LaToya Ruby Frazier. U.S.S. Edgar Thomson Steel Works and Monongahela River. 2013. Gelatin silver print, 47 5/8 × 59 3/16" (121 × 150.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Photography Council Fund. © 2023 LaToya Ruby Frazier

Plenty of art in MoMA’s collection directly addresses the changing environment, pollution, and sustainability, whether through a documentary, utopian, or dystopian lens. But what happens when we revisit familiar favorites that aren’t directly about the environment, and discover new ways of thinking about their materials, their fields of color, and their relationship to the planet? Even the shimmering effect of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies has recently been linked to pollution in France. For this Earth Month, Carson Chan, curator in the Department of Architecture and Design and director of the Emilio Ambasz Institute for the Joint Study of the Built and Natural Environment, has written five ecologically minded wall labels for art in our galleries—a challenge for us all to continue to see our world anew.

Lee Bonticou. Untitled. 1961

Made a year before Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring brought widespread attention to the harmful effects of environmental pollution, Lee Bonticou’s Untitled wall hanging celebrates a more conscientious attitude toward the environments we live in. Bontecou made this work from used, greasy, canvas conveyor belts that had been thrown out by the laundromat below her East Village apartment. Anticipating later discussions about circular economy and a world without waste, this assemblage is an example of upcycling—transforming material that would have been destined for the landfill into something new and of value.

Piet Mondrian. Broadway Boogie Woogie. 1942–43

A variation on Mondrian’s signature “color blocks within a black-and-white grid” paintings, Broadway Boogie Woogie was painted two years after he moved to New York City to flee growing fascist threats in Europe. The title refers to both the city’s jazz scene and Broadway, the Manhattan thoroughfare that diagonally bisects much of the island. Instead of his famous black lines, we see a yellow grid punctuated by red, blue, and white squares—like bumper-to-bumper cars on Manhattan’s busy streets. Indeed, the painting can be read as a map, a cartographic impression of the grid city’s congested streets.

Mark Rothko. No. 10. 1950

Before Rothko began making his well-known color field paintings in the late 1940s, his paintings from earlier in the decade often featured abstract figures in a bleak landscape setting suggested by little more than a horizon line. Could Rothko’s signature blocks of color be viewed as the foreground, middle ground, and background of a landscape painting? In No. 10, typical of his mature style, a large, central golden-beige rectangle is topped with bands of white and blue, and sits atop a streaky block of gray. Are we standing on a concrete sidewalk looking at a wheat field? For painter Brice Marden, “Rothko is the ultimate landscape painter.”

LaToya Ruby Frazier. U.S.S. Edgar Thomson Steel Works and Monongahela River. 2013

In Frazier’s photograph, the gentle curves of the Monongahela River and those of the distant hills contrast with the straight rows of hopper cars and vertical electrical towers poking up from the horizon. Taken from a raised vantage point and offering a survey of the area, the photo depicts the hundred-thirty-odd years of industrial structures built along the river since the Edgar Thomas Steel Works was founded just east of Pittsburgh. Here, a clash between forms from the built and natural environments is in process. For the Unami Lenape, Monongahela means “falling banks.” Referring to the loose, crumbly landforms on either side of the river, the name conjures images of environmental collapse. In fact, since the mid-19th century, industries like the steel mill have been carving away at the river’s shores, dumping heavy metals into the water, polluting everything downstream, poisoning the ground. In 2022, the mill was fined more than a million dollars for spewing hazardous material into the air.

Louise Bourgeois. The Quartered One. 1964–65

From afar, Bourgeois’s hanging bronze sculpture looks like a dismembered, quartered, hind leg of a steer. Up close, openings on the object suggest that it’s a home for some small creature. Nonhuman species, Bourgeois reminds us, are paradoxically at once object and subject for us—abstracted and consumed on one hand, and imbued with experiences and inner lives on the other.