Will the renovated MoMA let folk art come back?
What I will miss during the four-month public closure of the Museum of Modern Art is something that I have already missed for five years and will likely continue to be missing when the expanded museum reopens in October. I am talking about the presence on West 53rd Street of the American Folk Art Museum, which was physically demolished in 2014, and whose site is absorbed by the enlarged MoMA, but whose spirit lives like a restless ghost in the corporate machine. that is MoMA.
You will remember the story of the rise and fall of the Folk Art Museum building. The museum itself initially opened on 53rd Street in 1961 and purchased property there, but moved to parts of Lincoln Center before deciding to build a permanent home on its founding site. In the late 1990s, with a loan of $ 32 million, she commissioned a new building from Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, which opened in 2001.
Early reviews of the building, a short walk west of MoMA, were welcoming. But in 2009, disaster struck. Struck with a serious shortfall, the institution defaulted on its loan. His only option was to sell the building, then barely a decade old. MoMA seized it and, after considering how to incorporate the structure into its expansion plans, demolished it and built it on the site it occupied.
Architectural historians opposed the destruction, but the protest was not universal. The Williams-Tsien building was in trouble. Designed to the scale of a compact townhouse, it was only 40 feet wide. Its narrowness created a cramped interior, with hallway-shaped galleries inhospitable to art viewing. Plus, some people have found its facade – made up of over 60 plates of a copper-bronze alloy textured to look handcrafted – unappealing, if not off-putting. It was difficult to tell at a glance what was behind them, what the building was for.
At the same time, no one denied that the design was distinctive, an interruption in a sea of downtown blandness to which the MoMA facade contributes. Indeed, the Folk Art Museum looked pretty much like a MoMA as one might imagine: a small, dark, recessive sculpture placed against the expanse of glass and steel in the mega-museum. In any case, it’s gone. A shame. If a work of architecture, loved or hated, has the weight and personality of an aesthetic object, which the Williams-Tsien building did, it should be considered “museum-worthy” and preserved.
There was another factor that made his loss regrettable. The work it housed – by folk artists, self-taught artists, and so-called foreign artists – was not only deeply charismatic, but filled the history of modernism in a way that MoMA itself, these last years, largely neglected to do. .
This has not always been true at MoMA, whose early leaders considered folk or self-taught artists to be fundamental figures of modern art. In 1938, when the museum was operating from temporary quarters on West 49th Street, he organized a large exhibition titled “Masters of Popular Painting”, described as an investigation of “modern primitives from Europe and America”. Among its 22 artists were Henri Rousseau and Séraphine Louis, known simply as Séraphine, from France, and the Americans John Kane and Horace Pippin. Images of all four quickly entered the permanent collection, as did the works of Pennsylvania landscape designer Joseph Pickett and Polish-born New Yorker Morris Hirshfield.
When in 1971, MoMA proposed a new acquisition showcase titled “The Pioneers of the 20th Century”, Séraphine, a former secular nun and domestic worker who died in 1942, shared pioneer honors with Marcel Duchamp, Frederick Kiesler, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. A year later, she reappeared in an investigation of the collection entitled “The naive art of the museum”, surrounded by artists from Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Haiti and Peru.
Since then, MoMA’s interest in “naïve” art, as an aesthetic category and cultural phenomenon, seems to have cooled. Self-taught and outsider artists meet in thematic group exhibitions, and very occasionally in collection installations. (At the moment, MoMA’s only Pippin painting is technically part of his collection hanging on the fifth floor, but is isolated in a hallway outside the main galleries, as if there was no proper context for it. And, in fact, there isn’t.) And while now canonical outsiders like Henry Darger and Martín Ramírez have recently been acquired, others like Sister Gertrude Morgan, Guo Fengyi, Augustin Lesage, Achilles G. Rizzoli, Shinichi Sawada, Mary T. Smith, Adolf Wölfli and Anna Zemankova not have.
The presence of the Folk Art Museum on 53rd Street has taken over. I even tended to think of the small museum as a sort of antechamber to the bigger one – a point of entry, the first place to go to be rooted in history. The museum still offers that, in its location at 2 Lincoln Square on the Upper West Side and its “Self-Taught Genius Gallery” in Long Island City, Queens. But in the city center, MoMA is once again alone with the tradition of self-taught art. And what will he do with it, if at all?
The full answer remains, of course, to be seen in October and beyond. All we can do at this point is hope for the best and give some advice. When, in 2014, the fate of the 53rd Street building was announced, MoMA director Glenn D. Lowry framed the decision in terms of needing the larger museum for more space, which, a- he said, would allow the presentation of “transformative” acquisitions “by artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, Lygia Clark, Steve McQueen, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Mira Schendel, Richard Serra, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Cy Twombly, among many others. “
I would say that we, and MoMA, no longer need Rauschenberg, or Richters, or Serras, or Twombly. What we need is “many more”. And some of these Others have been, for 13 years, to be discovered at the Folk Art Museum next door. Perhaps MoMA can now be persuaded to recognize his wit and genius in his enlarged house.