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October 19 2019
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A Meret Oppenheim fur-lined teacup from the “Fantastic Art, Surrealism and Dada” exhibition, in 1936.

Like many a grande dame, MoMA has had some work done. The Museum of Modern Art reopens October 21 with two major interventions: one, the architectural, by Diller Scofidio + Renfro in collaboration with another firm, Gensler, which also incorporates the former American Folk Art Museum; the other a re-installation of its extraordinary collection, which now integrates disciplines and leaps over genres, mirroring the way most artists approach their practices today.

Each of the additions since its founding in 1929 has been met with complaints about the loss of intimacy, or decried as “corporate” (or, recently, “soulless”), and inevitably, as it has grown and gobbled up many neighboring buildings like a chomping Pac-Man, the challenge of connecting the dots—in ways that construction of an entirely new building would have avoided—has been profound.

It has grown and gobbled up many neighboring buildings like a chomping Pac-Man.

But it is in the softscape of the personalities who have shaped it, rather than the hardscape of its architecture, that we find the beating heart of this one-of-a-kind institution. Let’s summon some key characters—especially the many women who have been crucial in continuing the spirit of bold disruption with which it was founded—and moments from its storied development, with the help of the Museum of Modern Art Archives Oral History Program and other invaluable accounts*.

Scene One: The Ladies

Three Ladies—Princesses, really—are sitting in the parlor of a mansion on West 54th Street in May 1929: Mrs. Abby Rockefeller, whose home it is, and her two excellent friends, Miss Lillie Bliss and Mrs. Mary Sullivan. Their spirits are young even if they are all over 50. They have gathered to finally put in motion their scheme to create a museum “that would exhibit works of art of the modern school” and to upend the Metropolitan Museum’s status quo of exhibiting mostly long-dead artists.

The museum, circa 1930, not long after it opened.

Miss Bliss and Mrs. Sullivan have been investigating local galleries. Mrs. Rockefeller, wife of perhaps the richest man in America, John D. Rockefeller Jr., has been quietly assembling a collection of more Modern things in an upstairs gallery—despite her husband’s lack of interest. Miss Bliss, also from a wealthy family, had collected so many of the Modern paintings she had to keep them in a storeroom. What Mrs. Sullivan, a collector and educator, does not have in funds she has in moxie and social connections.

All three have been under the influence—in Miss Bliss’s case, likely romantic—of Arthur B. Davies, the intoxicating painter and co-founder of the 1913 Armory Show, where modern works from Europe had been shown that made them jump. Mrs. Rockefeller and Miss Bliss had then crossed paths in the Middle East, and continued to plot. Then Mrs. Rockefeller discovered Mrs. Sullivan was on her crossing home. Now they are waiting for A. Conger Goodyear, whose purchase of a controversial Picasso, coupled with a messy divorce, had driven him from Buffalo. They have settled on him to lead their Brahmin revolution.

“The truth is,” Bliss had written to an academician, “you older men seem intolerant and supercilious.”

David Rockefeller: I would come home [from school] for lunch and [the Ladies] would be there and I would listen to conversations going on about the museum.

Philip Johnson: Imagine, a woman like that starting out with the responsibility of creating a thing that was going to be a sink-hole for money in the middle of the worst depression.

They enlist other Princes and Princesses, including Frank Crowninshield, the editor of Vanity Fair, who is considered to be up on the latest of everything, and the Harvard art-history professor Paul Sachs (as in Goldman). Sachs recommends his former student Alfred H. Barr Jr., a young Wellesley professor—said by Peggy Guggenheim to resemble Abraham Lincoln—to be their founding director. A manifesto is issued soliciting funds. Less than six months later, only two weeks after the stock-market crash, the Museum of Modern Art opens to lines around the block and jammed elevators for a loan exhibition of “Cézanne, Gaugin, Seurat and Van Gogh.” There is no looking back.

Works acquired through the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund can now largely be found on Floors 4 and 5.

Scene Two: The Young Turks

Mrs. Rockefeller’s son Nelson, Miss Bliss’s niece Eliza, George Gershwin, Lincoln Kirstein, Eddie Warburg, and other wealthy young people, some sprawling on the floor, are discussing what the new museum should address. This Junior Advisory Committee has been created by the trustees to groom the next-generation leadership.

eliza Bliss Parkinson Cobb: We used to meet sometimes all day and we all had so much we wanted to say we’d have to raise our hands and wave them violently to make somebody shut up and let us speak.

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (right), who helped bring MoMA into being, and Blanchette Ferry Rockefeller at the opening of Radio City Music Hall, in 1932.

Philip Johnson, a Harvard undergraduate whose sister was a Wellesley alumna, is asked by Barr to come down to help him with an architecture department—which will be a discipline of the new museum, along with photography, painting and sculpture, and film. Reportedly, Johnson says, “The only trouble is I don’t know anything about architecture,” and that Barr replies, “That’s all right, I do.”

Two weeks after the stock-market crash, the Museum of Modern Art opens to lines around the block.

After the opening show of Miss Bliss’s collection of mostly French Post-Impressionists, Johnson curates a show of International Style architecture with Henry-Russell Hitchcock. He does the catalogue with his secretary, Ernestine Fantl, one of Barr’s former students, from his bedroom, as there is no dedicated office space.

The Junior Advisory Committee pushes for living artists. The trustees try to keep up. Some Americans and some living artists under 35 do appear among the French and German stars. Mrs. Rockefeller makes sure to invite pretty girls for Matisse at a dinner in his honor. Miss Bliss dies and is the first to leave a collection to the new museum. They are on their way.

Works acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest can now largely be found on floors four and five.

Scene Three: The Torpedo

Philip Johnson is in his office in a town house leased from the Rockefellers on West 53rd Street, beginning the long march to what the family refers to as “Mother’s Museum.” The move in 1932 has changed things, even if Johnson, Fantl, Elodie Courter (also a Wellesley graduate, who has been hired to circulate exhibitions), Dorothy Miller (via Smith and the Newark Museum), who is assisting Barr in Painting and Sculpture, and a handful of others are stashed in former maids’ quarters and hallway alcoves. Johnson, who later describes himself as a “power-mad young brat,” is in the middle of curating eight back-to-back architecture exhibitions, one of which, on housing, was realistic “down to the last cockroach.”

Alfred H. Barr Jr. with some of the paintings and sculptures he collected for MoMA, circa 1950.

Johnson (who takes no salary and pays others’): Sometimes Nelson or Goodyear … [would stop in and] say, “What the hell are you doing? Your department is spending all our money.”

Once, Mrs. Rockefeller herself appeared.

Johnson: She said, “Philip, you haven’t polished the silver in your cases. I saw some dust there this morning.”… It’s like having the Queen Mother come in and say, “I found a speck of dust on your glove.”

The Junior Advisers—increasingly thought of as a nuisance by the trustees—finally are given a bone. Kirstein curates a mural show, which Barr encourages because it contains photographs and he is anxious to get that department going. It causes a scandal, however, when both Mrs. Rockefeller’s father-in-law, Mr. John D. Rockefeller Sr., and J. P. Morgan are pictured in one display. The trustees send Nelson out to apologize to everyone.

One architecture exhibition, on housing, was realistic “down to the last cockroach.”

Barr prepares a report for the trustees in 1933, in which he famously sets out his aspirations for a permanent collection with a drawing in the shape of a torpedo “moving through time, its nose the ever advancing present, its tail the ever receding past.” A “Fantastic Art, Surrealism and Dada” exhibition that displays a Meret Oppenheim fur-lined teacup and spoon is more like a nail bomb than a torpedo, and causes the trustees to stress and the press to howl. Barr buys it quietly for $50 anyway, and puts it in a “study collection.”

The Meret Oppenheim fur-lined teacup and spoon can now be found in Gallery 517.

Scene Four: Iris Goes to Hollywood

British Iris Barry—witty, sophisticated ex–film critic and founder of one of the first film societies—is in Los Angeles, courtesy of trustee John Hay Whitney and a Rockefeller Foundation grant, at a dinner at Mary Pickford’s famous Pickfair, fashionable hat in hand. She is hoping to convince people like Walt Disney, Harold Lloyd, Sam Goldwyn, and Mack Sennett to give prints of their films to the museum for preservation.

She had met Johnson at a cocktail party, and he persuaded her to come try for a job at the museum—and even bought her a dress at Saks for the interview, even though the actor Charles Laughton had already kitted her out for her trajectory to the New World. Barr had hired her as a librarian—with Johnson paying her salary—but she quickly moves to establish a film library. Knowing your way around the rich and powerful—and having a trustee or two in your pocket—is turning out to be just as important at the museum as any other skill set.

MoMA and film: the director Billy Wilder (right) at a reception in 1964.

iRIS Barry (reporting on her trip in the new museum bulletin): “The glimpse of the birth and growth of an art which was peculiarly their own both surprised and moved this unique audience.”

Mary LeA Bandy (Director, Film Department, 1980–2005): Iris Barry wrote a short, favorable review in the museum bulletin on She Done Him Wrong, the Mae West vehicle, and Mrs. Rockefeller received indignant phone calls from her friends asking how could the museum endorse that vulgar film.

Soon, though, Barry had a film from almost every important company. Also very soon, John Hay Whitney had a bill from Pickford that even included the wood that had been burned in the fireplace.

MoMA’s Film Department has an ongoing series of films from all periods in repertory every day the museum is open.

Scene Five: Dorothy Miller and Her Americans

Dorothy Miller, hair escaping from her signature bun, stands dejected on the threshold between the Mark Rothko gallery and the Clyfford Still gallery. Miller had gone to Rothko’s studio and chosen about 20 things, but when they arrived at the museum she saw that he had swapped many of them out for other, much bigger works with colors she did not prefer.

dorothy Miller: I really had a perfectly terrible time. [Rothko] wanted to put all the paintings touching around the four walls. And he also wanted a special great floodlight …

This show of “15 Americans,” the fourth in a series of six that Miller curates on living American artists in 1952, has become a juggling act of 15 complicated male egos. Alfred Barr had let her run with it probably because these artists still were not as important in his mind as the Europeans he so favored.

Miller had told Rothko that he couldn’t rejigger the lights or her selections, that it would affect the adjacent galleries. (Clyfford Still had been angelic by comparison. All he wanted was to be in a gallery of his own, and to be able to write the catalogue copy. Miller had agreed at once.) But Rothko had come back at night and browbeat Still into moving his big black painting, the one she liked above all, to a different wall so it wouldn’t distract from his—Rothko’s—work.

Miller: I guess he was afraid of the competition, that it was too striking.

Miller tells Still it had been in the right place, the place she wanted it.

So they move it back. It was her show.

Mark Rothko’s No. 3/No. 13, 1949; oil on canvas; seven feet, 1 3/8 inches by five feet, 5 inches.

Miller: They simply were not interested in participating in any of what they considered the very corrupt activity of American arts organizations…. I remember Bill de Kooning meeting me at [an] opening and he was drunk and he said, “I hate this museum!”

De Kooning had pulled out of the exhibition just as the catalogue was going to press. Jackson Pollock had been uncommonly gentle because he was on the wagon, just drinking raw vegetable juice and getting vitamin shots.

“I remember Bill de Kooning meeting me at [an] opening and he was drunk and he said, ‘I hate this museum!’”

Miller: We had the problem of holding the heads and hands of all the AbEx [Abstract Expressionists] because they were in such distress over [the emergence of new art forms in the 60s] and felt their thunder had been stolen.

The ones who were really left out? The important women Abstract Expressionists. Miller finally added Grace Hartigan in 1956. She considered adding Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell for her 1959 exhibition, but did not include them. Lee Krasner did not live to see her retrospective.

Now at the museum, in Gallery 405, you can see a roomful of the AbEx women having a party surrounding one lone Jackson Pollock. Most of the Abstract Expressionist works are available on the fourth floor.

Scene Six: The Fire

Eliza Bliss Parkinson Cobb is returning from “somewhere like Brooklyn or someplace” in 1958.

PARKINSON Cobb: I had a housekeeper and she said, “Everybody’s been calling up all day to see how you were.” And I said, “Well, why? Why shouldn’t I be alright?” And she said, “Oh, didn’t you know? The Museum’s done burned down!”

After the turbulent 40s, the departments were firing on all cylinders, too. James Thrall Soby, a trustee who had been director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture from 1943 to 1945, had convinced Balthus to repaint the position of the hand of a male figure who was groping the crotch of a young girl in The Street, a painting he wanted the museum to be able to exhibit. Design curator Edgar Kauffman Jr.’s “Good Design” exhibitions had made the stamp of approval from the museum a commercial perk. Department of Photography director Edward Steichen’s “Family of Man” show had broken records and gone on the road. The museum was exhibiting a large Seurat retrospective for which the Art Institute of Chicago had loaned its most important work, La Grande Jatte.

MoMA staff rescuing paintings during the fire of 1958.

Philip Johnson had added an annex and enhanced the garden between 1949 and 1953, but that had not addressed the aging infrastructure. The museum was in the midst of technical upgrades. Most paintings had been removed behind the walls except seven important canvases that had been protected with partitions. A drop cloth next to a paint can caught on fire and soon the entire second floor was engulfed in flames and smoke. Visitors had mostly climbed to the penthouse, but the staff was panicked about the paintings: Alfred Barr broke a plate-glass window and climbed onto the roof of an adjacent Rockefeller home.

The second floor was engulfed in flames and smoke. Alfred Barr broke a plate-glass window and climbed onto the roof of an adjacent Rockefeller home.

PARKINSON Cobb: Nelson Rockefeller was crossing 53rd Street when he saw the fire and fire engines.… He was running for governor then [and had credited the museum for teaching him everything he knew about politics]—and he rushed down and put on one of those hard hats the firemen gave him. He went in and was able to persuade them not to hose down the walls that had pictures behind them.

Mildred Constantine (architecture curator): We all wanted to grab the painting we loved most and I shall never forget somebody yelling out, “But who’s going to take The Peaceable Kingdom?” I took the Kandinsky…. René [d’Harnoncourt, beloved director 1949–1967, who was known for unifying the staff, doodling during meetings, and taking warm baths before he had to meet with Alfred Barr] was beside himself but we carried [La Grande Jatte] out, about eight of us with water on the floors.

Walter Bareiss (trustee): We had a lot of smoke damage … the big Monet [Water Lilies] was completely destroyed.

You can see the replacement Water Lilies in Gallery 515. Balthus’s The Street is not on view. La Grande Jatte is safely in Chicago.

Scene Seven: The Troubles

Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, tall, patrician, never a hair out of place, who had begun her first term as president of the museum in 1973, was trying to get into the museum, but her way was barricaded by a phalanx of mostly young female staff who had gone on strike.

Grace Glueck (New York Times arts reporter): They were parading up and down with picket signs like, “Blanchette, you used to be a Hooker,” which was her maiden name. I’m sure she hadn’t the faintest idea what that meant. Anyway, I said to her, “What do you think about what’s going on…. She said, “Oh, it’s really upsetting to me. Most of these young women come from very good families and they’ve been to very good schools. They really ought to know better. They’re behaving like coal miners.”

Constantine: I taught all these songs to our strikers so that when Mrs. Rockefeller came through, they could sing [“It’s Not Cricket to Picket”] to her.

“Blanchette, you used to be a Hooker.”

The Brides of MoMA, the women who had become the backbone of the museum, who guarded the increasingly marginalized Alfred Barr, alternately referred to themselves as handmaidens, concierges, confidantes, mothers, and butlers, and worked for long hours and low pay with only exceptions rising to the top of their departments.

The turbulent 60s: Yayoi Kusama (right) and the “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead” nude-in.

But young staffers were beginning to have options and resent the conditions: there were other, newer museums and other fields to explore. Civil-rights and feminist groups were using the museum, no longer an upstart (with yet another substantial addition in the 60s by Philip Johnson, incorporating the former Whitney Museum), as a target of their frustrations. They might as well have had one of Jasper Johns’s many Targets the museum owns propped up against the façade.

In 1969 the artist Yayoi Kusama, then a young activist, had brought a group into the museum garden who had promptly stripped and climbed into a fountain for a “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead.”

Constantine: It was a horrible time.… We were all going to pieces in a funny way.... All of the tensions we were experiencing in society, we were experiencing in the museum.

Yayoi Kusama brought a group into the museum garden who had promptly stripped and climbed into a fountain for a “Grand Orgy to Awaken the Dead.”

The museum had become rife with internal rivalries both within departments and between departments. Jealousies, territorialities, backstabbing, climbing, dissension—the stresses of the staff firings and hirings had taken a toll.

There had been rapid turnover in the director’s office. After the long, productive run of René d’Harnoncourt, the trustees had hired Bates Lowry, who behaved “rather like mad King Ludwig of Bavaria,” according to Richard Koch, who was part of a troika along with Wilder Green and trustee Walter Bareiss, who temporarily replaced him after he was forced to resign. John Hightower, a protégé of Nelson Rockefeller’s who had been Director of the New York State Council on the Arts, was then hired. He envisioned the museum as an institution that could be more responsive to current events and had even closed the museum in solidarity with the Kent State protesters—without informing the trustees. This added to board chairman William Paley’s frustrations over the burgeoning deficit: Hightower was also dismissed.

Rockefeller: [Hightower] curated a show called “Information,” which was really both political and inappropriate…. For example … he had a box where people could put their opinions about whether or not my brother Nelson, who was then governor, should be replaced…. Then … they also had a place where there were curtains and a bed and people could go in and romp around on the bed. Just how that related to a museum exhibition is hard to imagine.

The strike was to last seven weeks. Tracey Emin’s infamous My Bed is at the Tate Modern. It does hold 112 works of Kusama’s, one now on display in Gallery 412. Jasper Johns’s Target With Four Faces can be found in Gallery 408.

Scene Eight: The New Landscape

It’s 1977, and Jeff Koons is working at the front desk wearing his usual costume of inflatable flowers and colorful vests. He is proud to report how many memberships he has been able to upgrade to the next category.

The new Monet Water Lilies gallery.

JEFF Koons: When they were speaking to me [the visitors] would get … just kind of caught up a little bit in the event and hopefully that would help me get them to a higher membership level, just by getting a little lost in the cuff link, the way it was glittering or something.

Sol LeWitt had been a guard. Allan McCollum had done a few stints as a preparator. Artists still had a love-hate relationship with the institution, as did their dealers.

Koons: Bill Rubin [whose enormous 1980 retrospective of Picasso was already in the works] had a very important Russian diplomat coming and he had Richard Oldenburg [director 1972–95] call down to the front desk and ask me to please leave for the next two hours. [Laughs] Because he felt that I was … a little bit of an embarrassment.

Jeff Koons is working at the front desk wearing his usual costume of inflatable flowers and colorful vests.

Allan McCollum: I remember laughing, thinking the museum should be laid out like “Before Picasso,” “Picasso,” “After Picasso,” “Like Picasso,” “Unlike Picasso,” “Sort of Like Picasso.” The museum seemed so focused on Picasso that it had become a bore.

The museum had undergone yet another physical transformation in 1979. This time, a new scheme for the sale of their air rights had allowed them to make money while spending it. César Pelli had been hired—much to Philip Johnson’s chagrin—to design a new tower along with the expansion.

Leo Castelli: The Whitney in its permanent collection gave a visitor from Mars a better idea of what was going on in American art than the Modern … analyzing, gathering, and putting things together, which I think MoMA hadn’t done really.

The whole conversation that had been going on since the beginning about what was “modern” and what was “contemporary” was now coming to a head. Newer museums had taken up collecting contemporary art and given it homes where living artists felt more welcome and their large installations more properly displayed.

But in architecture the Modern had been cutting-edge. In “Italy, the New Domestic Landscape,” the 1972 exhibition, they had taken every risk imaginable.

Arthur Drexler (director of the Department of Architecture and Design, 1956–87): We know more about the new Italian design than anybody in Italy.

Curated by Emilio Ambasz with an installation of 11 environments and specially designed containers in the garden and galleries, the show had been a wild success. Gianni Agnelli, the head of Fiat, had given support money for the exhibition only to find that he was being mocked as a “Capitalist” in the installation. One radical group, Superstudio, encouraged everyone to get off the grid and leave possessions behind. It was the kind of thinking that was soon to become almost impossible to imagine.

Work by Jeff Koons can be found in Gallery 202. Work by Allan McCollum can be found in Gallery 509. Work by Sol LeWitt can be found in Gallery 413. Work by Superstudio can be found in Gallery 417. Work by Pablo Picasso can be found just about everywhere.

Scene Nine: High and Low

Elaine Dannheisser (collector and trustee) is on the phone in her car sometime in the 1980s.

elaine Dannheisser: All I thought of was where am I getting the next painting, am I going to be ahead of someone else, because that was the way the game was played. I was frenetic, frantic.… I mean you had to go to every opening. You were involved 24 hours a day. You had to get up early and get to the gallery at 8:30 in the morning to be absolutely sure you’d get the work that you wanted.

Kirk Varnedoe finally replaced Bill Rubin, who had been considered dictatorial and temperamental, as director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture, and curators like Rob Storr were given some support to once again make the museum more “contemporary.” Yet there were different perspectives on exactly how to accomplish that. Varnedoe’s big 1990 exhibition, “High and Low,” which addressed the relationship between modern art and popular culture, had a decidedly mixed reception.

Pink Panther, by Jeff Koons, 1988; porcelain, 41 by 20 1/2 by 19 inches.

Rob Storr: I thought the Modern was sort of “out of the game.” … In some ways I don’t know how I had the arrogance to think I could do it [get it back in the game]. [I thought] O.K., this is a great machine. Let’s see where we can make it go.

One trustee, Agnes Gund (also president and chairman), became known for supporting artists, especially women artists and young artists, both within the museum and in her own collection, very much in the spirit of the founding Ladies. She became chairman of P.S. 1, an outpost MoMA created in Queens to have another, more contemporary presence.

A new director, Glenn Lowry, came aboard. He made changes in the organizational structure and also understood how the many newly minted billionaires thought. Soon MoMA put on its construction boots once again and hired Yoshio Tanaguchi, a unanimous choice of staff and trustees, to completely revamp the museum and make it more conducive to adding more contemporary art to its collections. When the building reopened in 2004, the enormous atrium became an unintended symbol of the era.

There had also been social changes afoot.

Storr: It was in those years that the change from the unstated gayness of major figures, staff figures, and others to the open gayness of many people made a difference.

Philip Johnson was given a formal museum dinner by the trustees for his 90th birthday in 1996. His longtime partner, David Whitney, gave a speech.

“It was in those years that the change from the unstated gayness of major figures … to the open gayness of many people made a difference.”

Storr: He said it was very complicated living with a 90-year-old man because his teeth didn’t work, his joints didn’t work.… But, he said, he is still really great in the sack. You couldn’t believe that, in that company. Jasper’s [Johns] jaw dropped.... I have actually once seen Bob Rauschenberg hug and kiss David Rockefeller.

Bequests from Elaine Dannheisser and Agnes Gund are largely on the second floor, along with works acquired with the support of Rob Storr. Works acquired during the time of Kirk Varnedoe are on multiple floors.

***

The latest new MoMA.

David Rockefeller died in 2017. There is a Rockefeller on the board today, but no one refers to the place as “Grandmother’s Museum.” The Ladies and the Brides would surely be astonished at how many other Ladies are on the walls, that a Lady is the lead designer on the latest architectural revamp, that a Lady, Kate Fowle, has just been named director of P.S. 1, and that another Lady—Ann Temkin—runs what is traditionally considered to be the most powerful department.

ANN TEMKIN (chief curator, Painting and Sculpture): Our decision to go back to the interconnections among the fields sort of turned on the switch to be able to feature women or people from what would have been considered peripheral cultures.

If you have to go on a treasure hunt now to find your favorite works, so much the better, as along the way you will see many things new to you. The museum has made the conversation about modern versus contemporary and male versus female a thing of the past. But there is always more work to be done, as the Ladies would be the first to admit.

*Sources for this article include material from the Museum of Modern Art Archives Oral History Program; oral history interview with Dorothy C. Miller, May 26, 1970, to September 28, 1971. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art, by Russell Lynes (Atheneum), 1973.

Patricia Zohn is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL

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