordinator and cheerleader. She is an artist whisperer—give her a problem and she finds at least three solutions. Mack Cole-Edelsack and Matthew Cox on our internal team were in charge of mounting and planning. The two of them can build anything. The registrars were always on the beat, anticipating questions. Then we have this incredible team of art handlers that not only know how to hang Les Demoiselles d'Avignon but also know how to cut through walls and floors and suspend something that weighs tons.
Sometimes people think that museums are built by their visitors. And yeah, visitors are important but not necessarily the Museum’s first audience. The first audience is its workers. The group effort that was needed to deliver something like this highlighted that art can be a collective work that can empower a new idea of authorship.
I have started to think about this new definition of authorship that has been around for some time and that people talk about in theoretical terms. These days, we are on another level where authorship is really collective. And an artist’s title as the maker is simply to say that they were the initiators of something that was done by a collective. That was one discovery for me.
How do you hope that visitors will interact with these works, and how will these works transform the new space?
I hope that MoMA’s visitors, who are so diverse in age, background and language, feel welcome. There are no hierarchies when it comes to the experience of art. A work of art can resonate with visitors inside the gallery, while waiting in line to drop off their coats, or having a coffee. Art is part of life.
Thank you so much.
Thank you. You gave me a gift on my last day.
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