Amy Sillman Gets Shapes to Talk at MoMA

1957 Arp sculpture and view of works by Leger, Frankenthaler and Bonticou

A big, red blob on the fifth floor at MoMA is the welcome sign to one of the most engaging exhibitions in New York ­– the come-hither array of modern artworks in the latest Artist’s Choice show, Amy Sillman: The Shape of Shape, on display through October 4.

But here’s the catch for MoMA visitors – the show has more than 75 works but no labels, no identification, no dates. Just the clue that Amy chose works to explore the role of “shape” in modern art. Small artworks are arranged knee-level on risers (kind of like stadium seating), with larger paintings tilted against the wall.  A few are hung in the traditional way, but it feels as if MoMa’s collection is looking at you and hankering for a conversation. Check it out in our Flickr album.

Rectilinear frame conversation between 1989 Albert Oehlen painting and 1935 “Construction” by Gertrude Green

In our first visit back to the re-opened MoMA, visitors circulated through the room, looking intensively, talking about what they saw, and discussing how pieces might be connected. Although the gallery guide was available via QR code, no one during our visit appeared to seek it out. Everyone seemed quite content to parachute into 110 years of modern visuals and just go for the ride.

What did Amy choose? Abstracted forms, organic shapes, human bodies, and not-bodies – all arranged in a way that makes you feel that one is somehow related to its neighbor. You can’t quite describe why the entire room felt like a tight ensemble, even though one piece might feel like fun and the next a little scary.

It was interesting how unsettled visitors felt by 1970s works by Christina Ramburg and Julian Schnabel. This is exactly what Amy was going for, according to what we overheard her tell students in the gallery yesterday. She wanted to evoke the anxious feelings that most artists experience as they paint, draw, and sculpt and to reflect the times today without being didactic.

Along the east wall – 2008 acrylic by Charline von Heyl, 1920 Arp sculpture, and 1976 drawing by Jay DeFeo

Amy came of age during the Seventies when museums and intellectuals had given abstract expressionism its “heroic” status and crowned minimalists and conceptual artists as successors in the march of modernism. For this Artist’s Choice exhibition, Amy examined MoMA’s vast archive from a different perspective, looking at famous and not-so-famous creators whose work evoked myths, an interest in shadows, tension, anxiety, bodies, and whimsey.

Shadowy Black figures in a dark painting by Zimbabwean artist Thomas Mukarobgwa are echoed by a shadowy figure in a work by Leger. The tiny 1920 stacked Arp sculpture seems to be playing a “Mini-Me” role next to the large, layered 2008 Charline von Heyl acrylic.

Shadows also play key roles in a Lois Lane painting paired with a Kirschner wooduct. See for yourself and make a connection. Download Amy’s zine here to learn more about the works she chose and how she installed them. (She designed it during the quarantine months when the show was shut down.)

Here’s a short overview of the show hosted by MoMA painting/sculpture curator Michelle Kuo:

But you should really dig into the in-depth conversation (with over 10,000 views!) between Amy and Michelle, if you’ve ever been to art school or painted. They talk about art making, art history, Amy’s inspiration from Munch’s little-known litho of a woman hugging a bear, and the way she chose lesser-known works that could have a conversation with you in 2020:

More on MoMA’s reopening
MoMA on 53rd Street is open every day with timed ticketing, and now that the free-ticket offer has concluded, it seems easy to find a time to visit. The Queens outpost at P.S.1 is open until 8:00pm Thursday through Sunday, and is currently showing the acclaimed (and long-anticipated exhibition) Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration through April 4.

Join Live Virtual Events at NYC Museums

Tour “Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara” at The Met this week

Are you missing your favorite New York museums? We’re happy to report that many of the cultural powerhouses, like the Whitney, The Met, and MoMA have reopened, although timed tickets in the opening weeks have been a little hard to get.

There’s a quick and easy way to get inside, however, by attending one of the live virtual programs being offered.  Check out our new page on events! As you can see, there’s a lot of opportunities to connect.

1929 “Calla Lily Vendor” by Alfredo Ramos Martinez in The Whitney’s must-see exhibition “Vida Americana”

New York museums have been keeping their events going online, and joining in is a great way to meet curators, docents, tour some blockbuster shows, and join in on the discussions happening around town about art and the social-justice movement (past and present), women’s issues and history, and even listen to ETHEL play classical music from the virtual Met balcony on Friday night.

For smaller museums, the virtual events have been a great way to broaden programming to a national or international audience.  In recent on-line programs produced by Fraunces Tavern, it’s been nice to see colonial history buffs from Virginia and New England join in on the discussion. At last week’s New York Transit Museum’s talk on the 20th Century Limited, a few UK railroad enthusiasts joined in the chat room!

Hear about the preservation of Washington and Hamilton’s hangout, Fraunces Tavern, one of NYC’s oldest buildings this week

So, it’s a great way to be in the virtual room where it’s happening with others who love history and conversation as much as you do!  Take a look at the array of topics and events and register.

Most of the events are free, although after the months-long shut down here, it’s always nice to give a thank-you donation.

Reopening Update

This week, we’ll welcome the opening of the Guggenheim and Jewish Museum along Fifth Avenue and the International Center of Photography at its new home on Essex on the Lower East Side, where the Tenement Museum has begun neighborhood walking tours again.

Welcome back!!

Enjoy this beautiful four-hour meditative Met Live Arts performance by Lee Mingwei and Bill T. Jones at The Met this week

MoMA Activates Sensory Landscape Daily

Large moveable sculpture covered in tiny bells

MoMA’s open again, and as the sun comes down daily, a sparkling, tinkling, gleaming landscape created by Korean multimedia artist Haegue Yang comes alive in the Museum of Modern Art’s multistory atrium.

Giant, stylized animalistic sculptures glide across the space, carefully guided by a black-clad dozen performers who appear every day at 4 p.m. for the one-hour activation.

Handles is a dreamscape world, where six large sculptural pieces inhabit an atrium enlivened by reflective biomorphic shapes climbing playfully up the walls.

When the performers move them, the giant sculptures, sheathed in a neat layer of bells, subtly chime to a soundtrack of tweeting birds and a tranquil symphony. Magic that soothes museum goers into a contemplative state.

A team of performers activate the installation daily

The piece reflects Haegue’s growing interest in using choreography and sound to build a sensory experience for art viewers. Gradually, she’s incorporated performers moving in geometric patterns, pulling oversized sculptures across and around the space, in a modern take on utopian Triadic Ballet-style movement.

Environmental phenomenon, geopolitical stresses, and modern art pioneers all factor into her work. Read MoMA’s interview with her here.

There’s plenty of time to see Handles, which will be activated for MoMA visitors through April 12, 2020.

See more photos of the installation on Flickr and watch a few moments of the performance here.

When the Avant-Garde Took over Corporate Branding

Entrance to the show at Bard Graduate Gallery

With the world turned upside down by World War I, artists in the European avant-garde eagerly embraced new ways of looking, thinking, and creating.

Museum-goers are familiar with the innovative edge that Constructivism and Bauhaus thinking brought to painting and architecture, but few realize it extended so directly into corporate identity and industrial sales in those post-war years.

Bard Graduate Center tells this previously untold story through a young man’s collection who was at the center of it all in its exhibition, Jan Tschichold and the New Typography: Graphic Design Between the World Wars, on display through July 7.

Cover of 1923 Bauhaus exhibition catalog by Herbert Bayer. Courtesy: MoMA.

Recent grad Jan Tschichold, a talented young typeface designer calligrapher steeped in the art of fifteenth-century letterforms, took a quick trip to the Bauhaus in 1923 and was blown away by what he saw coming out of the print shop and the minds of artists at the interdisciplinary hothouse.

Being a works-on-paper kind of guy, Jan was entranced by the book designs and letterheads – modern san serif letters, asymmetrical page layouts, and letters used as design elements on the page. In particular, he saw an essay by Moholy-Nagy that coined the term “new typography”.

El Lissitzky’s 1920 children’s book About Two Squares, which teaches post-revolutionary ideals through interactions of abstract shapes. Courtesy: MoMA.

These rule-based design principles clearly appealed to him, and Jan soon began corresponding, organizing, sharing, and exhibiting with an energetic network of innovators like Schwitters, Moholy-Nagy, and El Lissitzky. Starting in 1925, Jan was the most vocal proponent of this “new typography.”

“Graphic design” was starting to become a “thing” and Jan found himself in the center of it. Jan began collecting anything with asymmetrical layouts, eye-catching photo-montages, and letters running wild — postcards, catalogues, book designs, business cards, brochures, promotional catalogs, and posters.

By 1928, Jan had seen and designed so much ground-breaking work that he decided to write a book that would summarize how any graphic-arts practitioner could blow up past conventions of graphic design, letters, and photography and repurpose them for industries and pop culture.

Title page of Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book, “The New Typgraphy,” which had essays by Moholy-Nagy, Dexel, and others.

Jan’s book, Typographische Gestaltung, went viral among the 80,000 members of the German print workers union, showing everyone how to juice up advertising layouts, movie posters, and industrial brochure designs in a more modern way.

German industries were just beginning to make a comeback after the war. Brochures about pumps, valves, and machinery all had a modern twist that created an identity for corporations to make a comeback. Inexpensive designs on paper — what a way to make a statement! What a way to glamorize and sell ergonomic chairs, new motorcycle engines, lathes, and metal parts!

“Dwelling and Workplace” poster – an event identity campaign by Johannes Molzhan for the 1929 exhibition by Deutscher Werkbund, the German design association. Courtesy: MoMA

Curator Paul Stirton’s show shines a spotlight on this early move toward modern corporate branding, identity, industrial brochures, and the day-to-day business of simply selling things. Just like today, even avant-garde designers had to make a living!

One of our favorites is Dadaist-in-chief Kurt Schwitters’ marketing brochure to explain his design agency’s services for corporate logos, brochures, and and other types of design.

Eventually, Hungarian and Czech designers started adopting what Jan was advocating. His influence largely bypassed the United States and the English-speaking world (except by osmosis), since it took decades for his book to be translated into English.

1930 marketing brochure by Kurt Schwitters to potential corporate clients. Courtesy: MoMA

Perhaps one of the most intriguing features of this show is that nearly everything on display is from Jan’s own collection, which is labeled as in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. But ironically, much of the corporate marketing stuff on display here (and seen for the first time!) almost didn’t survive.

Jan amassed acres of his colleagues’ work in the Twenties, but had to leave the majority of his collection behind when he fled Germany in the run-up to World War II and ultimately landed in the United States.

Strapped for cash, Jan happily sold his poster collection to MoMA in the 1930s, but in the 1950s, MoMA said no to the rest of Jan’s remaining collection. Who needed that much work on paper from the Twenties when you were collecting wall-sized post-war American abstraction?

Jan Tschichold’s 1927 movie poster “The Woman Without a Name,” for Berlin’s Pheobus-Palast.

When Philip Johnson heard that MoMA refused to take Jan’s letters, catalogs, books, postcards, and other ephemera from Europe’s greats, he tracked down the California bookseller who acquired it, paid $350 for 800 pieces, and donated it to MoMA.

So, although MoMA’s closed for the summer, you can still see a capsule collection by a 20th century innovator that’s never been displayed as a whole before.

Take a look at our favorites on Flickr and watch the curator’s talk here.

MoMA Signs Off with Brancusi

Brancusi’s 1930s marble Fish

MoMA is taking a four-month break while it reinstalls its collection in its expanded 53rd Street home. For nearly a year before it closed its doors, MoMA provided a beautiful gathering space devoted to a much-loved modern master in a beautiful show Constantin Brancusi Sculpture.

Always packed with admirers, you could frequently hear visitors that turned the corner and entered the gallery exclaim, “Wow!”

There they all were – Brancusi’s marble The Fish sculpture that seemed to be swimming, the soaring Bird in Space, and the primal tall oak Endless Column.

1910 marble Maiastra, a mythical Romanian bird with a pedestal created from another sculpture

Everything was drawn from MoMA’s expansive collection. Every viewpoint joyfully represented what contemporary audiences love about Brancusi’s work. View it in our Flickr album.

Hard to believe that the epic Maiastra was created in 1910 or that this innovator grew up as a woodworker in the rural Romanian countryside and walked across the continent to relocate to Paris to be where the early modernist practice and philosophy were percolating.

For a fun look at how it all began for Mr. Brancusi, watch the film that MoMA created using footage shot by his buddy, Man Ray here and also listen to a jazzy playlist of Brancusi’s favorite songs and atonal orchestral hits of the day.

Brancusi’s work is the epitome of Modern to the contemporary eye, but it wasn’t always that way. One of the most beloved pieces in the room was initially considered a blasphemy to art when it was first exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

Listen to MoMA tell the story:

MoMA on 53rd Street reopens on October 21. MoMA PS1 in Long Island City remains open.

The Long Run at MoMA

Frank Stella’s 1984 mixed media painting

Is it a premonition of what we will see when the Museum of Modern Art reinstalls its massive collection later this year?

The Long Run, on display through May 5, is an epic recasting of the galleries normally used to display contemporary and recent the most recent chronology of Modernist works. MoMA’s curators disrupted the chronology by pulling unseen works from storage and using them to show what artists with relatively long careers (think O’Keeffe, Rosenquist, Stella) were producing later in life.

1980-1989 wire sculpture by Lee Bontecou

The work is spectacular and compelling – wire “drawings” suspended from the ceiling (Gego and Bontecou), engaging installations (Fischl & Weiss and Joan Jonas), wall-size paintings and drawings (Joan Mitchell and Robert Morris), and personal meditations (Brătescu and Martin).

Walk through the show on our Flickr album.

The beauty of the show is that MoMA has mixed famous with not-so-famous geniuses and selected works that exemplify how artists switched it up mid- to late-career.

1975 self-portrait by Philip Guston

It seems that many successful artists feel compelled to take a new tack somewhere along the line. They just rethink their desire to crank out the same old thing.

A few examples that this show demonstrates: Guston left pure, pretty abstraction for biting, messy satire of himself and society. Agnes Martin left the gritty Seaport district amidst the junk-as-art era and began creating spiritual masterworks in Taos. Stella abandoned minimalism to maximal, wild impact.

Some galleries have loose themes — urban landscapes (Oldenburg monuments, O’Keeffe monoliths) and mixed media “found” art (linking 1930s Kurt Schwitters and 1980s David Hammons). But mostly visitors enter each white space confronted by works they’ve never seen before.

1999-2000 installation Things from the Room in the Back by Peter Fischli and David Weiss

Most visitors are confounded by the Fischli & Weiss installation.  Many wonder whether it is a place inside the museum that’s under construction, because it appears to be scattered plaster buckets and paint pans. It’s actually a witty “fool the eye” sculpture that the team hand-crafted from polyurethane.

One of the most magical experiences is the Joan Jonas installation with twinkling crystals, sparkling facets, and mystical mountains – a poetic experience reflecting her lifetime of exploration, collaboration, media experimentation, and life work.

If you have the time, watch this video of the seminar about this amazing show and the longevity of the creative drive:

Remember: MoMA will be closed for three months from June 15 to October 21 for the reinstallation of the museum.

2010-2013 Joan Jonas video and crystal sculpture installation Reanimation