Will the Renovated MoMA Let Folk Art Back In?
What I’ll miss during the Museum of Modern Art’s four-month public shutdown is something I’ve already been missing for five years and will probably continue to miss when the expanded museum reopens in October. I’m talking about the presence on West 53rd Street of the American Folk Art Museum, which was physically demolished in 2014, and whose site the expanded MoMA absorbs, but whose spirit lives on as a restless ghost in the corporate machine that MoMA is.
You’ll 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 bought property there, but moved to quarters in the Lincoln Center area before deciding to build a permanent home at its founding location. In the late 1990s, working with a $32 million loan, it commissioned a new building from Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, which opened in 2001.
The first reviews of the building, a few paces west of MoMA, were welcoming. But in 2009, disaster struck. Hit by a serious revenue shortfall, the institution defaulted on its loan. Its only option was to sell the building, then barely a decade old. MoMA snapped it up, and after giving some thought to incorporating the structure into its expansion plans, pulled it down and built on the site it had occupied.
Architectural historians argued against destruction, but protest was not universal. The Williams-Tsien building had problems. Conceived on the scale of a compact townhouse, it was only 40 feet wide. Its narrowness created a cramped interior, with corridor-like galleries inhospitable to art viewing. In addition, some people found its façade — composed of more than 60 plates of a copper-bronze alloy textured to look handworked — uninviting, even forbidding. It was hard to tell at a glance what was housed behind them, what the building was about.
At the same time, nobody denied that the design was distinctive, an interruption in a sea of midtown blandness to which MoMA’s facade contributes. Indeed, the Folk Art Museum looked about as un-MoMA as could be imagined: a small, dark, recessive sculpture set against the mega-museum’s stretch of glass and steel. Anyway, it went. 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 its loss regrettable. The work it housed — by folk artists, self-taught artists, and so-called outsider artists — was not only deeply charismatic, but filled out the story of Modernism in a way that MoMA itself, in recent years, has largely neglected to do.
This wasn’t always true at MoMA, whose early leaders regarded folk or self-taught artists as foundational figures in Modern art. In 1938, when the museum was operating out of temporary quarters on West 49th Street, it organized a large exhibition called “Masters of Popular Painting,” described as a survey of “Modern Primitives of 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. Pictures by all four soon entered the permanent collection, as would work by the Pennsylvania landscapist Joseph Pickett and the Polish-born New Yorker Morris Hirshfield.
When, in 1971, MoMA offered a new acquisitions showcase called “20th Century Pioneers,” Séraphine, a former lay nun and domestic worker who died in 1942, shared groundbreaker honors with Marcel Duchamp, Frederick Kiesler, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Just a year later, she reappeared in a collection survey called “Naïve Art from 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 a cultural phenomenon, seems to have cooled. Self-taught and outsider artists turn up in theme-based group shows, and very occasionally in collection installations. (At the moment, MoMA’s single Pippin painting is technically part of its fifth floor collection hanging, but is isolated in a hallway outside the main galleries, as if there were no appropriate 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 have not.
The presence of the Folk Art Museum on 53rd Street picked up the slack. I even tended to think of the smaller museum as a kind of antechamber to the larger one — an entry point, the place you go to first for historical grounding. The museum still offers this, in its 2 Lincoln Square location on the Upper West Side and its “Self-Taught Genius Gallery” in Long Island City, Queens. But in midtown, MoMA is now again on its own with the tradition of self-taught art. And what, if anything, will it do with it?
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’s director, Glenn D. Lowry, framed the decision in terms of the larger museum’s need for more space, which, he said, would permit the presentation of “transformative” acquisitions “by such artists 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 suggest that we, and MoMA, don’t need any more Rauschenbergs, or Richters, or Serras, or Twomblys. What we do need is “many others.” And some of those Others were, for 13 years, to be found in the Folk Art Museum next door. Maybe MoMA can now be persuaded to acknowledge its spirit, and their genius, in its expanded home.