I stopped visiting MoMA’s permanent collection years ago. In my early days in New York City, when I was just starting to write about art, it had been a refuge, a place that filled me with inspiration and wonder. The more contemporary art I saw, though, the less I saw myself in the specific and stilted story of modernism — one favoring abstraction and male creators — that MoMA was chronicling. I continued to visit the museum, but I spent my time in special exhibitions, where strange pictures and enchanting surprises could still be found.
One such gem is currently hiding on the third floor, a little painting that’s actually a part of MoMA’s collection, though only sporadically on view. Tucked into the exhibition “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” and measuring about two feet wide by nearly 1 foot tall, Honoré Sharrer’s “Workers and Paintings” is a piece you could miss if you were moving quickly. It lacks a big visual flourish to draw you in. But once you begin looking at it, you may find your eyes roaming restlessly over the surface of the miniature mural, try to absorb all the details.
The painting depicts a line of working-class people and families standing on a street. They talk, laugh and stare (sometimes at the viewer), and hold among them 10 artworks. Many are masterpieces, and most celebrate working folks like themselves, including Jean-François Millet’s “The Sower” (1850) and Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” (1930). One of the works pictured, Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” (1932), is on view upstairs on MoMA’s fifth floor; another comes from Hugo Gellert’s illustrated book “Century of the Common Man” (1943), plates of which are hanging just to the left of Ms. Sharrer’s painting.
The insight and modernity of “Workers and Paintings” — not to mention the meta nature — are startling. Throughout Western history, visual art has often been the domain of the educated or moneyed elite. Even when artists like Gustave Courbet broke new ground by depicting working-class people, the art itself still wasn’t meant for them. With her imagination and a careful brush, Ms. Sharrer casts aside thousands of years of tradition and poses a question: What if great art were more accessible to ordinary people? What if we could not only look at it in passing, but spend time or even live with it? With the painting hanging at MoMA, the challenge expands: What if museums weren’t intimidating and costly but more welcoming and inclusive?
Ms. Sharrer (1920-2009), was an American artist and progressive who began her career as a social realist but soon moved on to more surreal and psychologically complex canvases, including nude women and mythological figures. (An impressive display of 40 of her later works can be seen at the Hirschl & Adler Modern gallery, through June 7. She made “Workers and Paintings” for a mural competition in 1943. It was displayed three years later at MoMA in an exhibition titled “Fourteen Americans,” which placed realists like Ms. Sharrer alongside abstractionists. The show suggested a surprisingly eclectic moment, before the proponents of Abstract Expressionism and Modernism banished realism to the doghouse.
It’s that sense of pluralism I’ve often missed in MoMA’s permanent collection galleries. Exhibitions like “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” which focuses on the aficionado’s taste for figuration and the performing arts, go some way toward correcting the record, but they’re not enough. Ms. Sharrer’s painting envisions a story of modern art that’s profoundly humanist and democratic. I’d like to see MoMA tell that kind of story too.
Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern
Through June 15 (June 16 for members) at 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org.