In Collection Hangs, Major Museums Remix the Classics

Until it reopened in a $230 million new building this past June, the Buffalo AKG Art Museum was an anomaly among United States institutions: it held a world-class collection of modern and postwar art with nowhere to properly exhibit the bulk of it at once. Now, a 50,000-square-foot space allows masterpieces like Picasso’s 1906 La Toilette to return to view, along with showstoppers from the likes of Chaim Soutine, Andy Warhol, and a whole lot more.

The way these pieces are displayed, however, changed vastly. The history of modernism and postwar art has long been peopled almost entirely by white men, from Henri Matisse to Jackson Pollock, and the small sampling of the AKG collection formerly presented to the public reflected that slant. The rehang following the four-year closure runs counter to the notion.

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The Pop gallery featured the requisite Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist paintings, but at its center was a sculpture by Marisol, a Venezuelan American woman artist whose estate the museum acquired in 2016. The gallery devoted to perceptual abstraction contained dizzying paintings by Burgoyne Diller and Max Bill, but it also had a smattering of pieces by women, including Swiss painter Verena Loewensberg. The acknowledged greats of contemporary art—Cindy Sherman, John Baldessari, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer—were given pride of place, but so were Indigenous artists whose art historical status is less cemented, like Seneca painter G. Peter Jemison and Kalaaleq and Danish artist Pia Arke.

The Marisol sculpture and the Loewensberg painting are the kind of unexpected objects viewers have learned to expect in US museums these days, which have begun dramatically reshaping their permanent collection galleries, drawing out new conceptions of recent art history in the process. Gone are the days when such galleries remained static, with masterpieces rarely ever leaving the walls. Now, it is more common for those masterpieces to share space with lesser-known works by women and artists of color. A leveling is taking place in the permanent collection galleries of museums like the AKG that, in the 20th century, helped write the history of modern and contemporary art, which they are now engaged in dismantling.

A large museum gallery with a large tire sculpture, a sculpture of silver figures dancing, and five paintings on the walls.
View of a recently reconfigured gallery at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

In 2019, AS THE BUFFALO AKG was closing its doors for construction, the Museum of Modern Art in New York embarked on a landmark permanent collection rehang that would set the tone for museums going forward. Inaugurating a new set of galleries, MoMA’s remit was to dramatically diversify its presentations and regularly switch them out, so that nearly all the works that appeared in 2019 would be changed within the coming years. Thus, MoMA curators wanted to spotlight areas of art history that had rarely been shown before in New York. New York Times critic Holland Cotter devised a term for the newly enlarged canon that MoMA had envisioned: “Modernism Plus.”

Masterpieces of modernism, like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, went back on the walls. But alongside them were new faces. Les Demoiselles was paired with Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die (1967), depicting a confrontation between Black and white people in which they all become entangled amid spatters of blood. Prior to 2019, MoMA visitors had become accustomed to a rigid chronological structure that roughly conformed to museum founder Alfred H. Barr’s modernist trajectory. The inclusion of the Ringgold work, painted 60 years after the Picasso, was a tear in the fabric of the very history MoMA had written.

Art historian Michael Lobel told the Times ahead of the reinstallation’s opening that MoMA was “moving away from ideas like ‘masterpieces’ and ‘breakthroughs,’ to a kind of art history of dispersion.” And to judge by the changed installations since the pandemic, those words continue to hold true. Last year, a gallery of Surrealist art held beloved works by René Magritte and Joan Miró alongside Bitches Brew, a 2010 painting by German artist Jutta Koether that features swirls of pink acrylic, plus a red mesh and cutesy keychains. In a gallery focused on Pop, Warhol paintings shared walls with Untitled (Ears), a 1964 piece by Japanese artist Tomio Miki, who cast his ear in aluminum and set some two dozen copies of the resulting object in a grid. In a gallery loosely themed around feminist art, the protagonists were not
well-known white feminists like Louise Bourgeois and Carolee Schneemann, but two recent entrants to MoMA’s collection, Lebanese painter Huguette Caland and Sudanese painter Kamala Ibrahim Ishag.

A gallery room at MoMA with two paintings sharing similarities in terms of abstraction but disparate in terms of subject matter.
Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, and Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die, 1967, at the Museum of Modern Art.

FOR MOMA TO DO SUCH a game-changing rehang was influential precisely because the museum had authored the history of European modernism in the first place. That history provided a template for museums the world over: Post-Impressionism gives way to Fauvism, Cubism leads to Constructivism, and so on. Barr, the museum’s first director, devised a collection that reflected that progression, which he later mapped via an influential diagram that plotted how artists arrived at the accomplishment of total abstraction. Barr called MoMA’s holdings “a torpedo moving through time, its nose the ever advancing present, its tail the ever receding past of 50 to 100 years ago.” (The torpedo, as it were, actually gained its momentum in Buffalo in 1926, when the AKG, then known as the Albright Art Gallery, acquired Picasso’s La Toilette. The board of trustees objected so strongly to the piece that they blasted director A. Conger Goodyear, who’d agreed to the purchase. Goodyear, tarred by “one or two of the Trustees, who were opposed to modern art,” as he later put it in a letter to a colleague, was not chosen for reelection, and hightailed it to a more progressive institution: he was board president of MoMA from its founding in 1929 until 1939.)

Barr’s “torpedo” was not merely a metaphor. Because he was obsessed with charts, it was a diagram too. His crudely drawn underwater weapon was placed on an art historical continuum, with its small tail containing Francisco Goya and John Constable and its big head engulfing the School of Paris, plus amorphous entities that he labeled “Rest of Europe” and “Mexicans.” The torpedo notably did not include Latin Americans, Asians, Africans, or Indigenous artists. Nor, for the most part, did the 1936 map of modernism that Barr produced for “Cubism and Abstract Art,” a MoMA show mounted that same year.

By his own admission, Barr strove to impose order during what he perceived as a chaotic artistic moment. “Since the war,” he wrote in 1934, “art has become an affair of immense and confusing variety, of obscurities and contradictions, of the emergence of new principles and the renascence of old ones.” His goal, in constructing his diagrams, was to cut through the noise and generate some authority for the museum. And he did so by adding to the collection pieces like Monet’s Water Lilies, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Dalí’s Persistence of Memory, half of Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” Diego Rivera’s murals. That meant leaving out a lot of art by women and artists of color that didn’t fit within the confines of his maps.

A black and white picture of three men in tuxedoes standing next to two sculptures.
Alfred H. Barr, at right, with Nelson Rockefeller and Fiorello La Guardia in 1934.

As the 20th century wore on, steps were taken to undo some of Barr’s closed-mindedness. Kirk Varnedoe, who served as chief curator of painting and sculpture during the ’90s, attempted to expand how MoMA showed European modernism by looking beyond France and the US, adding works to the collection by Russians, Germans, and Italians who had not previously made the cut. He also enlarged MoMA’s holdings from the ’60s and ’70s, acquiring James Rosenquist’s epic painting F-111 (1964–65), which is still afforded a gallery of its own.

While lauded by critics, Varnedoe’s reshaped collection galleries did not go far enough for some. In 1997 the Guerrilla Girls, a feminist artist collective, surveyed MoMA’s painting and sculpture galleries, and determined that a paltry 9 percent of the offerings were by white women; the survey found that not a single work on view was by a woman of color. Later on, the picture looked even worse. When art historian Maura Reilly surveyed the permanent galleries after a 2004 reinstallation, she found that just 4 percent of the art displayed was by women, and even less than that by women of color.

To some degree, the exclusionist sensibility was encoded in MoMA’s DNA. Art historians Charlotte Barat and Darby English put it this way in 2019, in their vital book Among Others: Blackness at MoMA, published by MoMA: “Long touted as a global center of modernism, MoMA, in its elected isolation within (white) Euro-American cultural traditions, contributed mightily to the impression that figures and practices linked to other traditions—regardless of their deep ties to its own—fell outside its scope of concern.”

Take the case of sculptor William Edmondson, the first Black artist to have a solo show at MoMA, in 1937. The museum bought none of the works in the exhibition, though most were available for sale. The museum even displayed one of his works on long-term loan from a collector during the ’40s, but did not acquire one until 2017. So, for those 80 years, MoMA’s permanent collection galleries did not reflect Edmondson’s contribution to the history of modern art that Barr himself had written.

A gallery room with marble floors, a fierce figural sculpture, a neon light work, and paintings on the walls.
Installation view of the exhibition “American Voices and Visions: Modern and Contemporary Art,” 2023, showing works by (left to right) Roger Brown, Frank Romero, Luis Jim nez, and Nam June Paik at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

IF MOMA’S HISTORY of European modernism was the blueprint for museums in the past, its rehang is a model for the present, and the future. MoMA’s “Modernism Plus” approach has informed permanent collection rehangs at museums well beyond the AKG. This past September, when the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in Washington, D.C., opened its doors after a renovation, a 2002 Nam June Paik video installation resembling a map of the United States—a crowd-pleaser, labeled an “electronic masterpiece” by SAAM itself two years ago—cohabited with a 1969 sculpture of a burning man by Luis Jiménez, a pioneer of the Chicano art movement and a far lesser-known artist.

The Jiménez works in the SAAM hang are not that dissimilar to the Pia Arke and Martin Wong paintings at the AKG, or even those by Tomio Miki and Huguette Caland at MoMA. All these artists share belated invitations to a party previously open only to those who had been canonized. And that trend is gathering steam.

In an interview, Henriette Huldisch, a curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis who is now rehanging that collection, proposed a word for it, polyvocalism. Consider these rehangs a chorus of artists speaking together: before, soloists had the stage, transfixing rapt audiences while the chorus was occasionally allowed to chime in.

But what happens when that chorus grows too loud, making it hard to hear individual voices? This was the question critics across the pond posed last year, when London’s Tate Britain unveiled a rehang unlike any other in its history.

Many who come to Tate Britain still expect to see gems of British art history: J.M.W. Turner’s fog-swept seascapes, Constable’s quaint images of the English countryside, Henry Moore’s sculptures of lithe bodies abstracted to a point of near unrecognition. Those works have almost always been readily available at Tate Britain, where they have long occupied a central position. But when Tate Britain announced a rehang in 2022, billing it as the first time the institution had significantly revamped its collection galleries in a decade, it was immediately evident that big changes were afoot.

A columnated building facade with pink banners hanging down.
Tate Britain.

Turner’s paintings still had their own room, but now, 17th-century portraitist Joan Carlile, who some scholars believe to be the first professional female artist in England, was accorded a similar space. Constable, too, enjoyed an individual gallery, but so would Guyanese-born painter Aubrey Williams, a key figure of the postwar era. Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson called this rehang “a new way of seeing British art history,” telling the Art Newspaper “we wanted to include all of the Tate’s great favourites, but also offer a whole host of new discoveries.”

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When the rehang opened last spring, however, British critics were far less enthusiastic, and some responded with vitriol, accusing the museum of having placed politics before art. Jackie Wullschläger, writing for the Financial Times, singled out a 2013 Sonia E Barrett sculpture composed of a smashed-up chair, a reference to mahogany furniture made by enslaved people in the Caribbean and then sent eastward. She deemed the work’s presence at the center of a gallery containing paintings by William Hogarth and Canaletto “nonsense insulting to pioneering, democratic painters and to audiences.” For ArtReview critic J.J. Charlesworth, the problem was not the inclusion of works like Barrett’s, but that the curators found nothing to say with them. He accused Tate Britain of constructing a “zombie social art history.”

Not everyone took the same tack as Wullschläger and Charlesworth—“You can’t please everyone all of the time and there’s no pleasing some people,” wrote Laura Freeman in the Times of London—but it was notable that their reactions, and those of other critics, focused so heavily on the historical greats of Tate Britain’s collection. There was a sense that, in making way for artists like Carlile and Williams, Turner and Constable had been effectively sidelined. If the stars of art history no longer mattered, was it even necessary to have a canon? Had the age of the radical rehang gone too far?

By the time Tate Britain opened its new presentation, Charles Saumarez Smith, former director of the National Portrait Gallery in London, had sounded an alarm. In a 2021 book documenting the evolution of art museums since MoMA’s founding, he included the reorganization of permanent collections in a list of four ways museums were “under attack,” writing of an “assault on the canon: the acceptance that all forms of selection and hierarchy are temporary and ephemeral, the product of cultural choice rather than of universal values, and that certain types and categories of artists have been excluded. Belief in an overarching master narrative, a coherent way of structuring and ordering the history of art through a belief in greatness, has gone.”

Curators, especially at American institutions, are undeterred by such warnings, and prefer to listen to their audiences. “We are beholden, as an institution, to tell the story as we know it, but also to poke holes in that story or interject some footnotes,” Holly E. Hughes, senior curator for the collection at the AKG, said in an interview. “We can keep telling the same story over and over again, and that’s fine. But I don’t think that’s what people want.”

Two paintings on walls behind a grey abstract sculpture and a doorway looking into another room.
View of a recently reconfigured gallery at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

Call it an “assault,” as Saumarez Smith does, or term it headway, as Hughes might. The fact remains that permanent collections are changing, as are the ways they are being shown. That will only continue this year at MoMA. Say farewell to a gallery filled with Ellsworth Kelly’s sketchbooks; in August a mini-survey of work by Romare Bearden will replace it. Elsewhere in the building, a gallery devoted to works about labor by Charles Sheeler, August Sander, and Aleksandr Rodchenko, will give way, after two years on view, to a show themed around the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The central work in that new gallery will be Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989), an essayistic feature film about Langston Hughes and his circle that is regarded as a landmark in the history of queer cinema.

No doubt, Barr’s modernist torpedo will continue to shoot through the oceans of art history, now more often navigating depths previously uncharted. Originally designed to move only forward, its new settings have it swerving every which way in an effort to account for all the non-Western, non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual artists who didn’t make the original cut. What becomes of modernism, pulled by so many currents at once, is anyone’s guess, but MoMA’s permanent collection presentations should continue to provide clues.  

This article appears under the title “Perpetual motion” in the Spring 2024 issue, pp. 82–87.


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