Collection Spotlight: Ann Temkin (Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art)

“You can’t apply 21st-century expectations to curators working 50 or 80 years ago, but today we need to find those important and influential figures to whom—by virtue of where they lived, or what their gender was, or any number of other reasons—our predecessors, for all their brilliance, were indifferent.”

The brainchild of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr.) and her friends Lillie P. Bliss and Mary Quinn Sullivan, The Museum of Modern Art opened in 1929 under the directorship of Alfred H. Barr Jr. An early venue for European modern art, the Museum presented a solo show of the works of Henri Matisse in 1931, and gained international fame with its 1939–40 Pablo Picasso retrospective. Barr’s pathbreaking vision was to put work in new mediums such as film and photography—as well as outsider and folk art—on an equal footing with fine art. His radicalism had its limits, however; by midcentury, the institution, rigidly divided into departments by medium, was an avatar for a view of modernism that was linear, Western-, white-, and male-centric. The past decade or two has seen the Museum beef up its holdings of work by women, non-Western artists, and artists of color, as well as multidisciplinary and conceptual art, all of which will be more in evidence when it reopens in mid-October. Ann Temkin is The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Ann Temkin: In his catalogue for Picasso: Forty Years of His Art, Alfred Barr called the artist’s 1907 painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon a battlefield. I love that metaphor, because I think it sums up why that work, after 113 years, is still so vital. In it, you can see Picasso figuring out the canvas as he goes. It’s not as if he started to paint with a single vision and the painting ended that way. He started the painting and, as the weeks went by, it became something entirely different than what he could have predicted. And in the end, it shouldn’t even cohere. But it does. I think Demoiselles represents the idea that modern art or modern poetry or modern music is not tidy. A near-infinite amount of ways to read a work is, for me, the mark of greatness.

Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas, 96 x 92 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest. © 2004 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital image © 2004 The Museum of Modern Art.

A work that I think reflects MoMA’s current direction is Tarsila do Amaral’s 1928 painting The Moon, which MoMA acquired earlier this year. This is not a painting by an undiscovered artist. It is a painting by an artist so beloved in her home country of Brazil that she is known simply as Tarsila. But she was unrecognized by MoMA curators for 80 years, despite her having been a very visible, vital figure in 1920s Paris. You can’t apply 21st-century expectations to curators working 50 or 80 years ago, but today we need to find those important and influential figures to whom—by virtue of where they lived, or what their gender was, or any number of other reasons—our predecessors, for all their brilliance, were indifferent. I think our mission now is nothing less than to reexamine the history of modern art, and to restore to it some of its authentic complexity.

Tarsila do Amaral (Brazilian, 1886-1973), The Moon (A Lua), 1928, oil on canvas, 43 1/3 x 43 1/3 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase.